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‘Gladiator’ politics isn’t helping us to pick the best president

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In an iconic scene of the film “Gladiator,” actor Russell Crowe vanquishes several ferocious foes in the ring and then turns to the frenzied crowd to defiantly ask: “Are you not entertained? Is this not why you are here?”

This scene seems to be an increasingly accurate metaphor for what Americans are looking for in their politics. It is as if we are saying, “Whatever you do, make sure we are not in the least bit bored, not even for a minute. And if you are not able to sever your opponent’s head with a single thrust, at least leave your opponent humiliated, embarrassed and, perhaps, not standing as tall as before.”  

President Trump cannot be given credit for creating this trend in American politics, but certainly he has helped to perfect it, turning it into a contemporary art form. He has, intentionally or not, created a role for his supporters; many who attend his rallies seem carried away by the spectacle and demand more as they egg on the president, screaming in a frenzy to “lock her up” or “drain the swamp,” to “build the wall” or, more recently, “send her back.” The president — yes, the supposed leader of the free world — then gazes back at the crowd with a patently self-satisfied look, as if to validate what he has said or, perhaps, to consider what he might say next to continue the moment.  

His more sober supporters — that is, those not carried away by the rhythmic chanting — often laugh at these spectacles, ignoring and excusing the grotesque demagoguery on display.

Trump’s rallies may be the extreme, but politics as entertainment is increasingly pervasive. The Democratic debates so far have had a definite note of this: Serious contemplation of public policy issues is dismissed as wonkish, unless of course the politician can follow it up with a pithy sound bite or, better yet, a dubious human-interest story often difficult to fact-check. Even better is when one candidate mixes it up with another. 

The Democrats talked for two hours on June 27, but what was discussed for weeks on end was the exchange between Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and former vice president Joe Biden on 1970s court-ordered busing. The denouement of that exchange was when Biden apologized to Harris and, in so doing, supposedly looked weak or ill-prepared. In last week’s debates, Biden added a sword to his shield and attacked Harris’s own weaknesses. Other candidates poked at Harris, to make sure her rise after the June debate was only temporary, and they may have knocked her down a bit. Biden again was under continual attack on his record.

Gladiators don’t do a lot of apologizing to one another. Neither, it turns out, should candidates for president.  

The testimony by former special counsel Robert Mueller in front of the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees is the latest example of the “entertainment-izing” of politics. Before even agreeing to testify, Mueller made clear he would not go beyond his report in any detail and would stick to the facts as he had outlined them in the 400-page report. Anyone who has ever seen him in action — as I did a few times in interagency meetings, when we served together in the federal government — knows he is the proverbial man of few words, uninterested in helping anyone with another agenda that might go beyond what he was asked to do.  

His appearance, alas, did not meet the demand, if not the expectation, for political entertainment, and it was deemed a bust as a result. His tendency to think before he speaks — dead air being the deadliest of media sins — prompted some commentators to speculate on the possible effect of aging (“You can’t expect a 74-year-old to be as sharp as a 35-year-old,” a 30-something cable network commentator suggested), and his health became, for some, a subject of speculation.  

President Trump claimed total victory based on Mueller’s performance even though, if Trump listened to the content, he would have noticed that Mueller repeatedly affirmed the meaning of the report, especially on the possible commission of the crime of obstruction of justice. On that question, Mueller made clear that not indicting the president was based on the fact that his office was guided by the Justice Department’s injunction against indicting a sitting president, a necessary clarification for a report that only 3 percent of Americans claim to have read. “What if …?” Mueller repeatedly was asked. “I can’t speculate,” he answered truthfully.  

In the reality-television that the American political scene is fast becoming, the players involved — should we just give in and call them “actors,” since so many memorize lines or, literally, just read from a script? — increasingly are judged by their skill as performers, rather than by their expertise.    

Contemporary America is beset by a diminishing consensus on what is necessary to work through the details of major social, political and foreign policy issues and, in so doing, to provide some enlightenment. The political process has had the effect of replacing the firm ground of serious thinking with the thin ice of ideology. In turn, ideology, often not a companion but rather a substitute for knowledge, is used to play a role in a morality drama, suggesting one candidate is a better American than the other.  

This is not entertaining, and this is not why we are here. In looking at candidates, Americans need to consider the issues, the thoughtfulness and, frankly, the knowledge base behind the things they say. Information is not knowledge and knowledge is not wisdom. Let’s hope we can get a president with all three.

Christopher R. Hill was a four-time ambassador, including as U.S. ambassador to South Korea in 2004-05. He served as the State Department’s assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, 2005-09, and was chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea, 2005-08. He is now professor of diplomacy and chief adviser for global engagement at the University of Denver. Follow him on Twitter @ambchrishill.

Tags 2020 campaign Democratic debates Donald Trump Joe Biden Robert Mueller Trump rallies

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