In 1985 I wrote a college paper on the theater of politics by examining the 1980 televised presidential debate between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. As a Political Science Major who was also studying acting, I wanted to understand how our political system was becoming increasingly performative with television as the medium. Many of us at the time were horrified that a B-movie actor could harness the power of television as well as Mr. Reagan. Given the power that television had in 1980, it should come as no surprise that a reality TV show and social media celebrity has become President. Unfortunately, this all feels eerily familiar.
Serge Seiden — Photo: Todd Franson/File photo
But Reagan was old-school. His use of TV was all about acting — about projecting a warm, trustworthy personality through the cameras to our screens. He was just good at that role. You have turned the election — and now our entire public life — into a reality TV show. No acting necessary.
During the primaries any candidate who played by the traditional rules was eliminated from the show, and we ate it up with a spoon. As President-elect you’ve had to introduce the latest round of contestants — “cabinet appointments,” each one clearly cast for the entertainment value of their confirmation hearings. As a theater director, I’ve marveled at your ability to control the focus and keep us entertained. Like a good reality TV show, we’re disgusted, but we just can’t stop watching.
But how long can you as the ringmaster keep this circus going? And what happens at the end? What’s the season finale you’re planning? And meanwhile, what damage will you inflict on real people while we’re all distracted by the high-wire act?
For me, and many of my peers, Reagan’s warm, trustworthy TV persona was vile mask that refused to address a deadly epidemic, broke unions, gave tax cuts to the rich, and spent billions on the military. Our TV addiction had real and deadly consequences.
As a theater practitioner, I’m always telling myself that the reason live theater never dies out completely is something to do with community. As isolated and screen-addicted as we are, we still need community. We will always enjoy being together in a dark room as actors tell a story. It goes back to our human origins. I’ve got 11 people staying at my house for the Women’s March coming from all over. This weekend we’ll be renewing real community bonds — in protest — that will eventually overtake the Reality TV nation we’ve temporarily become.
Sadly, I can’t blame you, Mr. Trump. You’re just a bit of casting genius. You’re the flavor of the month. We’ll soon tire of you. And our real bonds of community will remain. But again, what damage will you inflict as the wheel of fortune turns on you?
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