Public performance and spectacle — rallies, speeches, news conferences — are as inherent to politics as they are to sports. Our two major political parties even hold their national conventions in giant sports arenas. And in politics, just as in sports, a tremendous amount of behind-the-scenes work is involved in making the spectacle possible. Before the senator’s dramatic floor speech, the bill must be drafted; the convention pageantry is typically preceded by the monthslong slog of drawing up a party platform. The public performance of politics is secondary to — and at the service of — the behind-the-scenes work, because the behind-the-scenes work is, in effect, the actual operation of government.
But in the last half decade, American politics has increasingly been dominated by its performative, under-the-lights aspects. Part of the appeal of Donald Trump’s 2016 candidacy was precisely that he wasn’t a career politician, that he hadn’t put in the work. Perhaps if he had been a different type of businessman, he and his staff might have been willing to grind behind the scenes once he reached the White House. Instead, governing took a back seat to performing. At the outset of the pandemic, for instance, Trump summoned reporters to the Rose Garden, where he crowed that Google had a vast team of engineers whipping up a website that Americans could use to sort out if and where they should be tested for the coronavirus. Google must have been surprised to hear this; the reality was that a subsidiary of its parent company was starting a testing program, beginning in the Bay Area, that would ultimately facilitate less than 1 percent of tests in the country last year. Even heavily promoted initiatives central to the MAGA agenda, like rolling back regulations on power plants or adding a citizenship question to the census, were so sloppily executed that courts ultimately overturned them on procedural grounds.
Public performance and spectacle are as inherent to politics as they are to sports.
How George Floyd Died
- On May 25, 2020, Minneapolis police officers arrested George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, after a convenience store clerk claimed he used a counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes.
- Mr. Floyd died after Derek Chauvin, one of the police officers, handcuffed him and pinned him to the ground with a knee, an episode that was captured on video.
What Happened to Derek Chauvin
- Mr. Chauvin was fired from the Minneapolis police force, along with three other officers. He has been charged with both second- and third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. He now faces trial. Opening statements are scheduled for March 29.
- Here is what we know up to this point in the case, and how the trial is expected to unfold.
How Floyd’s Death Ignited a Movement
This limelight-obsessed approach to politics extends far beyond Trump. Shortly after being sworn in in January, Representative Madison Cawthorn, a freshman from North Carolina, wrote an email to his Republican colleagues, obtained by Time magazine, boasting that he had “built my staff around comms rather than legislation.” In other words, his office planned to focus its energies not on lawmaking but on getting Cawthorn on TV to fire up the base. (This is not an irrational plan: Contemporary politics is so focused on the culture war that Cawthorn will most likely accrue more clout railing about Democrats’ trying to turn the country “into a Communist ash heap” than by sweating the details of legislation to, say, help small-business owners.) In February, as Texas suffered through days of blackouts that have been widely attributed to a failure to winterize its power systems, Gov. Greg Abbott appeared on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show to try to score political points by falsely blaming clean energy: “This shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America,” he said, while some of his state’s residents were literally freezing to death.
During Joe Biden’s short time in office, he has been praised for focusing more on governing and less on entertaining. His aides advertise his diligence, catering to a post-Trump public desire for bureaucratic competence. “Joe Biden is the president — he’s not a pundit,” the press secretary, Jen Psaki, told reporters in February, noting that Biden would not be watching or opining on Trump’s second impeachment trial. Not staring at cable news all day and spouting off on Twitter, however, is an extremely low bar by which to measure a president. The “under-promise/over-deliver strategy” is “working well for President Biden so far,” as the CNN White House correspondent John Harwood wrote on Twitter — but perhaps the reason Biden can afford to under-promise in the first place is that Americans have come to expect so little.