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There are many ironies of the COVID-19 era, perhaps too many to count. There is, of course, the fact that after three years of shouting at one another that “we should be out on the streets” and “what would it take to get us all out onto the streets,” something has happened that would compel everyone to the streets and we can no longer be on the streets. Then there is the fact that after three years of insisting that there should be a tremendous general strike to protest Donald Trump and that it is only by massively tanking the economy that we might be able to stop him, we are witnessing a massive cratering of the economy and incomprehensible unemployment and it has seemingly done nothing to harm him. But perhaps above all, the irony I cannot scrape off the bottom of my shoe, is that having followed this grinning orange jack-o’-lantern ghoul from reality television to the White House, those of us who opted to live off the screen, are now forced to die by it.
The screens themselves are not a new problem. For decades, we’ve persuaded ourselves that there is some probable correlation between being able to capture attention on camera and complex public leadership abilities. That should probably have been our first clue. But in spite of the long line of Ronald Reagans and Arnold Schwarzeneggers and Sarah Palins (and make no mistake, Palin was a reality TV star long before she was a Reality TV Star), it seemed that we at least collectively understood that while many adult-child actors might make good leaders, not every adult-child actor would necessarily govern wisely or well. Yet here we are, yanked by the neck and dragged right on into the control room of the Truman Show, in which the current president seems unable to comprehend or appreciate anything happening around him beyond TV ratings because once you live inside a screen that’s all there is.
The staggering irony is that somehow, after years of him attempting to force us to live inside his shiny dream world of ratings and endorsements and fabulousness, we all now live there, all day and all night. After four terrible years trying to escape the reality show of the Trump administration, many of us, and way too many of our children, are trapped inside screens that reduce each of our lives to the familiar Apprentice boardroom set landmarks: human, desk, lamp, water glass. Hours of screens within screens that might really be Zooms now force us into canned reality show tropes: “Look at me! I’m trying to talk! How do I look? Why did I agree to do this again?”
We are, almost poetically, the perfect sum total of the Zoom screen and the chat box and the set we’ve arranged behind us. How Trumpian.
My friends who work in the hospitals tell me that screens are the only possible means of connecting the dying among us to their families, for the purpose of saying goodbye, now. If you haven’t yet attended a Zoom funeral, you assuredly will. Faces. Screens. The centering of faces in screens, the focusing of faces on screens. And if all that weren’t the most tragic outcome of the age of Trump, there is yet one more: In order to attempt to understand what is happening all around us in real life, with real emergency equipment and real scientific research and real bailout funds, we are forced to tune in, night after night, to what any other culture in any other time would most likely dismiss as some kind of darkly impressionist puppet show. We sit at our screens, watching someone who delights only in standing in the center of our screens, as he attempts to program the world with his crabbed reality-show word parfaits: He’s perfect, everyone is awful, he didn’t come here to make friends, oh, and everyone should buy shit. Everyone should buy boxes and bags and buckets of branded shit. And all of these people who have lost their jobs and businesses, and parents and friends, are somehow shoehorned back into this deranged world of Tiger King, in which every performer is a narcissist mugging for the cameras, and all of the endangered cats are us.
When all this passes, and it will certainly pass, it would be good to craft a new way of looking at governance, expertise, and authority that is less bound up in looking at ourselves, and also less caught up in looking at other people looking at ourselves, and in the relentless daily performance of building a brand that those who are looking at us would maybe like to purchase. There is no doubt in my mind that if the response to this pandemic demanded great quantities of kitten heels, sheath dresses, and overpriced real estate, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump should have been tasked with the authority to solve it. That we have somehow persuaded ourselves that unexceptional people who look like the kind of people who might pick up phones to call other people about catastrophic problems, possibly on a TV show, are the people who are most fit to govern, well, that is the result of a life lived entirely in thrall to screen time.
When all this passes, as we certainly hope it will, the poets and philosophers and scientists might step up to write (in truth, in words, in indelible black pen) the history of whatever the hell happened that damaged us so badly that we were willing to follow a bunch of character actors up over the embankment and down into a democracy measured in ratings and brand names and how we looked on camera. The revolution was, in fact, televised. And that was our first mistake.
For more on the impact of COVID-19, listen to this week’s Political Gabfest.