Donald Trump is as obsessed with breaking records as he is with breaking agreements. The Daily Devil’s Dictionary explains.
US President Donald Trump has set in motion a national counting game exploited by the media on a daily basis. It stems from the drama of his frustration with the political obstacles to obtaining the funding he believes is needed to build his border wall, which — just as fervently — he also believes is needed. Every media outlet now spends time updating the shutdown count with affirmations similar to this one from Business Insider: “The government shutdown is in day 27 and has shattered the record for the longest shutdown in history.”
Articles that mention this record are careful to highlight the downside, which deepens the competitive drama: The fact that the shutdown has put 800,000 people out of work, depriving them of income and, for many, throwing their private lives into chaos.
Here is today’s 3D definition:
A performance that surpasses all past performances and, therefore, constitutes in and of itself a news story
Today’s consumer culture, especially as it has been elaborated in the United States, reduces practically all human activities to two contrasting categories: competitive and boring. And while the government shutdown has proved painful not only to those who have been arbitrarily deprived of their livelihood, but also to businesses and citizens who depend on the public services they provide, the daily breaking of the record shutdown’s duration hasn’t yet become boring, though there is a risk that that may even happen after a while. Unless at some point the entire nation revolts.
But can anything provoke Americans to revolt? Master pollster Nate Silver has been tracking the dramatic drop in Trump’s approval rating, which correlates with his stance on the shutdown. Silver believes Trump will survive it. “But will any of it really matter to Trump’s political standing, in the long run?” he asks. “The glib answer is ‘probably not.’” He cites what he calls “the insane velocity of the news cycle under President Trump” that is a kind of record-breaking pace in its own right.
The culture of competition that dominates not only sports, the media and politics, but even the arts and art education — where everything is rated, graded or priced — imposes two essential rules. The first is that for every human event, someone must win and someone must lose. The second is that over time, records must be broken. If the first principle is obvious, the second plays a dual role in the contemporary economy. Contests between competing performers create immediate suspense, but the drama of record-breaking adds the arrow of time to the repetitive, cyclical back and forth of winning and losing. In so doing, it produces what is perceived as “news” — i.e., something that has never happened before. It thus becomes a source of an essential human activity in today’s dynamic society: talking about what we do more or less routinely as if it were more important than it actually is.
The breaking of records also helps to establish and consolidate an essential belief about history itself. We may not easily recognize it, but contemporary civilization requires that when speaking seriously about anything, we expect or hope for progress and growth. We worry when we hear that they may not happen.
If Barack Obama’s sense of competition motivated him to cultivate the image of the best modern president ever — according to the tacit but well-established rules of the game of “being presidential” — Trump has stayed true to his reality-TV personality shaped by Shark Tank and The Apprentice. He competes to be the most talked about president ever, a goal he achieved even as a candidate, when, instead of spending money to be seen on TV, he had the media spending their money to give him and his every provocative performance air time on TV. Trump’s political career has validated the truth of Oscar Wilde’s famous quip, “the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about” and this other bit of American wisdom, often attributed to P.T. Barnum: “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.”
President Trump himself claims that everything he does, every executive order he signs, every challenge he launches, is a record-breaker — the first, the best, the greatest and the most — as he contradicts everything past presidents have routinely done, which basically amounts to polishing the pillars of empire and, when necessary, filling the cracks. Although he seems obsessed about building a bored wall — the greatest, most beautiful ever — he has spent far more energy hacking at the pillars that have kept the American empire standing, from civil rights to the vaunted rules-based (i.e., tacitly managed) world order.
Trump is so good at getting himself talked about that he has set a new standard for the image of an American president. Candidates must henceforth sell themselves as doers rather than thinkers or mere managers. Nate Silver’s observation about the “insane velocity the news cycle” implies that Trump has effectively created a methodology of government enabling him, at will, to break all records in the art of being talked about.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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