By now, we have a good sense of the playbook Republicans follow when hit with revelations of new Trump administration misdeeds. First comes the heated denial: Then, the qualifications: ! Finally, the shifted goal posts:
Up until this week, they’d more or less stuck to this template when it came to defending the administration’s extortion efforts in Ukraine: never happened, sort of happened; happened, but so what. (Or in the words of the acting White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, “Get over it.”)
But I was not expecting to hear:
As public hearings on impeachment began on Wednesday, which saw state department officials William Taylor and George Kent testifying in front of Congress and on TV, “boring” was the party line pumped out by the Trumpers and disseminated on Twitter.
Eric Trump called the hearings “horribly boring,” and added “#Snoozefest.”
“Hard for me to stay awake and listen to all this,” said the Republican congressman and Trump ally Mark Meadows.
Fox News had spent the past few weeks priming its viewers to see impeachment as a yawn-a-thon, with host Tucker Carlson describing it earlier this month as the story of “how some obscure diplomat you’ve never heard of said something forgettable to an even more obscure Ukrainian government official about a topic that has literally nothing to do with your life or the future of our country.” And once public hearings were underway, the president’s most-favored-network stuck to its theme. “There’s no burglary, there’s no break-in, there’s no tapes, there’s no dress, there’s no sex, there’s no Monica Lewinsky,” said Bill Bennett, a former secretary of education and Fox Nation host. “Interest just isn’t there.”
That Fox would be in total accord with the White House was not surprising. What surprising was when newsrooms not affiliated with the White House piled on.
There was NBC opining that the hearings, “Lacked the pizzazz necessary to capture public attention.”
And there was Reuters with a piece headlined, “Consequential, but dull: Trump impeachment hearings begin without a bang.”
It seems, to some members of the media, impeachment is no longer about right and wrong, legal versus illegal. It’s about watchable versus unwatchable, enthralling and fun versus dusty and dry.
I wonder whether this is where hundreds of channels, dozens of streaming services and the internet have ultimately left us. In a world where there’s news breaking on social media every one-thousandth of a second, and you can hit ‘refresh’ all day long, is it too much to expect that voters will spend hours listening to sober civil servants with complicated stories and pocket squares?
Is it that President Trump, our clickbait leader, has trained us to expect daily drama, taking advantage of our natural affinity for the sizzle rather than the steak?
Or is it that after three years of almost daily revelations about porn-star payoffs, murdered Washington Post columnists, Russian back channels, WikiLeaks dumps, Charlottesville news conferences, mass shootings and Rudy Giuliani, the bar for what makes us pay attention has been ratcheted so high that something has to be absolutely bananas to clear it? And that we the people need daily plot twists and weekly cliffhangers in order to care?
A confession: Back in the summer of 2015, “The Bachelor” had just ended, and I was hungry for new characters, fresh story lines and a love-to-hate villain to entertain me. Mr. Trump and the rest of the Republicans fit the bill. I remember thinking, after the first debate, “There is zero chance this guy’s going to be president, but I hope he hangs around. He makes it interesting.”
Back then it was, “Why focus on policy papers when Mr. Trump is calling people names and threatening to “spill the beans” on Ted Cruz’s wife?”
Four years later it’s, “Why follow sober legalese from people who look like the deans in 1980s college comedies when you can call them nerds, sit back and wait for the next five-alarm fire?”
The desire for politics to entertain was one of the things that gave us President Trump. And now our collective need for amusement could keep him there.
And how, exactly, are we going to explain this to future generations? “Well, Bobby, it looked like the president used the power of his office to force another country to launch a sham investigation into a political rival in exchange for desperately needed military aide. And we had hearings. But it turns out, if nobody breaks into an office building or ejaculates on a dress, Americans don’t care that much. Also, there was Latin involved. Now don’t forget to dress nicely for Queen Ivanka’s birthday parade!”
If you’re reading this, you’re not part of the problem. But how do we reach the swayable segment of the population — assuming, as always, that such a thing still exists — and keep its members from changing the channel?
Do we need colorful charts? Dramatic re-enactments? Better costumes? A musical version?
We could watch the hearings through Snapchat filters — think how much cuter those career diplomats would look with puppy noses!
We could use our imaginations: Just mentally add jazz hands to whoever’s currently testifying. We could imagine everything sung in the style of an Ethel Merman number.
I’m kidding. Except I’m not. I’m genuinely terrified that, someday, I’m going to have to tell some young person that my contemporaries could have halted our country’s slide into dictatorship but we were all watching “Young Sheldon” instead.
Here’s a thought: The next time we see a partisan or a politician or, worse, a reporter complain that the hearings are boring, we push back. We point out that our political process is one thing and professional wrestling is another, and shame on anyone who faults the first for not resembling the second. We remind people that just because something is shown on TV, that does not mean it’s a TV show.
Because, if we keep insisting that impeachment has to entertain us, we’re going to channel-surf our way right out of our democracy.