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Existing As Ethos: A Political Essay

Watching John Oliver’s latest segment about televangelists got me thinking about the bizarre GOP debate, ethos, and existing in general. Almost none of this really goes back to religion at all; in fact I’d like to start with: starting.

Oliver did his typical takedown of a broad injustice in the world and by now has managed to situate Last Week Tonight  as a digital pellet for a wide-reaching control group. There’s perhaps no larger compliment than for excellence to be a pellet you can expect every Sunday on TV and Monday morning on reddit. But because John Oliver formats his program around a specific issue, each with an almost evergreen topicality, you can’t help but to extrapolate. Oliver’s recently retired mentor left a legacy that will be impossible to replicate but also not that necessary to rewatch. It was the day’s news with the missing pause for fallacy included. You could trace your variegated feelings to the verve of the present. Oliver delves into a topic that you scantly understood and then, like a master of horror, leaves you to your imagination. What else is  happening? What will be happening? (The televangelists he excoriated just so happen to make their bones off of this fear. If you truly are satisfied with the idea of a faith-based payment plan, you can’t say they aren’t providing a service.)

Here is where I think we are: for the first time in American history, we don’t have presumptions about what we will want. Or, rather, for the first time in American history, one very bombed-out and depleted political party is betting that their constituents will know their wants but not what they will want. Republicans want a smaller government; Democrats would rather not rely on abstract theory if there’s a way to get it done concretely.(E.g.: “Keynesian Economics”, “the invisible hand”, and “free-market capitalism” versus “Let’s have the right people paying the right amount of taxes on the right things”.) In the simplest terms, our wants are apolitical. We want to be fed, clothed, loved, safe, happy. Are those technically needs? Well, that depends on what you think you will want.

Some people will trade a steady diet for better clothes; some would rather be alone in America than with friends in a warzone. That’s where politics gets tricky: the will want. Essentially all of our political divisions come from projections. For instance, our goal for economic security is common and unimpugnable; it’s when we decide how to get there that we rip each others’ heads off. This is where we start tinkering with the meaning of the word “security”, even though, when it comes down to it, we all know the feeling of economic security when experienced apolitically. Without politics, a billionaire is a person with at least billion dollars. With politics he’s either a saintly benefactor or the scourge of the earth. Without politics, I can afford what I want or I can’t. With politics, what I want depends entirely on what I think I deserve and what I think others deserve. Politics are nothing more than how we defend our own ridiculous projections—and I say ridiculous not in reference to what you might believe but in the idea that we defend something with no terminal point, and thus, no existence at all.

That neatly brings me back to starting. (Throughlines have been rare lately.) To determine the validity of my will wants, I, of course, cannot rely on myself. The will want cannot just exist inside myself, precisely because the will want is political and politics require an audience.

I am a disaffected liberal engaged in modern politics by nothing more than a crushing civic guilt. Far from being an expert on the will want, I’m not really even sure of my own percentages within Maslow’s Hierarchy. I do know a few things: I know the idea of a televangelist qua politician is real. A politician in 2015 needs to have something to say just by virtue of there being a paying audience. It used to be that the party would choose their guys, based around the narrative of their lives. The GOP put its weight behind McCain because he was a war hero and a straight shooter. They could sell that as a candidate. But we can go back much, much further, obviously:

The 1960s and 70s highlighted the divide between what was true and what was conscious (true or not), i.e. Vietnam, racial tensions, etc. We got Kennedy because you couldn’t picture him lying to you, even if you could know for a fact that he was. It’s postwar, baby. Put on a pretty face. (You have peace, you will want a JFK-type.) We got LBJ and Nixon in the height of the war because maybe deep down you wanted to be lied to, once you knew the truth. (You have bitter reality, you will want Nixon.) The 1980s brought fear politics based entirely in shadowy speculation. (You have a Nuclear War, you will want Reagan The Cowboy.) The 1990s, almost Mesozoic in digital terms, brought presidents that lived in the immediate. You could see the effects of H.W. and Clinton within years of their decisions because that’s what their campaigns focused on: trackable progress. (And yes, a lot of savvy in obscuring failures.) As the Internet grew, the idea of ‘the future’ became a matter of fact-checking the present.

