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.