In 1961, at the end of his two terms in the White House, President Dwight D. Eisenhower offered this warning to the American people: "In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist."
There is little doubt that Ike's words were prescient. The influence of the military-industrial complex has helped keep the U.S. in a more or less permanent state of war in the years since his speech, the most egregious example being the disastrous Bush-Cheney-Halliburton Middle East adventurism in the early years of this century.
But there's a relatively new force that's shaping American politics and power, one that's even more pervasive and potentially more damaging. You could call it the "entertainment-industrial" complex, and it was openly spoken to this week by CBS CEO Les Moonves, who said in a speech in San Francisco: "Donald Trump is damn good for business; the money's rolling in."
Moonves continued: "I've never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It's a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going."
The bottom line, literally, is that Trump is making millions of dollars for the entertainment-industrial complex. Putting Trump on the air is good business for all the networks, and the more Trump is on the air, the more his loony, crude, racist act gets normalized — and the higher his poll numbers rise. It's the most profitable reality show in history, and it doesn't cost the networks a thing — except their credibility. But who cares, at this point?
The networks certainly don't, as Moonves went on to make clear. He proclaimed ad sales this season have been incredibly strong, due to an election cycle filled with insults, profanity, and controversy. "It may not be good for America" he said, "but it's damn good for CBS."
This level of political discourse is not good for America. And it was predicted 30 years ago in a book by Neil Postman called Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Postman warned about the trend of TV news being packaged as entertainment, with theme music, flashy graphics, anchors with movie-star looks, and breathless, dramatic reporting designed to draw viewers, night after night.
Nailed it, Neil.
At some point, the difference between TMZ news and NBC news gets blurred. To the undiscerning viewer, The Bachelor and The Donald are equally entertaining — and equally "real." There's a reason you see "man on the street" interviews with people who can't name the vice president or tell you who won the civil war. John Kasich? Are you kidding? Is he on Duck Dynasty?
They can, of course, tell you The Bachelor's name, and they sure as hell know who Trump is. They might even think he'd be a good president, since he's on every news channel, every single day.
"The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist," Eisenhower wrote. Same song, different threat, a half-century later.