March 24, 2016: A Trump In the Crowd
A favorite old post about media complicity in the rise of Trump, and American fascism in general. I have more to say about this theme, I am sure, but the original post was corrupted and I wanted to be sure that the writing was saved.
Les Moonves, head of CBS, said in 2015 that Trump’s ascendancy might not be good for America but it is great for CBS. Moonves said that people needed 60 Minutes, Colbert (and NFL Football — which they have manipulated so much as a brand that they’ve bled the life and interest out of it) everyday.
The possibility of someone like Trump coming to power became real as far back as 1958 when CBS Chairman Bill Paley moved Edward R. Murrow’s masterpiece news series See it Now out of prime time to Sunday afternoons. Hard news had to be removed from the center ring to make room for fluff. And Murrow had offended too many powerful people when he took down the malicious Senator Joseph McCarthy (who was advised by Trump mentor, Roy Cohn. This isn’t a coincidence. It’s a tradition.) Paley had a similar, if not as stark line as Moonves — the scheduling switch was not as good for America as prime-time Murrow, but it was great for business and still socially responsible. See it Now would have a smaller audience but would retain its voice at CBS, and would also retain its great democratic influence. Eventually (in a matter of months) See it Now was cancelled in the new time slot as well. The network — and Murrow for different reasons — tired of the practice of giving equal time to every charlatan and bully See it Now exposed with its investigative journalism. Even more importantly to CBS, Sunday afternoon turned into a network profit center like every other moment of our collective lives . The public airwaves of commercial networks rarely, if ever, broadcast anything motivated purely by the public interest any more and haven’t for a long time. Moonves doesn’t even have to try, as Paley did, to seem responsible to please his shareholders or the public that falls asleep in front of his shows while searching for distraction — usually in vain. Of course it’s all about the money. What else is there?
Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg prophetically saw a Trumpish phenomenon on the horizon in 1957 in their great film A Face in the Crowd. A charismatic drifter, Lonesome Rhodes (played by Andy Griffith — great, and a far cry from Matlock) is discovered by TV exec, Patricia Neal. She sees his talent as an engaging personality and eventually more powerful executives give Rhodes his own shows on TV.
The same dynamic that gave us benign and wonderful things like the work of Carol Burnett also has a dark and ominous side. Politicians see Rhodes’ potential to sell more than soap. The networks give Rhodes a phony corporate imprimatur to talk politics and “values.” (And that is also the dark side of democracy. We all can speak up but we all can’t distinguish the serious and the sincere from manipulation. Civic discourse becomes marketing. Citizenship becomes viewership. He who has the most money and the biggest microphone wins. Jefferson said democracy won’t work with an uneducated populace. Our democracy isn’t working.)
The drifter/con man gets drunk with his new and phony power. Turns out like most criminal lowlifes (the movie introduces Rhodes in a small town jail on a vagrancy charge charming the other inmates singing clever songs and playing a guitar) Rhodes is a fascist.
Rhodes gets drunk on the power of being able to manipulate uneducated people to think, do and say whatever he wants. I saw an article recently that debated whether Trump was a fascist or just a con artist. He is both. All fascists are con artists. They are grifters that don’t want to work. They don’t want to put in the serious study and thought that is required to really create, and to solve problems. It is so much easier and emotionally satisfying for fascist bums to kill and destroy everyone and everything they don’t like.
Corporate TV has always been home to con men — from the sharpies of the 50’s Quiz Show Scandals to the shouting infomercials in the middle of our contemporary nights, bullshit artistry has dominated what we watch and listen to.
TV discovered Trump’s crude charisma in the 1980s when he was blowing a fraction of the money his father made building up properties in Queens on things like the USFL; and making some of it back building his own brand.
As early as 1988, network news divisions started asking Trump questions about government and culture as if he had ever demonstrated that he knew anything about either.
Lonesome Rhodes went down when his comments on an open microphone revealed to his rube followers that he was playing them for fools. Maybe something like that will take down Trump. His fascism doesn’t seem to bother his legions of dummies at all.
And what do we do with the shows presented to us by the Moonves of the world that are offered with crocodile tears — bad for America but good for business? Turn them off?
Copyright 2016 Richard Thomas