Family Feud Nation
“I hate to do this, because it’s so pathetic, it takes us so far down, but it’s really necessary to ask you, dear reader, after you read [Eisenhower’s memoir] Crusade in Europe, to pick up a copy of, oh, let’s say The Art of the Deal, by Donald Trump, and see what it is he’s recommending you bring with you to your next meeting. I’m not betting on you—as against the Chinese, the Indonesians, or the Dutch—at your next really important business meeting if all you’re going to that meeting with is what Donald Trump is recommending.”
George W.S. Trow, “My Pilgrim’s Progress,” 1998
I came across this passage last week, just as Pres. Trump was talking to the press about his upcoming meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in Singapore. In one breath Trump said he was well-prepared for that meeting and in the next he said he didn’t need to prepare much: “It’s about attitude,” he said. Then he flew to the G-7 Summit, where he insulted our allies, demanded Russian re-entry, and continued to gin up a trade war that could bring about global economic collapse.
So the passage seems a little relevant.
Why was I re-reading my George W.S. Trow? Because of standup comic John Mulaney, of course. Together, the two of them explain Trump better than just about anyone.
I was late to the John Mulaney party but I’ve been aware of him for a while. He was the “Saturday Night Live” writer who made Bill Hader laugh, right? He was young and handsome and looked like he should’ve been on the show—or some show. He looked like he should’ve been on “Mad Men.” I could see him playing the up-and-coming ad exec with the hip ideas who’d take a run at Don Draper—for an episode—until Don came up with the slogan that won the day and beat him back. That’s how I thought of Mulaney.
Then he hosted “SNL” in April and blew me away. You should watch his opening monologue if you haven’t. It’s topical, funny, unique. But you know what really won me over? The gazebo bit. Mulaney talks about visiting Connecticut and seeing a gazebo that was dedicated in 1863, and before he gets to the joke, this was my immediate thought: “Huh. Right in the middle of the Civil War.”
And that’s the joke.
Mulaney imagines the scene with a Prof. Harold Hill-type charlatan selling town leaders—who have just read off their Gettysburg war dead—on this “gazebo” concept. It’s a good bit, but more, I immediately felt I’d found a kindred spirit: someone who paid attention to the chronology of things.
Our culture generally doesn’t do chronology. It shamefully doesn’t. Movies often pretend that, say, the hairstyles of 1963 are interchangeable with the hairstyles of 1967, when they’re so, so not; when how those hairstyles changed is actually the story, and, to ignore it is to completely fuck up the story. Google does this, too. They make it next-to-impossible to track the course of human events—or even the day’s events. They don’t care about chronology or originality or ownership. Search for an article and you can get 10 articles commenting on your article before you get the original. There should be uproar over this. It’s partly why we are where we are.
Anyway, after finding this kindred spirit in John Mulaney, I did the usual deep dive into YouTube for all of his back clips. And I came across three different jokes Mulaney told about Trump at three different points in Trump’s career. Here are the basics of each:
- 2007: Trump isn’t a rich man; he’s what a hobo imagines a rich man to be: “Oh, as soon as my number comes in, I’m gonna put up tall buildings with my name on ‘em, I’ll have fine, golden hair, and a TV show where I fire Gene Simmons...”
- 2015: Trump isn’t good at running for president, he’s just good at “Family Feud.” “And these other people are terrible at ‘Family Feud.’ So when the Steve Harvey of this election is like, ‘Name something that is bothering Americans,’ and Ted Cruz is like [buzzes in] ‘Benghazi!’ BAWWWP! But then Trump is like [buzzes in]: ‘All the problems.’ And that’s the number one answer.”
- 2018: Trump is a horse loose in a hospital. “I think everything is going to be OK but I have no idea what’s going to happen next.”
The most recent one, as good as it is, merely explains our current precarious situation; it doesn’t explain the how of it. The other two explain the how of it. And it was the second one, the “Family Feud” reference, that led me back to Trow.
* * *
I’ve written about Trow before. He’s the brilliant cultural critic and New Yorker writer who is best known for his 1980 seminal essay, “Within the Context of No Context.” It’s an easy, tough read. Trow uses mostly short sentences, in mostly short sections, to delineate extremely complex matters. His basic argument is that TV killed history and replaced it with demographics, and anyone who grew up on TV won’t know what they need to know to be a real person in the real world. They’ll know something else. Something lesser. Something essentially meaningless.
Even in the late ’70s, Trow writes, TV was already beginning to reflect back this meaninglessness to us. It was out of necessity. If people didn’t know what they needed to know, what could the shows be about? What could the game shows be about? Maybe that meaninglessness? And here he nails it—35 years before Mulaney:
The important moment in the history of television was the moment when a man named Richard Dawson, the “host” of a program called Family Feud, asked contestants to guess what a poll of a hundred people had guessed would be the height of the average American woman. Guess what they’ve guessed. Guess what they’ve guessed the average is.
It is astonishing when you unpack it. The answer isn’t based on a statistical fact which exists—the height of the average American woman—but what others think that statistical fact is. You could be right (as to the stat), but still be wrong (if others were similarly misinformed).
“No reality whatsoever,” Trow writes. “No fact anywhere in sight. That’s real privilege, of course. When you are rewarded for knowing what your fellow citizens are likely to say their delusions are.”
When you are rewarded for knowing what your fellow citizens are likely to say their delusions are. Does any sentence better describe the Trump phenomenon? This is exactly what he does. This non-knowledge. A hundred people surveyed, top seven answers on the board, name America’s traditional enemy. Russia? BAWWWP. Canada? Ding! Name how many people saw Trump’s inauguration. Lots. More than Obama’s. Name seven things that are ruining America. Mexicans. Muslims. Free trade. Football players taking a knee. Whatever I say. Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding!
The reward for knowing the delusions of your fellow citizens used to be cash and prizes; now it’s the White House. Now you get to be the most powerful man in the history of the world.
* * *
In “My Pilgrim’s Progress,” Trow’s 1999 follow-up to “Within the Context of No Context,” from which the quote that begins this post was taken, Trow lionizes three leaders: Churchill, FDR and Eisenhower. Particularly Eisenhower. He says he doesn’t just like Ike, he loves him. “I think he’s uniquely American,” he writes, “and I’m sorry we’re not going to have him anymore.” He’s not talking about not having Eisenhower physically—Ike died in 1969—but as a type: someone formed before history turned into demography; someone who possessed not marketing considerations but what Trow calls “judgment with a capital J.”
To get a sense of what this is, Trow recommends Ike’s wartime memoir, Crusade in Europe. He thinks that book would help anyone—a businessman going into an international business meeting, for example. He keeps addressing this imaginary business person who might be helped by such thinking. He spends a chapter, for example, detailing the knowledge and judgment that Ike brought with him to a summit with Nikita Khrushchev in Geneva in 1955, which is, Trow argues, why Ike succeeded at the summit: all that preparation.
Then he offers up the negative version of this.
“My Pilgrim’s Progress” was published in 1999 so there’s no political animus involved. But think about what Trow is saying: Ike’s thoughts about war are more helpful in business negotiations than Trump’s book about business negotiations. If all you know is Trump, you hurt yourself in a low-level business meeting—never mind international summits with communist dictators. Trow needed a negative example of the sound judgment of Ike, the 34th president of the United States, and out of all the possible people in the world he plucked the one that we, 18 years later, in all of our “Family Feud” wisdom, elected the 45th president of the United States. And now we‘re sending him into international summits with communist dictators. For which he doesn’t prepare.
Trow was right: It is pathetic. It takes us so far down.