Watching all the arrivals for the funeral for George H. W. Bush on TV, there was a split second where I saw Al Gore talking with Dick Cheney. It was no big deal, and the camera found similar instances of supposed political enemies basically shooting the breeze. I’m not sure about other countries, but it’s not uncommon in the US to see former presidents hanging out together, even people who ran against each other—the late George Bush and Bill Clinton were pretty close, for instance.
Many of these moments—at least the ones that are now fodder for Twitter and cable news (I put Twitter first on purpose)—are clearly staged to some extent. But it’s also true that many of these kinds of meetings and friendships are genuine. Yet the cynicism of the 2016 election, and the mistrust of public figures and public spectacle that has been going on for decades, begs the question of what is going on here. How can Al Gore be talking to such an evil man as Dick Cheney, and how can Dick Cheney be talking to such liberal scum as Al Gore? Isn’t this the very kind of hypocrisy that normal people despise in politicians? And for those who aren’t talking and are just in the same room together, how can Donald Trump sit so close to Hillary Clinton without doing all he can to finally lock her up? Are these forms of public spectacle just the highest examples of the contradiction and insincerity that lies at the heart of political and social life, or are they examples of what civilization actually is, that people who disagree usually come together, and in some cases are friends?
It’s not hard to imagine the Alex Jones wing of the world saying it’s the former, drawing special attention to the Bush family conspiracies of which there are legion (even Netflix carries documentaries about it). And yet it’s also true that the “mainstream” media that I’m watching the Bush’s funeral on has also forgotten the criticism they once heaped on him, as well as his son. While accepting that politicians are nothing if not great actors, I would still suggest the actual insincerity and cheapness lies mostly with the media, from Alex Jones to MSNBC, or at least that it originates there, in places that basically spew elaborate versions of soundbites and memes, and which demand the cheapest and most divisive presentation of complex issues. No one in my lifetime anyway has had the ability to change how politicians and public figures are presented; at best, they are only the manipulators of the media landscape they live in. If anything, Donald Trump merely picked up what was already on the ground and used it better than anyone ever has, and it’s doubtful he would have been elected if the ways we communicate and receive the news wasn’t already so degraded.
That very degradation cannot deal with the complexity and the actual truth that these powerful people embody: that those with vastly different visions for how the world should work just might get along, and that outside of the kinds of rallies and invective the media encourages and the public seems to want, the truth is actually much quieter. So the real sadness of watching George H. W. Bush’s funeral is this: that while the politicians, supposedly the most insincere people in the world, realize the complexity of their positions, the public at large does not. In fact Donald Trump’s popularity seems rooted in the fact that he doesn’t realize this, either; his supporters seem to love him most because they think he is just like them.
Even more powerless than the politicians to change how we interact with others and the world, we regular citizens blindly accept the public theater as actual reality and have ended up despising one another, and quite literally rupturing any sense of wholeness, or a shared soul. Gore and Cheney can talk peacefully, while voters who admire one or the other are proud to hate each other. For my part, I’ve stopped believing that the right or the left can possibly be as idiotic, ignorant, childish, or brutal as the anecdotes that make it onto Twitter or Reddit or cable news claim to show. That is not who we actually are, and while I never thought I’d say such a thing, it’s taken politicians to show me this.