Late on Monday, following the chaos of the Iowa caucus, Pete Buttigieg did the same thing several of his fellow Democratic-primary candidates did that evening: He gave a rousing speech to his supporters. The former South Bend, Indiana, mayor talked about optimism, and about change. But he talked about something else as well—something his fellow candidates, acknowledging the night’s lack of an official electoral outcome, had not: He talked about victory. “Iowa, you have shocked the nation,” the candidate said, “because by all indications, we are going on to New Hampshire victorious.”
The declaration was a curious one, given that the Iowa caucus had been defined precisely by the absence of “all indications,” and given, too, that the confusion had robbed the campaigns of any capacity they might have had to deliver a shock. But the speech was revealing in the speed of its spin: “You have shocked the nation.” Shock is the language of electric injury, and of modern warfare, and of insouciant radio DJs, and of Donald Trump. It is a term of extremity. Here it was, though, being casually applied to an electoral outcome that, strictly speaking, did not exist. The results of the Iowa caucus are still being tabulated; Buttigieg might well emerge with slightly more delegates than his closest rivals. But his preemptive declaration suggests the extent to which shock itself—as an expectation, and as a demand—has diffused into the everyday workings of things. Americans, with our notoriously fickle attention spans, have fallen prey to an expanding assumption: that one of the greatest political sins one can commit is not to be wrong, but to be boring.
The Iowa caucus, as it happened, took place just after the effective conclusion of another historic event: the impeachment trial of President Trump. Many politicians participating in that trial used shock as a political argument—except in reverse: The president’s allies, over the past weeks, have made great performances of the surprise they have not felt in reaction to the trial’s revelations. “Gum-chewing, snacking, yawning, and alleged napping could be seen throughout the cramped chamber,” the Associated Press reported of the scene during the Senate trial. Rand Paul was observed doing a crossword puzzle. Marsha Blackburn was seen reading a book (Kim Strassel’s Resistance (At All Costs): How Trump Haters Are Breaking America, she later clarified). Richard Burr reportedly handed out fidget spinners to combat the tedium of it all.
Had a municipal jury shown such overt disinterest in court proceedings, its members would likely have been held in contempt. But a standard jury takes the need for deliberation seriously. And a standard jury does not come armed with talking points. “I’m bored out of my mind,” Ted Cruz complained. “Sort of unwatchable,” Kellyanne Conway, the White House adviser, assessed. Representative Mark Meadows, a close ally of Trump’s, offered his dismissal in the form of advice: “I would suggest that the American people, if they could turn their channel and watch something else, that is what they are doing.”
Watch something else. The impeachment trial played out on television; therefore, the logic went, it should have played out as a TV show. It should have featured plot twists and cliff-hangers and villain edits and, if at all possible, Tori Spelling dressed as a unicorn, belting out “Fight Song.” The Republican lawmakers’ complaint, essentially, was that the impeachment proceedings played out as precisely what they were: legal processes. And their assumption was that Americans would share in their disappointment. The president’s surrogates helped spread the yawning message. Fox & Friends host Steve Doocy: “It was unbelievably boring.” Eric Trump: “Horribly boring ... #Snoozefest.” Representative Matt Gaetz: “This defense needs a little less Atticus Finch and a little more Miss Universe.” Bill Bennett, a former secretary of education and a current host on Fox Nation: “There’s no burglary, there’s no break-in, there’s no tapes, there’s no dress, there’s no sex, there’s no Monica Lewinsky. Interest just isn’t there.”
These objections are, in their very petulance, savvy. Boredom can work as a political argument because boredom can work as a political concession: It reduces things down until all that matters is an event’s capacity to entertain. (“What we will witness today is a televised theatrical performance staged by the Democrats,” Republican Representative Devin Nunes told reporters at the outset of the House impeachment hearings, setting the stage for what was to come.) The real questions of the trial were complicated and consequential: matters of executive privilege and its abuse; of violations of presidential power; of state-sanctioned bullying. The real questions cut to the heart of the American Constitution and the American presidency and the rule of law. The real questions were hard. It’s so much easier not to engage—to write the whole thing off as bad TV. It’s so much easier to change the channel.
And boredom works as the remote. Tucker Carlson, with his bespoke blend of anger and ennui, described the House impeachment hearings as the story of “how some obscure diplomat you’ve never heard of said something forgettable to an even more obscure Ukrainian government official about a topic that literally has nothing to do with your life or the future of our country.” His disinterest was convenient. Earlier soliloquies from Carlson, after all, had framed the “obscure diplomat you’ve never heard of” as the opposite of tedious: a potential member of the “deep state,” an agent of anti-Trumpism whose very ability to fade into the background is the source of the threat he represents. When it came to impeachment, though, it was in Carlson’s interest to dismiss the diplomats—public servants who had damning and decidedly un-boring information to share about Donald Trump’s dealings with Ukraine—as dull. Literally has nothing to do with your life. The Fox host’s argument anticipated the one that would come later, from the U.S. secretary of State, as he raged at a reporter who questioned him about diplomacy: “Do you think Americans care about Ukraine?”
