The caesarship of a fake empire

The first presidential debate gave us an all-too-rare glimpse of what American politics has really become

President Trump.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

Like millions of other Americans, I found that watching the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden gave rise to a curious admixture of emotions. The first of these was, for me anyway, surprise at the inability of the moderator to restrain either of the participants, followed by boredom, and, finally, an almost indescribable feeling of dread.

This is not a plea for civility or for a more highbrow approach to political debate. We don't deserve these things and would not be capable of having them even if we did. The United States is not a country in which it is possible to imagine two sober, intellectually capable statesmen talking about grave affairs of state any more than it is one in which anyone really believes that stolid citizen-legislators meet in an august forum for deliberation, after the manner of Roman senators.

We do not live in a "democracy," much less a republic. Trump and Biden are not the septuagenarian leaders of rival political factions; they are entertainment brands, symptoms rather than causes of our protracted decline, as incapable whether in or out of high office of meaningfully altering the underlying structures of American life as they are of expressing themselves in well-formed English sentences.

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The basic organizing principle of our society is not self-government, but the amoral facilitation of any activity that increases the price of stock in publicly traded corporations. In the last decade or so it has become clear that the only remaining truly viable commercial enterprise is the digital provision of entertainment and what are loosely described as "services": Netflix, pornography, Spicy Chicken McNuggets delivered to your door to spare you the trouble of having to drive a bloated plastic gasoline-powered computer up to the store window in order to receive your specimen of mechanically separated meat, dextrose, and sodium acid pyrophosphate advertised on what you still quaintly refer to as your "phone."

Hence my impatience with those pretending to be outraged by the behavior of one or both of these candidates, and with the increasingly tired appeals to hoary myths about "the Constitution" (once the exclusive province of the Tea Party but now apparently de rigueur for suburban liberals as well). America as we know it and experience it is possible only because of our broadly shared commitment to refusing to think about anything.

This is why it seems to be the case that hardly anyone minded or even noticed when we surrendered our textile industry, then heavy manufacturing, then even control of our precious cultural programming to a totalitarian regime half a world away, all within living memory even for fairly young Americans. It is why we developed a technology more revolutionary than the printing press and the motion picture combined, subjected it to no restraints whatever, and without even blinking allowed it to colonize every aspect of human life. It is how we became slaves to the devices that are making all of us lazier, fatter, more vulgar, less intellectually curious, unable to concentrate on anything of importance for more than 30 seconds at a time, and in far too many cases suicidally depressed, all while exercising powers of surveillance over us beyond the wildest dreams of the feared secret police during the last century. We do not examine or debate things in this country. We click and emote while algorithms decide which brand of shampoo our preferred objects of feigned outrage suggest we are most likely to purchase. Thus what we saw on Tuesday: two men pretending to hate each other because each one is seeking an office that only nominally exists: the caesarship of a fake empire.

Does this mean that every serious person should feel obligated to withdraw from the political process, insofar as this is possible, and certainly to the extent of neither taking part in presidential elections nor being especially invested in their outcome? Not necessarily. But it does seem to me undeniable that most of what passes for political activity in this country is indistinguishable from any other sort of light amusement. Pretending that one man's continued or newfound residency at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue will improve the lot of anyone except the small percent of the population whose relative wealth already shields them (if they wish it to do so) from the worst consequences of misrule is absurdly naive.

The horizons of American electoral politics receded long ago. Our system of government is not organized to allow even the ablest and prudent would-be leader to accomplish anything of importance. Even the most obviously horrifying developments that arise out of our digital-commercial industrial complex cannot be arrested; older, more humane social arrangements cannot be restored, the longest standing injustices cannot be rectified. The best one can realistically hope for from presidential candidates is that they will give voice to our own desire for monetizable self-aggrandizement and the public excoriation of our (real or perceived) enemies. At best, they are entertainers.

Tuesday night gave us an all-too-rare glimpse of what American politics has really become. What we are accustomed to thinking of as "public life" — the performative outrage, the relentless scandalmongering, the instantly devised and selectively applied litmus tests, the hysterically fideistic declarations of belief in whatever the latest consensus of the two apparent "sides" happens to be — is a kind of live-action roleplaying game, carried on for its own sake while the actual business of government is attended to by a few thousand unelected employees at federally funded research and development centers, who are themselves the unthinking agents of whatever digital leisure activities they prefer.

The first Trump-Biden debate allowed us to peer behind the jade columns and the pillars of fire, to open the silk curtains and discover that there is no voice behind the microphone to which our leaders would prefer us not to pay attention: the box is empty.

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