I have a busy mind, and I don’t do well with just keeping it idle. I don’t mean to make that sound super high brow. I have watched and read a lot of fluff in my life, whatever is available. So it’s in this spirit that I admit that I used to watch a lot of Real Housewives reality shows. (Well… “reality.”). Just about any city’s franchise would do. I used to know who was throwing a dinner party next week and whom the previews suggested might flip a table, or drunkenly flash something pretty private. I knew names and reunion show dates, and I’d sometimes schedule things around finales.
It seemed that it would always be this way. But then one day last June I started to hear buzz that the presidential election was gearing up, and I casually turned to CNN. I was hooked almost immediately.
I have always been a pretty careful presidential election watcher. My first memory of it is of watching the Carter/Reagan debate in 1980, when I was 10. I paid attention through my teens, watching Meet the Press and the other Sunday shows to inform myself. I read books and political magazines. The internet made that infinitely easier, with information consumed in chunks nearly any time of the day and night. Pretty equal opportunity in my media consumption (if not my political beliefs), I have read everything from The National Review to The New Yorker.
But CNN was easy. I still read tons, sure, but CNN was easy background, with its simple repetition and its adrenaline-fueling “Breaking News” hysteria. I had it on on mute most of the time, scanning its headlines and occasionally taking it off mute.
It gave me an interesting seat to events as they happened. Some were non-events, but still entertaining, like waiting for candidates’ planes to land with a live shot. Others were uplifting, inspiring rhetoric, like Michelle Obama’s speech in New Hampshire after the Access Hollywood footage broke. Others, like said footage, were a flaming dumpster fire I couldn’t ignore, hearing the ugly words played again and again for days.
I’m not sure when I realized that CNN had replaced all my idle TV watching time and I hadn’t watched Real Housewives for months. It was definitely during the primaries, somewhere between, “Look at that face,” and “Little Marco,” and it had definitely become an official thing by the time Trump assured us “Believe me, there’s no problem” about the size of his penis.
(Brief pause while I wait for the wave of nausea to pass as I remember that my beloved country’s president-elect has bragged about the size of his penis on live national television).
I knew the stakes were higher, of course, but I’m ashamed of how entertaining I found it. This is now the 10th presidential election I’ve paid attention to, but nothing beat it for sheer jaw-dropping moments, easily digested outrage and facile excuses to feel superior. I actually wished for Trump to get the nomination over Cruz and Kasich because it was so obvious that he could never win the whole thing.
I rejoiced, but felt it was a bit of overkill, when the “grab them by the pussy” tape was released. He had so clearly lost already, I thought it was unseemly to keep dragging the election down into the mud. He was an unskilled screenwriter’s cartoonish depiction of a despicable, horrible human being. He didn’t insult one group, but nearly all of them, didn’t say one or two things wrong, but came out with whopper after whopper, lie after lie, nasty comment after even nastier comment.
Much will be written about this low-fact Trumpian campaign style, this “barrel through and never apologize,” “attack facts as unreliable” misinformation campaign that would have made George Orwell cringe in fear. Big Brother, with its rewriting of history, would have had nothing on Donald Trump.
But I watched. I watched. I let it fill the Real Housewives slot in my brain, the easy answers, the cartoonish oversimplifications. Sure, I posted some articles on social media and commented when my friends did the same. Sure, I stayed informed. But what did I actually do when the biggest threat to our democracy and ideals unfolded before me, like a tractor trailer careening toward me in slo-mo? I pulled up a chair and got a tub of popcorn.
I am so ashamed.
On election night, I was far away from home. I’d dutifully voted by absentee ballot in my reliably blue state and so I felt covered. We went out to the fanciest restaurant in New Orleans that night, and I ate quail, placed in front of me perfectly synchronized to my dining companion’s filet mignon, one waiter for each of us presenting the plates with dramatic flourish. I sipped a double-digit-priced cocktail. For dessert I had an exquisite creme brulee that they finished preparing at my table for maximum luxurious effect. It was a celebratory night, the home stretch of an election that had been fun but which everyone was ready to have over. I told my travel companion that I’d check CNN on my phone on occasion so we could know when Florida, Pennsylvania and North Carolina got locked down, East Coast swing states all predicted to go for Clinton, and would effectively shut down any path Trump thought he might have. Then, we could linger as long as we wanted, looking out over the lush Lousiana garden made magical by well-placed uplighting outside the floor-to-ceiling windows of the old mansion that now doubles as a by-reservation-only upscale eatery.
We didn’t get those alerts – too early to call – but made our way to a TV eventually. As the night went on, signs of trouble. North Carolina lost and, eventually, Florida. Then, shockingly, trouble in Wisconsin and Michigan, two supposedly reliable blue states. I refreshed my phone in horror as the New York times website changed its prediction from a sure Clinton victory to a 70% chance of a Trump victory, then an 81% change then a 95%+. I grabbed screenshots and sent them to friends, who assured me that the New York Times had it wrong, that their website was buggy. I stayed up until nearly 3:00 a.m. being buffeted by wave after wave of bad news, numbers looking worse and worse, commentators seeming shell-shocked. I finally gave up in despair after hearing that Clinton had called Trump to concede and would address her supporters in the morning.
Although I went to bed late, I woke up after just a few hours of nightmares and couldn’t go back to sleep. Wednesday was devastating. Every time I felt some down time coming on, the reptilian part of my brain that seeks entertainment suggested, “Let’s turn on CNN.” Immediately on the heels of that, a deep feeling of rejection, like smelling a drink that made you throw up the night before. I have not turned on a television since.
Much soul searching and work will need to be done. Not just me but an entire nation will need to ask itself if we want to do it this way. If choosing the leader of our nation should be quite this gladiatorial. I will need to work through the shame of my shortsightedness. It wasn’t funny, and I didn’t see it until it was too late.