Fred Kowal: Bread And Circuses
Like millions of others, I watched the final episode of HBO’s epic series, Game of Thrones. I found it – like the entire series – immensely entertaining, with the final scenes carrying a sense of hope and peace. After all the violence of the previous seasons, it was welcome.
What was amusing to me was watching viewers, fans and self-appointed experts rush to social media to condemn the final season of Game of Thrones, even starting a petition drive to redo the entire thing. Pardon me for stating the obvious, but this was a television show! I’ve always watched TV dramas to be entertained and – hopefully – to be compelled to think about the big questions of life and society. Game of Thrones did that, though not as successfully as other classic dramas that I’ve enjoyed more, like The Wire, for instance. But to hear that viewers were so irate that they spent time to express their disappointment in the show’s final hours so publicly – well, it made me think.
Without a doubt, Americans have more access to entertainment than ever before. This access has led to an almost infinite set of choices for viewers to make. It also seems to have resulted in viewers become much more intensely involved in what they are watching, and social media gives us all the chance to express our feelings about this entertainment. But, to what end?
As a political scientist, I fear that our need for simple entertainment and spectacles draws us to political leaders who can manufacture them, while also serving to our need for the excitement they can provide. How better to explain the incredible success of Donald J. Trump? His rallies are made-for-TV events. The audience is engaged, participating by reciting phrases as prompted by their leader, and responding with cheers and boos when prompted by that same leader.
We need to understand what this means for our republic’s long-term survival. Donald Trump doesn’t care at all about policy. He has no interest in it, except as to how it can get him more attention. He has no interest in our political institutions. In fact, he finds them troublesome, expressing his disdain for them at these rallies. And the crowd cheers him when he does.
The New York Times ran a story recently that detailed how white, blue-collar voters in northeast Ohio—where Trump’s policies are causing them economic harm—continue to support him and will do so regardless of what he does. His trampling on the powers of Congress are seen by these voters as unimportant. His lying is accepted as something that all politicians do. They like his combative style and his showmanship.
There is no universal law that requires our republic to survive in perpetuity. As legend has it, Ben Franklin told a citizen of Philadelphia after leaving the Constitutional Convention in 1787 that the framers had created a republic, “If you can keep it.” But today, it seems as if Americans don’t want to keep ours.
We take our democracy for granted at our own peril. With a demagogue as president, with his party unwilling to show any courage in confronting his obvious misdeeds and abuses of power, and with a significant share of the public continuing to support him, a pattern of leadership is being forged.
As is often the case, presidents set the pattern for others to follow. With a weakened Congress and courts being turned into political pawns, what we may be left with is authoritarianism in all but name.
Harkening back to Game of Thrones, we may not be experiencing the rise of a mad king, but we certainly are seeing the power of a slick showman embracing an imperial presidency. And at what cost to us all and our republic?
Dr. Fred Kowal is President of the 35,000 member United University Professions, which represents faculty on 29 New York State Campuses. UUP is an affiliate of NYSUT, The American Federation of Teachers, The National Education Association and the AFL-CIO.
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