So now the 2010s are curious because the present got way, way, way too fast and large to fact-check. Not only that, it got really fucking crowded. If you don’t know what you will want, you can, of course, seek external guidance. But from whom? Digital media’s currency is the unique page view, which is a simple combination of shareable content, sharp insight, SEO acumen, inflammatory rhetoric, and shameless whoring. The two political parties are not selling a narrative anymore; they’re selling you what you will want. They’ve always done that, but as we saw, in the past your will wants were based on your haves. Now businessmen and cardiologists are crashing the GOP debate floor because, let’s face it, we don’t know what we have. Do we have war? Do we have peace? Do we have the freedom to speak our minds? Is our economy recovering or is it collapsing? Are we getting more progressive or are we just getting better at hiding what we feel? Do we have a political revolution ahead of us or are we more oligarchical than ever? It’s no wonder the new paradigm is “tabula rasa”. Everyone is so busy re-establishing their ethos in the fractured digital age that what they have to say is in the background. For example, it was uncomfortable to see Megyn Kelly’s ethos come under attack by Trump, but not the least bit surprising. That part is always there, isn’t it? If there were a subliminal hum to journalism, it would not be “bias bias bias bias”. It would be “trust me trust me trust me please”.

It’s frankly incredible: journalists and politicians are not fighting to keep their jobs, they are fighting for the right to exist. No longer is CNN fighting MSNBC and Fox News. Red isn’t fighting blue. It’s all a war against digitized irrelevance, and the responses from the political camps have gotten weird. Hillary Clinton represents a weak recollection of a fond moment in time; her camp understands that in no way do most people buy her as a Clinton and yet are willing to accept the surname so long as the nostalgenda is not pushed too severely. So as not to inhibit our wildest projections. Bernie Sanders went from Social Reform’s Sisyphus to being an A-List subreddit to being… alive in the physical polls? Trump is still very much a joke, but now a joke being told beneath the Seal of the President to future John Galts of the world. Jeb Bush speaks with the articulation to suggest he shares our shame of the Bush name, but also with a contempt of the misfortunate to echo certain pride. Marco Rubio speaks without offending large swaths of people on a regular basis; he’s managed to avoid bland by being bland in this clusterfuck of meritocracy. It’s as though it’s a Friday night lineup of prop comics, screaming misogynists, and physical comedians at the Laugh Factory; you’re dying for just one dude to jump on stage and tell some airplane jokes. That guy is actually John Kasich, but you didn’t buy two drinks for Open Mic night, so it’s Rubio.

There was no real umbrage on the GOP floor; they weren’t just in on the joke, they were ahead of it. How do you stop that? How can you exist while impervious to ridicule?

I have opinions about Reagan and Kennedy and Nixon and Clinton and Bush, some that contradict my core beliefs. Campaigns force me to react to a narrative. People with mini-mics and spray tans do not. Yes, it’s early in the race. I really think it’s something more endemic this time, like a Cold War of irony.

What everyone in the race seems to agree on is that we have to start something new. The more that’s said about what that something is or how, the less electable they become. But for me it’s a very confusing time to be alive; I almost missed the attack ads because they served as some identifier of ethos. Untrustworthy, manipulative, but spoken from a position of authority I can recognize.

Obama campaigned behind “Hope” and the GOP would sooner disavow Reagan than admit they’re doing something similar. Is this Hope without an objective? Is there a word for that? I keep coming back to the televangelist, looking into the television screen, trying to guess what’s plaguing my life without knowing me. His hotline encompasses all my wants and will wants; he is the perfect candidate. The whole presentation is so shrewd and transparent that it’s not even sinister. It’s not a person because it doesn’t have empathy, but it’s not a robot because it’s driven by obvious and basic greed. I can’t even feel disgusted. Once upon a time, before the Gulfstream, the bespoken charlatan was struck by the deeply human panic that there was no starting point to his existence after all, that the only real ethos left was a following, and the only real following has a routing number protected by tax codes. I am willed to believe he knows what I will  want because he wants as well. He wants so much that there’s no ‘him’ left. It’s the same. It’s the same. It’s the same.

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About the Author

Chris O'Toole (Colorado State '12, Chapman '15) recently finished a Screenwriting MFA. He has written for Livestrong, CBS, and other publications. Love, hate, and job offers can be sent to: otool102@mail.chapman.edu