One of the most highly rated storylines in the history of the “The Donald Trump Reality TV Series” ended on a high and nasty note tonight for the president with the ceremonial swearing in of Brett Kavanaugh as an associate justice of the Supreme Court.
The staged TV production was a victory lap, a touchdown dance in the end zone, a Team Trump political rally and an in-your-face-suckers taunt from the man in the White House to all his critics.
Shortly after beginning his remarks, Trump stopped to apologize “on behalf of the nation” to Kavanaugh and his family “for the terrible pain and suffering” they were “forced to endure.” The president went on to characterize the challenges to Kavanaugh’s nomination as a “campaign of personal destruction based on lies and deception.”
His most outrageous comment was addressed to Kavanaugh himself: “You, sir, under historic scrutiny, were proven innocent,” Trump said.
Are you kidding me?
Kavanaugh was in no way proved innocent, and his scrutiny was historic only in how many documents from Kavanaugh’s rulings and past were kept from the American people by Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley and the White House.
And how about the standing ovation that Trump called forth for Mitch McConnell, who rammed Kavanaugh’s nomination through the Senate?
And, of course, we must note Trump’s praise for Senators Grassley, Susan Collins and most of all Lindsey Graham, whose operatic performance of faux outrage and righteousness rescued Kavanaugh at a hearing that was looking nothing but grim for the nominee.
All of Monday night’s stage managing and propagandistic pageantry in the East Room was intended to use TV to try to legitimatize this new associate justice with a bad temper and all that right-wing political baggage to the American people — millions of whom were opposed to him for months and surely remain so tonight.
In that sense, I believe Trump failed. But let’s not kid ourselves, this nomination was a TV production from the beginning back in July to tonight’s finale of this story arc that riveted and then rocked the nation. And in TV terms, it was a winner for Trump, a loser for participatory democracy.
We were already a TV culture long before the arrival of Trump in the election of 2016, but since his inauguration, he has taken our media debasement to a level not even the prophetic media scholar Neil Postman quite imagined in his 1985 classic, “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.” Written in the Age of Ronald Reagan, the book explored and exposed the way we had allowed the most serious and sacred aspects of our national civic life to be shaped by and to the entertainment formulas of prime-time television.
The Supreme Court was one of the last holdouts, but not anymore. Even though cameras are not allowed into the high court, the all-seeing medium of television has taken over the nomination and confirmation process of justices lock, stock and barrel.
What’s the point of keeping them out of the court itself after the spectacle of Kavanaugh’s nomination and confirmation except for the facade of seriousness and high purpose?
The Kavanaugh story arc started on TV on the evening of July 9.
The slick Trump TV production introducing Kavanaugh as the nominee that night was about making Trump look competent amid the chaos of his presidency, I wrote at the time.
“And it was about making Kavanaugh, who has a controversial past as a political operative involved in Kenneth Starr’s investigation of Bill Clinton, look like the friendly, happy, solidly mainstream, winning contestant and TV dad,” I added.
And then came all those dark-money ads talking about what a great mind and fine judicial temperament Kavanaugh had.
But when that carefully constructed TV persona was punctured by allegations of heavy drinking and sexual assault on the part of Kavanaugh during high school and college, the TV impresario in the White House had to kick his communications effort into a higher gear.
Enter Fox News’ Martha MacCallum on Sept. 24 for a bit of propaganda with Brett and Ashley Kavanaugh to try to humanize the jurist before his big moment onstage in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
I have said before that I am convinced that one of the reasons Donald Trump won the presidency is that many citizens watched the campaign as if it were a prime-time soap opera or reality TV show and were entertained by the GOP candidate’s bombast and swagger. He seemed entertaining in an over-the-top, prime-time kind of way, as he created cliff-hanging storylines that included his own candidacy.
The storyline of Kavanaugh’s nomination played out that way, and it was all but impossible not to get caught up in the drama.
But the TV storyline ended Monday night with Trump making political hay out of it as we approach the midterms and Kavanaugh ascending to the highest court in the land where he will have one of the most important swing votes in American history.
That’s our new national reality. It’s no longer just reality TV.