It sounds too good to be true: America’s first-and-hopefully-last reality show president — who reinvented himself on front of the hot TV lights of NBC’s The Apprentice as the wise and decisive CEO he never was in real life — getting his comeuppance on the ultimate miniseries, an impeachment inquiry broadcast live on every major network.
But when something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. When the lights on the TV cameras go red in the Longworth House Office Building at 10 a.m. and veteran U.S. diplomat William Taylor, our man in Kyiv, raises his right hand, it will be just the fourth impeachment inquiry in American history — but the first one in an era where citizens can no longer find the blurred boundary between democracy and show business.
The impeachment inquiry of President Trump is an open-and-shut case that might struggle to fill out a 60-minute episode of Law and Order. The White House has already released the phone-call transcript that reveals Trump holding a clear quid quo pro over the new Ukrainian president, blocking more than $500 million in security aid while pressuring him to investigate Trump’s political rival Joe Biden. More than a half-dozen witnesses have backed this up in closed-door hearings. The case for abuse of presidential power is clear. Republicans seem to have surrendered on facts to argue the process. And yet Democrats can still find something to fret about …
How will the 18th century notion of impeachment play in a modern America that grew up singing, “Here we are now, entertain us”?
This week’s key witnesses — Taylor and fellow diplomat George Kent on Wednesday, ousted U.S. ambassador Marie Yovanovitch on Friday — have already told House committee members everything they know behind closed doors. We’ve been told the purpose of the public hearings is to dramatize that case for the American people, to win public support. But anti-Trump obsessives who’ve poured over every word of the now-released closed-door transcripts may wonder where the news is, while fans of the president will insist all the news is “fake” anyway. And for the hearings to build public support, the public has to actually watch.
“From a television perspective, Democrats have to come out strong in that first episode." CNN’s chief media watcher Brian Stelter said this weekend. "For the same reason when we’re watching Netflix or listening to a podcast, we only choose to keep listening if we’re interested in Episode One.” That comment got some pushback, and other key media watchers said the pressure is on the media to treat impeachment with the gravity it deserves, to — in the words of Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan — “stress substance, not speculation.”
But much of the public perception of the impeachment inquiry will be shaped by the members of Congress who conduct it. Will Democratic House members be willing to avoid the five minutes of political grandstanding that’s tended to mar other high-stakes hearings in the Trump era, like the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation, and allow staff lawyers to walk the witnesses through the evidence, and offer more of a courtroom vibe? And how much will Republican antics — with GOP members likely to shun facts in favor of conspiracy theorizing, about the still unidentified whistle-blower in the case and other dark plots of the so-called “Deep State” — work to titillate their TV base on Fox News and make a mess of the Democrats’ script?
There’s no doubt millions of Americans will tune in, on top of the millions more who’ll be sneaking peeks at their Twitter feed at work, or watching highlights filtered through a lens, whether that’s Sean Hannity or Rachel Maddow or their favorite weird Facebook page. The hearings will be broadcast live not just on the usual cable channels but on the traditional networks — ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS — that will preempt their popular shows like The View. That’s a cue that the Trump impeachment hearing is seen as a national moment, on a par with the godfather of all must-see political TV, the Senate Watergate hearings and Richard Nixon impeachment push of 1973-74.
But since the Democrats retook control of the House in January after promising voters to hold the Trump administration accountable, party leaders have struggled to create the kind of moments and momentum that defined Watergate. Their plan to highlight Trump obstruction of the probe into Russian election interference by summoning special counsel Robert Mueller for a high-stakes hearing in July, largely backfired when a sometimes befuddled Mueller offered little new information. The Mueller debacle actually ended any momentum for impeaching Trump in the Russia affair — a reminder of the high stakes this week.
So far, the Democrats pursuing Trump have failed in the one thing that our otherwise dysfunctional president does really, really well — to use the conventions that addicted Middle America to TV reality shows, like his own, to spin a simple narrative that always places The Donald at the center, as a hero for his ever-aggrieved base of supporters.
Danielle Lindemann, an associate professor of sociology at Lehigh University who’s taught courses on reality TV and is writing a book on the topic, told me that most viewers understand they’re seeing not the randomness of real life but reality repackaged to entertain and amuse, a lesson that the American president learned perhaps too well in the NBC years. Trump’s ability to recast heroes and villains has held much of his audience for four-plus years.
“Trump puts people out there as ‘the bad hombre’ or ‘the nasty woman,' the villains," crushing any notion of nuance or shades of gray on complex issues like immigration," Lindemann said. In the impeachment inquiry, the president and his GOP allies will hope that a story line about a whistle-blower and willing Democrats determined to take down Trump will create the same kind of voodoo. Democrats will learn if it’s possible in 2019 to counter with the nonlinear messiness of the truth.
I grew up a child of Watergate — dashing home from summer camp at age 14 to watch the drama of 1973′s whistle-blower, John Dean, and the homespun wisdom of Senate committee chair Sam Ervin of North Carolina — and it’s only in hindsight that one really understands that the scandal by which all scandals are judged may also have been a once-in-a-lifetime catch of lightning in a bottle.
The case against Richard Nixon and his men around campaign dirty tricks and an elaborate cover-up of lies and hush money was a damning one, but Nixon’s foes also lucked out in the riveting way the story unfolded, drip by drip, over two years of what Slate nailed by dubbing it “a slow burn.” The top writers in the room at today’s TV hits like Succession or Watchmen would struggle to invent the plot twists that marked each season of Watergate. And it played out in the last decade before cable, where there was nothing else on TV, and when millions of the viewers were still persuadable.
That Watergate America where the news was pounded out on typewriters and broadcast over rabbit-ear antennas is a hazy memory. We’ve instead become the nation that media critic Neil Postman warned us about in his prescient 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, watching democracy fade away as we transition from engaged citizens to passive viewers demanding that our politics not uplift us but entertain us. Whatever facts are uttered Wednesday morning on Capitol Hill will be remixed and recast on Twitter, Facebook, Fox News and MSNBC to become the legend of our warring political tribes by the time we go to bed Wednesday night.
It pains me to write that. The theories that Postman spun out 34 years ago about entertainment trumping any kind of virtuous civic life have become real in the face of Donald Trump. What’s at stake Wednesday isn’t getting boffo ratings, but showing how an unaccountable president was using the weight of his office, not to mention our tax dollars, to warp yet another presidential election. A demagogic president has worked hard for four years to gain authoritarian power by obliterating the notion that objective truth matters, or even exists. In that sense, the Trump impeachment hearings might prove to be the ultimate reality show — a last stand for whether reality still exists in American democracy. You might just want to tune in.