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 and Hillary Clinton marched out to Iowa in their plaid shirts, and we ignored their transparent insincerity so we could keep score at home. Cowboy boots equals two folksy points! Storytelling techniques become clichés when lazy authors confuse the means with the ends. In 2016, Trump wore white shoes and cufflinks to the Iowa State Fair. The exact opposite of the trope came off as more sincere because the plaid has been so overdone that no one finds it relatable anymore.
The same is true of gotcha-style politics. People don’t believe speaking mistakes indicate prohibitive incompetence. The honest will admit that it’s fun to watch politicians crash and burn. The jamokes can’t even speak! These gotcha moments don’t work on Trump because it is even more fun to watch him get away with ridiculousness.
But this month we finally reached the limit of treating politics like it’s fiction. The final Kavanaugh hearing had the same effect as Khabib Nurmagomedov leaping out of the ring.
Kavanaugh’s fiery testimony itself was a Bartleby the Scrivener moment that represented a rejection of treating life like fiction. When sleazy nobody lawyers crawl out of the sewers to hawk freak show erotica, the only proper response is “I would prefer not to.” This was not what the Democrats with their appalling sentimentalism were expecting. But the sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh were only going to work if one ignored the basic context, the greater reasons that powerful interests had for caring about the Supreme Court than the character of its latest justice. Kavanaugh refused to let that happen.
With a straight face, the left responded to Kavanugh’s testimony by saying it proved he was political. Duh. Everyone knows the Supreme Court has been politicized. That’s the reason deep down nobody took the left’s posturing seriously, why we all knew this was supposed to be a fiction. However, the right sells fiction too. Conservatives’ embrace of Lindsey “Thug Life” Graham has been tremendous fun, but it shows why we are all complicit in the fictionalization of our politics. We agree to the fiction so we can use politicians as totems who say what we can’t. We want to be heard. Voting quietly in the booth doesn’t assuage the feeling that a braindead megaphone drowns out everything worth saying. This is because television is a one-way form of communication.
Is there hope? Fortunately there is and it comes from the place we might least expect it: the internet. Yes, social media has turned America into a perpetual mob, but if used correctly we can create practices that reward communication behaviors we want to see in our leaders. Television politics is old enough to be considered a tradition, and when criticizing a tradition it is important to note that it has developed for a reason. At its best, televising the Kavanaugh hearings articulates the idea that the national questions with the highest stakes should be asked in America’s living room. Politicians have thus been largely unsuccessful with new media because they treat it as an extension of television. The communication now needs to go the other way.
First, we should choose to believe that both average Americans and their leaders are responsible enough to take things seriously. The internet has proven that there is a growing hunger for substantive and long-form discussions. So let’s change the format of congressional hearings. Let’s have our leaders submit their questions in writing. Let’s make the hearings boring and trust that Americans will tune in for the substance and not entertainment. The written remarks should be published online where constituents can mark them up with comments. Congress should have a long-form podcast where members from opposite sides of the aisle can discuss serious issues. In these ways we can stop rewarding Cory Booker-style freakishness and develop systems of communication that incentivize leaders to act like leaders.
For an essay that is so cynical, this sounds like a rosy solution. People wouldn’t have watched the Kavanaugh hearings without monologues of faux outrage, and comments sections are the quickest way to lose faith in humanity. However, real leaders set standards. Let America’s leaders set a standard and then foist the responsibility on us. Either we will live up to it or we will fail. The victory will be in having a standard at all. So let’s pick the highest standard imaginable: every American citizen has the capacity to engage with their leaders in meaningful conversations outside the tropes of television, and our leaders are more than just bad actors getting tips from ad agencies. The filth that streamed out of D.C. this past month went too far; why should we not demand more?
James McElroy is a New York City-based novelist and essayist, who also works in finance.