Boredom, thus weaponized, sends messages about who, and what, is worth one’s attention—and about who, and what, is not. Those messages extend far beyond partisan politics. On Monday, during the New York criminal trial of Harvey Weinstein, Jessica Mann, one of the more than 80 women who have accused the mogul of sexual misconduct, offered searing and graphic testimony about Weinstein’s alleged abuse of her. (Weinstein has denied all allegations of nonconsensual sex acts.) Mann told the court about Weinstein’s “unpredictable anger.” She told the court that Weinstein had raped her, and that, when she saw him again, he had ripped her pants off while screaming, “You owe me one more time!” Mann wept on the stand as she told her story. Weinstein, meanwhile? He dozed off.
Boredom claims not to care; used in this way, though, boredom cares deeply. Boredom looks inward, and nowhere else. Weinstein napping in the courtroom as his accuser speaks is a tidy encapsulation of a culture that is itself, too often, bored by the stories survivors tell. The man sleeping as the woman cries: It may well be a legal strategy. It also suggests an environment of disordered empathy.
And so does, in its way, the collective sigh that has greeted Trump’s impeachment. You might expect that the president’s allies would use everything at their disposal to defend him. You might expect that Republican members of the U.S. Senate would prevent witnesses from testifying at a trial and then loudly complain about the dullness of a trial with no witnesses. What you might not expect, though, is that the partisans’ professed ennui would also go airborne—that it would be mimicked by those who are not propagandistic in their aims. “Unlike the best reality TV shows—not to mention the Trump presidency itself—fireworks and explosive moments were scarce,” Reuters lamented at the hearings’ outset. NBC News set a similar tone: “The first two witnesses called Wednesday testified to President Trump’s scheme, but lacked the pizzazz necessary to capture public attention.” And it is not merely the news media that have professed their dissatisfaction with what happens when the Constitution gets optioned for a TV show. This past weekend, Saturday Night Live’s assessment of the impeachment proceedings began with a declaration that the event had consisted of “two weeks of dry debate and posturing.” The show’s cold open offered to rectify the dullness, staging for viewers “the trial you wish had happened”: a wacky musical comedy.
In August 2016, before Donald Trump had successfully alchemized his reality-TV fame into the American presidency, Politico Magazine ran a story examining his appeal. The reporter, Michael Grunwald, spoke with Jason Molina, a “32-year-old Cuban-American Democrat who ... voted for Obama twice.” This time around, Grunwald learned, Molina was planning to vote for Trump. “Trump is fucking crazy, but I’ll vote for him,” Molina explained. “The whole system is fucked. Why not vote for the craziest guy, to see the craziest shit happen?” He added: “We got ISIS, we got Zika, we got this, we got that. At least Trump is fun to watch.”
This is what happens when shock value becomes the only value. “Fun to watch” becomes the main metric that matters. The New York Times does its best to turn its primary-endorsement decision into a reality-TV show. CNN does its best to turn a primary debate into Thunderdome. Robert Mueller delivers his testimony on Russia collusion to Congress, and gets criticized for a lackluster performance. Donald Trump delivers a State of the Union address so deeply false that it reads like fiction, and one of the big headlines to emerge from that event is not that the president had lied to Congress and the nation—that story, of course, is extremely old—but rather that Nancy Pelosi had ripped up a printout of the speech after its delivery. “Like addicts to the world’s most unpleasant drug,” the Times columnist Michelle Goldberg put it in November, “our political class seems to require ever-greater jolts to feel anything at all.”
In the process, boredom becomes a chronic condition. And politics, with its intimate and life-or-death consequences, gets judged according to the sheen of its spectacles. The bar for what is interesting gets ever higher, and the goalposts move ever farther, and before long people start complaining about the lack of fireworks shooting out of the posts’ innards. Pee tape or GTFO.
Politicians and media analysts alike have routinely dismissed the Democratic-primary debates that have been playing out this fall and winter as dull and dense and “like watching death.” The dismissals are leveled at the debates not because those contests have failed to feature discussions of the most urgent concerns of the day, from health care to racial justice to climate change (which carries the threat of, it is worth repeating, actual apocalypse)—but instead because those discussions were precisely what was on offer. The topics may be important, the idea goes, but they are not interesting in the pyrotechnic way that this moment seems to demand. They cannot do what Pete Buttigieg claimed Iowa had done on Monday night: “shock the nation.” And they are most definitely lacking in “pizzazz.”
The impeachment of Donald Trump, for its part, has played out as many assumed it would: as a foregone conclusion, as a sham, as a shame. The exercise featured one of the president’s lawyers making an argument so extreme and absurd as to be, in fact, shocking: that an executive can abuse his power, if he believes that power to be in the public interest. It featured U.S. senators, alleged members of the world’s greatest deliberative body, allowing that argument to win the day. That’s the other problem with boredom as impeachment’s talking point: It has been profoundly incorrect. The hearings and the trial have been fascinating. They simply have not been fascinating in the way so many pundits wanted them to be. Their fireworks were contained. Their bombshells had already fallen. The trial confirmed what was largely known—about a corrupt world leader; about complacent aides; about a government rotting from within. The story of Donald Trump’s impeachment is also the story of the world’s most powerful nation crumbling into lazy autocracy. That story is many, many things. One thing it is not, however, is boring.