Donald Trump, Indian news channels and Bollywood: Notes on watching people say obnoxious things loudly
The job of the American president is not to entertain the world; he is not meant to be a clown. Similarly, and at a far smaller level of impact, it is not the job of TV news channels to keep viewers engrossed in the drama of what are essentially reality TV shows.
Joining the Dots is a fortnightly column by author and journalist Samrat in which he connects events to ideas, often through analysis, but occasionally through satire
It’s the biggest gathering of Bollywood stars since the closing credits of Om Shanti Om. Film production houses representing Salman Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan, Anoushka Sharma, Zoya Akhtar, Akshay Kumar, Ajay Devgn, Karan Johar, Aditya Chopra, Anil Kapoor, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, Vishal Bhardwaj, Ashutosh Gowarikar and a whole lot of others including industry four associations representing those who work behind the scenes have sued Arnab Goswami’s Republic TV and Times Now headed by Rahul Shivshankar and Navika Kumar for their repeated insults to Bollywood, spread over months, that followed the death by apparent suicide of actor Sushant Singh Rajput.
On the other side of the world, United States elections are just days away, and President Donald Trump, who managed to get COVID and recover from it, is now trailing badly in all major polls by significant margins. His chances of re-election appear dim at the moment, although it’s not over until he’s vacated the White House, which as a real estate man he would be loath to do. He is certainly finding endorsement from unusual quarters. The Taliban have expressed the hope that he will win. North Korea, whose leader Kim Jong Un he had called Rocket Man – Kim called him a “mentally deranged US dotard” in return, sending half of America scurrying to find the meaning of dotard – has lately extolled the “mysterious, wonderful” chemistry between the two and called Democratic candidate Joe Biden a “rabid dog” whose candidacy is “enough to make a cat laugh”.
The common feature that linked, and still links, the dramatis personae involved in these very disparate matters is entertainment, and what people find entertaining. I know several people including, sadly, my own father, who regularly watched overheated “news debates” on TV for entertainment. Some of them found it funny. One quite senior print journalist friend had the curious habit of going home from work after midnight and watching a bit of Republic TV while having his nightcap to “relax” and have a few good laughs before bed. Others just liked getting their adrenalin up with minimal effort – a way of doing cardio without going to the gym, although if one took it too seriously heart attack or stroke were distinct possibilities.
Trump had a similar appeal. He was funny, a clownish character with strange hair and the most outrageous of lines. During his 2016 election campaign he made statements no one had ever heard or imagined a US presidential candidate would utter. He blew his own trumpet while saying things like “I would build a great wall, and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me, and I’ll build them very inexpensively, I will build a great, great wall on our southern border. And I will have Mexico pay for that wall”.
His particular style became such a rage that a whole host of viral videos popped up in response to his “America First” slogan, with comedians in country after country making parodies of people talking like Trump, and asking if their country could be second. Board games were created that had cards with his most bizarre statements printed on them, which were mixed in with other bizarre statements that he didn’t actually make. The game is to guess which ones are real, authentic Trump quotes… and it’s a very difficult quiz. I know. I’ve played it, and lost. I mean, who’d have guessed that the guy actually compared gay marriage to… golf?
The lure of Trump, who made his mark as a reality TV star, and of news channels in India that have become reality TV channels in all but name, are similar. The characteristics that propelled Trump and star anchors like Goswami are loudness, rudeness, an infinite capacity for making outrageous statements, and a blithe disregard for the possible impacts of their words on the lives of others. These qualities were obviously attractive to a lot of people. A general feeling of being suffocated by an excess of political correctness had spread around the world, and many people seemed to relish the spectacle of that which could not be said being screamed out loud.
The amusement has now worn thin. It’s like watching the same circus routine day after day for years. At first, it might be new and fun but after a while it loses its novelty. At the same time, the harm being done has become stark. The job of the American president is not to entertain the world; he is not meant to be a clown. He is meant to provide responsible leadership to his country, which happens to be a superpower, in a way that is beneficial for Americans and the world. Similarly, and at a far smaller level of impact, it is not the job of TV news channels to keep viewers engrossed in the drama of what are essentially reality TV shows. Their primary job is to accurately inform viewers about what is going on in the country and the world, in a manner that generates more light than heat.
Americans and Indians are now collectively paying a heavy price for all the “free” entertainment. America leads the world in the number of COVID-19 cases, with India at second. China, where the pandemic started, has a larger population than both these countries. It is also less developed, even now, than USA. However, it managed to get the situation under control long ago. Meanwhile, America’s standing in the world has diminished faster in the last four years than in any comparable span of time in living memory. Trump made it to the White House in the name of Making America Great Again, but did nothing of the sort. The country is ailing and more divided than at any time since the Civil War. His last roll of the dice now is religion; he’s busy playing the Catholic card.
In India too, it was people wrapping themselves in the flag and claiming to represent a religion who pushed it into the hole it is now in. They, too, divided the country in pursuit of television ratings or electoral gain, all the while making loud noises about Making India Great Again. The country and its people have arguably not been in more dire straits at any time since Independence, although you might not realise this if you get your news from certain channels. Therefore, we must thank our stars, the ones in Bollywood, for finally coming to the nation’s rescue by taking a step that might correct this. Their case could put a stop to the culture of divisive reality TV dramas masquerading as news. Those dramas contributed to an overall culture of faux patriotism becoming the first refuge of many a scoundrel, while the actual things that improve the strength and health of the country – such as healthy institutions, which are the organs of the state, and a robust economy, which is its lifeblood – went into decline.
Hopefully, the US elections and the case by Bollywood will herald a turnaround, to a world where reality TV programming does not spill over into the US presidency, or the day’s news. Those who enjoy such entertainment are welcome to it – just watch old episodes of The Apprentice, or the next season of Big Boss. COVID deaths and economic ruin are not worth whatever joys anyone might derive from watching people say obnoxious things loudly.
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