Last Saturday, before a top-billed fight, UFC superstar Conor McGregor mocked Khabib Nurmagomedov’s family, country, and Muslim faith. Khabib didn’t take this sitting down: during the fight he choked McGregor into submission. He then leapt into the audience and attacked McGregor’s trainer. That was a green light for Khabib’s entourage, which stormed the ring and wailed on an already defeated McGregor.
McGregor is known for promoting fights with his outlandish trash talk and behavior, which makes it seem silly to criticize his actions: after all, they sell tickets. Fight promotions are mostly fiction anyway, with acrimony often disappearing as soon the fighters cash their checks. So how are we to judge Khabib? If fight promotions are fiction, then he’s an idiot for taking McGregor seriously. If they’re reality, his actions are more understandable. Where does theater end and reality begin? That same question might be asked of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation. Indeed, the Kavanaugh hearings took place in the same crepuscular world where fiction and reality blend.
Fiction works when everyone is able to set aside the fact that it is not reality. Criticizing Game of Thrones for having dragons, for example, misses the point. Our current political system also operates this way. During the Kavanaugh hearings, Senator Cory Booker read from supposedly classified emails, and claimed to be risking punishment for breaking Senate rules in the name of Truth. Yet it turned out that our martyr’s communiques were neither classified nor damning. The story disappeared faster than Facebook’s investment in Newark. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Booker isn’t an idiot. He achieved exactly what he wanted: camera time.
Booker’s actions only make sense when viewed as a cheesy courtroom procedural. If a co-worker hijacked a presentation to deliver a Law and Order monologue divorced from reality, he would be considered schizophrenic. Similarly, we understand why a man would pretend to be Henry VIII on stage, but that same action becomes unintelligible on the 6 train. In order for Booker to achieve success, the audience first needed to ignore his artificiality. This makes it hard to criticize Booker because lampooning him, or calling him out for grandstanding, only entrenches his success, like how attracting hate as a fictional character can be a credit to an actor.
This system incentivizes our leaders to act like shameless freaks. That means Congress ends up crammed with the type of people willing to embarrass themselves with juvenile histrionics to accumulate power. They are reality TV stars, not statesmen. The Kavanaugh event became gross and shameful, but every politician came out on top. The right got its hero; the left got its villain. Donations poured in. There is no reason to raise the bar because television as a medium rewards this sort of communication.
Television politics existed prior to Donald Trump, and despite the president’s reality TV background, he actually represents a rejection of its old format. Last season, people like Ted Cruz…