The Godless Piety Of American Idealism As Reality Television

The Godless Piety Of American Idealism As Reality Television

America’s national preoccupation with rugged individualism, self-righteous morality, divine exceptionalism and naked greed has finally jumped the shark.

By David Todd McCarty | Sunday, December 6, 2020

America is a caricature of itself. A glossy, over-produced, television showcase, presented as reality programming, complete with larger than life characters, obnoxious but beautiful, perpetually in conflict, competing for ratings and cash, while pretending to be involved in a morality tale. We’re a cruel joke of a performance, struggling to hold onto our prime time slot, but undeniably in danger of being canceled at any moment.

Do you ever stop and wonder if televangelists remain in character at all times, buying into their own bullshit, or do they get behind closed doors, cast off their satin robes and acknowledge the sham? Does Kenneth Copeland believe that God is really blessing him with hundreds of millions of dollars for being a humble servant of the Lord, or does he recognize the gullibility of his parishioners and disparage their ignorance as reason enough to fleece them of their own hard-earned cash? Does Gary Busey understand that he’s a maniacal buffoon, or did some producer just recognize his natural ability to captivate us with his insanity early on and simply put him in front of a camera? Does Mitch McConnell believe he is a patriot, leading the country to greatness, or does he recognize that you have to steal everything you can while you have your hand in the till, and try not to get caught while you’re doing it?

Is there really any discernible difference between the political, theological and entertainment actors in America? It seems pretty hard to tell them apart these days. It’s all just show business, with very similar audiences, all trying to manipulate your emotions for cash.

Personally, I’d feel better if I knew the politicians at least were all self-aware grifters, rather than delusional prophets. That the preachers recognized that they were little more than game show hosts, fleecing the poor in spirit, for personal gain. It would feel more stable if we at least knew, that they knew, what they were doing. That they were operating with the full self-awareness that their sole motivation, was nothing more than personal gain. But I’m not so sure it’s that simple. It feels like too many of them believe at least some of their own hype. Eventually, we all believe our own lies and that makes it easier to kill for profit without conscience.

It’s no different in politics as it is in the cheap entertainment fields of religion and television. Since it’s nearly impossible to fathom that they believe their own press, we must conclude that they fully understand the motivation of their actions to be rationalized, personal gain. If the choice is mass psychosis and rampant delusions versus collective greed, the rationale choice, the simplest explanation, is basic, run- of-the-mill greed.

America has always more or less believed its own press, from our self-serving, idyllic revolution to our early days of creating a system of government that could navigate class, profiteering, and stability by never allowing the ignorant hoard to overcome power and privilege. Our greatest export, after all, has always been the myth of American exceptionalism; convincing the world of our own manifest destiny with an aw-shucks humility and a gun to the head.

That this has become the basis for a political ideology in America is disheartening, if not ultimately damning. If so much of our society is in utter decay, the whole organism will eventually cease to be viable. The rot will surely spread and there seems to be an unreasonable amount of it to simply cut out.

Our system of government is self-feeding; so large and complex that no one person or organization can fully disrupt it. The genius of it therefore, is not that it is protected from corruption as we once possibly thought, and are undoubtedly taught, but that it’s so interconnected by power and money that it’s nearly impossible to bring down. Short of violent insurrection, which with the firepower that the state has at its disposal is laughably unlikely, nothing will keep the juggernaut from rolling forward without being crushed beneath the weight of its own momentum.

In the circus, the ringmaster was traditionally a man of substance, a gifted public speaker with the gravitas to direct our attention wherever he wanted. The clown was merely a jester, a ridiculous buffoon meant to be a distraction. He was never meant to be in charge. Once we let the clown wear the top hat, we were doomed. The lion was never really tamed and only controllable as long as it feared the whip. Once it understood that the whip was more fear than might, that it was all the lion tamer ever had, it was over. 

Donald Trump, the clown we finally allowed to run the circus, ripped the curtain in two, exposing the ugly machinations of America’s so-called democracy, while simultaneously releasing all the wild animals on the public, throwing peanuts to the crowd while setting fire to the tent.

The thing is, it was always a circus, we just thought it was a government because that’s what they told us it was when they made us pledge allegiance to the flag, sing the National anthem and watch Ford Truck commercials. But it was really just a show, with a host we elected every four years like we were voting for a contestant on American Idol. Sometimes we got Taylor Swift, and sometimes we got Taylor Hicks. The American public is fickle after all.

So here we are, trapped in a bad series of our own design. It’s a producer-driven, scripted reality show filled with a mix fictional characters, real life buffoons, crime lords, captains of industry, con artists, snake oil salesmen and true believers. 

Each season, the producers have to raise the bar on the antics or risk losing the attention of the mob, who will surely kill and eat them if that ever happens. It’s not Masterpiece Theater, but if you look at the catastrophe that is the United Kingdom right now, their royal family nor their class structure hasn’t helped them escape the terrors of populism either. But like rich people everywhere, they have learned to keep their moats full and the matches ready if they ever need to set them on fire. Worst case, they have always been able to afford their own armies, even in America.

I don’t have an answer on this one. It’s too big, too interconnected and involving an obscene amount of wealth to imagine it ever crashing down. They might fall eventually, but it will be us who breaks the fall. The rich will alway remain on top, and the rest of us will be crushed beneath the weight of it all.

There is part of me who thinks maybe it’s best to be like the Steve Buschemi character in the movie Armageddon, who wants nothing more than a spectacular view of the end of the world. Might as well just pull up a chair and pour yourself a cold one. The best you can do maybe is to make side bets on who gets it first, and hope you ride it out. You can change the channel if you want to, but they own the network so it really doesn’t matter. They own the show.

This is what happens when you start believing your own press. Whether it’s the actor who thinks he’s a god, the preacher who thinks he speaks for one, or the politician who doesn’t care as long as you let him rob the offering plate, we have finally come to the end credits and the show is over. We had the potential to be exceptional, we really did. But we wasted it on an American Dream of selfish piety and exceptional indulgence. 

What a strange way to go out.

Follow David Todd McCarty on Twitter @davidtmccarty and The Standard @capemaystandard

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