It had to come to this: a ‘presidential debate’ would become as television-friendly as sports, that shadow-boxing encounters replete with campaign trail inanities and evasions would be reckoned the political-show equivalent of a honest-to-goodness fifteen-round heavyweight championship bout (with figurative seconds and blood buckets close at hand.) These allusions and analogies which have retained their air of metaphor became just a little more hardened last night: the Donald Trump-Hillary Clinton debate was expected to attain ‘Super-Bowl-sized’ ratings, even as television executives rubbed their hands with glee. Television executives have always craved the ratings that sports events bring them; how could they come up with entertainment that could match that pitting of hero versus hero on a sports field (of dreams)? Putting political events in opposition to sports events had always been a ratings disaster, a sure sign that the programmer in question did not know the first thing about the American people. The best was to hope for, and actively participate in, the transformation of political conflict into horse races that could be bet on, hyped up, complete with opposing fan bases who would put the ‘fanatic’ back in ‘fan.’ We got that this year. What matter the provision of a platform to an unrepentant, authoritarian racist if ginormous ratings ensue in exchange?
It felt like a big final; visions of pennant games and football conference championships and perhaps even World Cup qualifiers danced in our minds. Bars placed signs outside on sidewalks, advertising their telecast facilities and drink specials; the crowds gathered early and packed the viewing venues, expelling latecomers to sidewalks; friends made debate party plans; drinking games were invented. Network effects dictated that the only way to feel like you belonged yesterday was to participate, to pull up a chair in front of the nearest television so that you could make sure of your participation in the water-cooler conversations come Monday, er Tuesday, morning. The bizarre had been normalized; the politics as entertainment trope received yet another confirmation. (Especially because it featured a man who has been seen performing during wrestling events in the past.)
Perhaps nothing signals our apparent powerlessness as political subjects like this spectacle does: it takes place on a television stage, in front of a crowd shushed into silence; campaign trail activities that preceded it now suddenly seem like the opening acts of the megashow that television had been waiting for all along. We sit back, appalled and fascinated, nervously munching on our popcorn, downing our drinks, inhaling on our vapes, waiting for commercials so we can take a bathroom break (before realizing you can take a break any time). Sometimes we check in with our fellow spectators on social media, generating streams of commentary and hopefully witty hot takes. After the ‘game’ talking heads–including retired stars from yesteryear and today’s brightest sports journalists–break down the big plays, some of which will feature in next morning’s edition of PoliticsCenter.
Remember, we’re the nation that would call its dictator of choice ‘coach.’