The American Contradiction

It’s hard to be objective about the culture you grew up in.  Things that seem normal to you might seem crazy to someone who grew up a few thousand miles away.  I try to keep a fresh perspective.  It puts me in a constant state of confusion about the world I inhabit, but it also gives me some interesting observations.  One of the things I’ve noticed about America is the contradiction we find ourselves in, that no one seems to notice.

Some of our favorite stories involve the underdog winning.  Star Wars, Rocky, nearly all children’s stories, and even most adult fairy tales involve overcoming overwhelming odds.  We love to see the lowest of the low rise up.  But we also love a good scandal.  We love seeing the most powerful among us fall down to our level.  It’s here that the contradiction lives.  We want to see unlucky people succeed.  We also want to see successful people fail.  That doesn’t seem to be the case in England or France.  They tend to see people live in what caste they grew up in and remain there their whole lives.  From that perspective, Trump’s presidency gets more context.

The media had to love Trump during the campaign.  Love him or hate him, people watched him.  Those eyeballs meant sweet, sweet advertising dollars for the media.  TV, Facebook, fake news, everything.  And what was even better was you could package him into an easy story.  Political neophyte takes on career politicians and wins.  For all the bluster and confusion of the Republican primary, the actual nomination was pretty straightforward.  No contested vote.  A clear Trump victory.  But selling him as an underdog was easy.  That story continued through the general election.  Trump the newbie versus Clinton the experienced political actor.  The whole general election I kept getting reminded of the election of 2000.  Dubya versus Gore.  The guy who’d never held any national office versus the guy who’d spent 8 years in the White House.  That theme was there as subtext to almost all stories about them, both in 2000 and 2016.

Flash forward to after the election, after the underdog won, and things look different.  The underdog is now an incumbent.  The next easy story to tell is the fall.  In the case of Dubya it was incompetence, at least for the first nine months of his presidency.  In the case of Trump it is corruption.  The Russia story isn’t going away, despite the fact that it’ll be months before we will learn any conclusions.  The next phase in the story will be the country rallying around the president.  Probably in response to some outside threat.  A war in North Korea, or maybe a proxy war with Russia in Syria.  Perhaps an act of terror by someone with brown skin in Kansas.  That’s the pattern.  Build them up so you can tear them down so you can build them up.  Why is it a story the media loves?  Because their audience loves it.  Ultimately, the news media is in the same business as the entertainment industry.  If they can’t tell stories people want to hear, they’ll go under.  That the stories are based on real events is at best peripherally relevant.  

I don’t know why the American public loves both the stories of the underdog winning and the winner failing. I could guess, but it’s beside the point now.  What matter is that this contradiction builds a tension that we have to live with, for better or worse.  At least being able to see it gives us some context, and we can then choose for ourselves whether we really want the newbie in charge, and whether the leader failing is really best for us.  With all our sources telling us that’s the only option it makes it harder to see.  So we just need to look closer.


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