THE MEDIA EQUATION
Fox News, the president’s favored network, will face enormous pressure to call the election for Mr. Trump. The outcome rests on a little-known 65-year-old wonk who will declare the winner.
– Ben Smith, New York Times, t.ly/3uoG
“Wrestling promoters are smart enough to know that title changes are like election results: if they’re not reported on TV they never happened.”
– My 2007 book Wrestling Babylon
by Irvin Muchnick
For 36 years I have been obsessed with the pro wrestlingization of America in late empire. I can even pinpoint the exact date, one familiar to a few wrestling aficionados but no one else: July 14, 1984, or “Black Saturday.” You could look it up.
This self-constructed piece of cultural criticism would become the black hole of my decidedly middling literary career.
“Wrestling values” — which translates to, roughly, coarse means of communication and storytelling; a baseline of incivility and “attitude”; and a fondness for populist junk entertainment that effortlessly morphs into contempt for legitimacy, and finally for reality itself — insinuated themselves into the DNA of sports, then into all forms of public discourse, then into the political life of the nation. But this was, in the end, “metaphor” — a fancy substitute for cliche. I could document it but never quite capitalize on it.
Certainly there were other creators, most of vastly superior talent, who found more effective entry points. I was aiming either too high or too low; I was either behind the curve or ahead of it. In the 1997 movie Wag the Dog, the brilliant playwright David Mamet went with the more basic concept of how the media prism warps popular perception, on the grandest imaginable scale. This story eerily anticipated President Bill Clinton’s cynical bombing of a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory to keep the citizenry from focusing on the White House intern who had given him Oval Office blowjobs, putting him in scandalous peril.
Novelist Jonathan Franzen, in The Twenty-Seventh City, chose another tack. He sketched a political thriller whose punchline was mere apathy.
The lesson may be that while talking trash is bad, a fake war or a collapse into indifference are obviously far worse. They make for wilder and more chilling satire. What I seemed to be settling for was mere deconstruction of gestures: Roland Barthes with evidence. The wink-wink of camp doesn’t truly infect the national marrow until it crosses over from spiritual to temporal power.
Then President Donald J. Trump happened. This revealed another hole in my swing: for all my obsession, I had lacked the courage of my convictions. Like any journalist writing a first draft of history, I practiced only soft prophecy. I knew where we were headed, but I was as unprepared as any hack Hillary pollster to confront that it was actually happening, and with consequences, in my own lifetime.
On the cusp of the 2020 presidential election, there are many ways to contemplate the social endpoint that now goes by another popular culture cliche, called dystopia. This is my contemplation and it’s bipartisan. You have your growing inequality. You have your breakdown of community, your overreliance on high tech, the willful but oh-so-human unawareness of what we’re doing to our own environment until it’s too late. A global pathogen is a kind of capstone, immune to mind games and bringing an affluent and lazy society to the crashing end of its long holiday from history.
On November 3 and for some days thereafter, there will be an inevitably imperfect tabulation of votes with an inevitably imperfect output. Still, the overall shape, the true result, should be clear enough.
Even so, it will remain for the high priests of television to certify it.