There was a long running network TV series called Scandal that I just learned about. Netflix has its many, many episodes, available for on-line viewing and I’ve been watching it. It is a non-partisan, though highly charged, political soap opera and very, very engaging. Well-acted by a fine ensemble cast, led by a charismatic and beautiful protagonist, the story churns along irresistibly in the page turner, cliff-hanger fashion my mother and grandmother used to love about the soaps they watched. The over-the-top heroics of the superstar main character, a character who will boldly gamble everything and never lose, are the stuff of comic books.
The show is to real political insight what a bag of potato chips is to a complete and healthy diet. And, anyway, political insight might as well be a dead language as far as the culture is concerned, it is, at best, a vestige of a time when there was actual debate on issues, prior to our age of media-driven partisan branding. That said, and needing the distraction, I’ve had a hard time staying off the tasty visual junk food of Scandal in recent days (when internet service permits).
I had a series of unsettling thoughts about real-life political events as I compulsively watched this show about a Washington D.C. fixer, Olivia Pope, a flawed genius played by a beautiful actress with a remarkable talent for evoking sympathy. This beautiful fixer simply will not lose. Is she perfect? Hah! Far from it, she’s got a closet full of painful skeletons that would immobilize most people. Yet she bravely fights a series of obscenely powerful monsters, and against all odds, and her self-doubts, manages to spin a just, happy ending to her immediate criss in every episode.
The unsettling thoughts while I watch the show involve what are now called “optics”, Olivia Pope’s stock-in-trade: getting out in front of the story and spinning it, from multiple, completely different angles, if necessary, using whatever leverage comes to hand to have things come out her client’s way. It turns out, if you are wealthy, smart, (not to mention beautiful), have personal connections to everybody of any importance in D.C., there are always strings you can pull to have the story told in the light most beneficial to what you need.
I had the thought, watching the fictional president’s chief of staff hire someone to commit murder, the president himself kill a retired Supreme Court justice on her deathbed, Olivia’s own staff occasionally doing a little minor torture and killing, and having everything come out OK, due to the genius of Olivia Pope and Associates, that Trump must have loved this show. If you are a true born superstar, there are no consequences, they let you do it, they let you do it! I could picture him watching it every week, taking in another personal lesson about how the game is played– like that aha! moment when Olivia suddenly realizes that she can keep her private boutique fixer firm running and more profitable than ever, even as she is poised to become First Lady in Season Five.
On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine Trump watching a show where a woman is the star, the indomitable protagonist. Who knows, though? I’m sure he would love it, if he could get over that. What I am absolutely certain about is that this show had to have been a favorite of many of the young wannabes who wound up working for the great man’s campaign, which is still in full swing. Trump, don’t forget, prefers campaigning to anything else related to the presidency. An adoring crowd is what keeps him moving indomitably forward. He declared his candidacy for 2020 very soon after taking office in January 2017. My man.
Not that the show invented any of the gambits it relies on week after week, the very ones used daily by Trump and Associates in our real, post-factual world of fake news and very fine Klansmen and Nazis. It goes, almost without saying, that if you, like the fictional Olivia Pope, have the CEO of every mass media company on speed dial, and have filthy kompromat on several of them, it is not a big deal to get them to delay a headline until you can publicly change the story enough to give the appearance of exonerating your client, or making allegations disappear. How a story is reported is the difference between a guilty verdict and a widespread public pronouncement of “nothing to see here.”
Joe Arpaio, America’s Sheriff, the fellow who boasted about his private open-air Auschwitz there in the relentlessly hot, arid Arizona desert. Roasting small time criminals in inhuman outdoor prison camp conditions while humiliating them? Law and Order, motherfucker. That’s one view of the man, from his supporters. Another way to see Arpaio is as an unrepentant racial profiler who essentially told a federal judge to shut the fuck up if you feel there’s a problem with the way I do my elected duties. He was found in contempt of court for disobeying the court’s rulings against him and his extremist policing practices.
President Trump immediately pardoned Arpiao, which Sheriff Joe was later surprised to learn was tantamount to admitting he was guilty as charged (the precondition for accepting a pardon, apparently. Who knew?) The important thing, optically, was how the president demonstrated his loyalty to polarizing high profile contemnors (a person or entity who is guilty of contempt before a judicial or legislative body) like Arpaio. Let that be a lesson to all you whining bitches and would be snitches!
The discussion should always, of course, be about what actually happened, who was actually wronged, what the decent result is, what just laws should require. That, of course, is not how the game is played in a world run by advertising spin and the tsunami of dollars it generates.
President, ten years before he runs for office, has consensual sex with a porn actress, his own business. Does it make him a saint, doing this shortly after his youngest son is born? No. But nothing to see here, you know? Except that days before the election he has somebody, a bumbling “fixer” who thinks of himself as fictional macho man Ray Donovan (who, spoiler alert, commits suicide from PTSD after years of an unsupportably violent life) pay the porn actress to dummy up. Now, if everybody abides by the ironclad non-disclosure agreement, there is truly nothing to see here. But, whoa! This porn actress with the big fake breasts has suddenly hired a lawyer! An aggressive and smart one who loves the TV cameras. They both quickly become media superstars in the real life soap opera that is the genius of reality TV’s presidency.
America’s embattled CEO brings in a one time star of the American Law and Order (yeah, you heard that, you people) Right: former federal prosecutor and one-time America’s Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani is so excited to finally be in the president’s inner circle that he can’t help but make the rounds of the talk shows. On those shows he comes off as demented, or possibly drunk, as he points out that, in spite of the president’s own claims to the contrary, obviously, the president reimbursed his lawyer for paying off the woman he fucked ten years earlier, and of course he knew very well what he was paying him for, that’s why they signed the non-disclosure agreement. The fact is, these women are… well, that one is a porn star! I rest my case, even as I can’t get my eyes to stop bugging out of my head or my eyebrows from wildly shooting upwards. As a matter of plain fact, the president could have any woman in the world, every woman, they let him, they let him do it. He probably has, muses Rudy, his eyes wild, probably has fucked all of them. There could be fifty more nondisclosure agreements out there, who knows? Who cares? Next question? Should we bomb the fuck out of Iran? Absolutely. And that’s not just my opinion, ask John Bolton!
Giuliani, the president reminds everybody after Rudy’s alarming talk show appearances, is still “getting up to speed”, meaning he doesn’t have the agreed on public narrative down yet. The president expresses great confidence in Giuliani, who will get the story straight after enough briefings with the people who run the president’s spin department. Trump often expresses great confidence in people right before he has one of his surrogates fire them for not having the sense to dummy up when it’s time and stay out of the megalomaniacal reality TV superstar president’s spotlight.
Optics, everything in our pay to play media world is all, or largely, a matter of optics. Olivia Pope, the superstar political fixer, broods about an unfixable mess, there is truly no way out, even the dumbest member of the audience can see this. Then, out of the blue, inspiration, the stroke of genius. It will mean throwing this person under the bus, the torture and/or death of these couple of arguably evil fucks, blackmailing that one, a good and decent man, but it is doable. The main thing is to win.
As the episode ends, although Olivia is now in great danger from an enemy from Season Three, back from the dead, she modestly takes her bows. Then, finally alone in her apartment, she flashes that expression that shows how supremely, critically, helplessly vulnerable she really is. A beautiful, hurt little girl with self-admitted Daddy Issues (her father is “command” a mass murdering rogue intelligence officer played with great nuance by Joe Morton) aching deep inside but doing the best she can. Doing the best she can!!!