Vladimir Lenin, noted communist, once predicted the following about his economic rivals, “The capitalists will sell us the rope with which we hang them from.” When that line is quoted today it’s often done with derision, and understandably so. America won the Cold War, right? The world eats McDonald’s and not whatever the Russian equivalent is. Does Russia even have a fast food equivalent? What is Russian fast food? Who knows? Which is sort of the point. However, the spirit of what Lenin said remains true. There is a drive towards self-destruction inherent to capitalism, and while that instinct may have been suppressed sufficiently in the past, throughout the Industrial Age and the Information Age, that doesn’t mean it will be in the Age of Entertainment. What Lenin got wrong was this: America’s demise will not be at the hands of the Russians, but at our own, and the cause of death will not be by asphyxiation. Instead, we’re gluttons for punishment, willing to poison ourselves with the steady diet of dribble sold to us by content creators, the media, and our president.
The problem is much bigger than Trump. He’s merely a microcosm of the corrupt system at large. Much like the Trump Organization, the entertainment economy is a scam, a giant pyramid scheme. That’s why the Age of Entertainment poses such a formidable threat to capitalism, whereas the Industrial Age or the Information Age did not. For all the bright lights, an economy that runs on entertainment will short circuit. Movies, novels, and memes exist only to produce psychic pleasure for its consumers. Whenever entertainment is consumed there’s nothing of tangible value produced at the end of the exchange, no good or service that will fuel the next transaction. An economy can’t thrive in that environment. Entertainment can’t create enough value to offset the immense opportunity cost that’s incurred every time you dedicate a day to binge-watching Netflix. This wasn’t an issue that plagued the Industrial Age’s economy, which was anchored by the combustion engine, an innovation that lead to new sources of energy (oil), new means of production (factories), and new modes of transportation (cars), all factors that transformed an agrarian economy into an urban one. It touched all aspects of life in the same way the Internet has altered fundamental social and transactional experiences in the Information Age. By contrast, Entertainment never changes. There is no innovation. Sure, the delivery method of entertainment may change, from plays, to books, to movies, for example, but the essence of entertainment remains static. When all is said and done, there is no significant difference between reading Romeo and Juliet and watching Romeo and Juliet, as a rose by any other name smells as sweet.
Another issue with an entertainment economy is the worst ideas are often the most profitable. When the goal is to appeal to the masses, capitalistic-minded content creators aim for the lowest common denominator. In entertainment, there are two primary revenue streams that drive business, either the consumer is charged to view the material or a marketing team will pay a content creator for advertising rights. In both instances, the goal is to demand your attention. At its core, that’s what for-profit entertainment is, a battle for your mind, and it’s one that we, as humans, are not well equipped to fight. Our attention is easily attracted by cheap, flashy thrills. It’s why violence and sex sell so well. We’re also susceptible to the story, which is why we view all events during the Age of Entertainment through the prism of narrative. There are the good guys, the bad guys, and the three-act dramatic arc. Reality is fiction and fiction is reality, and we’re willing to suspend our collective disbelief in order to make sense of it all. This is why conspiracy theorists and grifters flourish today. They’re taking advantage of their audience, who have been conditioned to overlook plot holes, rely on deus ex machina, and expect happy endings.
Our addiction to entertainment and the moral hazard that content creators are faced with in today’s age are the reasons why Trump won in 2016 and it’s why he’ll win again in 2020. The siren call of capitalism is far too strong for the news media. As an industry dependent on clicks and views for revenue, it’s in their best interest to keep Trump as president. No one invites or invents the type of coverage that Trump does with his constant churn of characters and controversies. He’s an entertainment golden goose and it would be unreasonable to expect the news media to wring him for the sake of saving society. And, ultimately, that’s the crime of corrupt capitalism, you’re encouraged to look out for you stockholders more than your neighbors.
Donald Trump is the result of what happens when voters decided that tHe CoUnTrY ShOuLd Be RuN lIkE a BuIsSInEsS and look to the TV for an answer. They stared into the black mirror abyss and the black mirror abyss stared right back. What we got in Donald Trump was nothing more than an “As Seen on TV” snake oil salesman, whose only success in life is convincing people that he’s a successful businessman by hypnotizing them through a dizzying array of pop culture appearances in tabloids, talk shows, and reality television. For decades, he was always willing to pick up the call from central casting whenever they needed someone to play Wealthy Man #1. Eventually, America came to believe what they saw on TV, despite the fact his business record is checkered at best. Trump inherited his money, filed multiple bankruptcies, and engaged frequently and freely in unethical business deals. But, by the 2016 election, none of those mitigating factors were enough to pierce through the myth perpetuated by a cameo in Home Alone II.
Capitalist driven entertainment is as powerful as it is dangerous. But, in a plot twist, the moral of this story isn’t to say that either entertainment or capitalism is evil. They’re not. As America is the most powerful country in the world, capitalism’s virtues should be obvious, and entertainment can provide its consumers such benefits as amusement, comfort and, when elevated to art, empathy. That being said, entertainment shouldn’t be a culture or an economy’s guiding principle. But if we should follow any figure from entertainment then let it be Goldilocks for her fondness for the golden mean. Because, as with all things in life, balance is the solution and balance isn’t a turn towards stoicism or communism. There’s no need to jump the shark. To fight the fringe right, we shouldn’t empower the fringe left. But while the answer is easy, the execution will be hard. We’ll have to break our entertainment addiction because a call for moderation could hardly be considered thrilling, but it will yield a good return on investment.