Imagine, for a moment, stepping out of our time and place — drifting back to a past century, perhaps, or encountering an alien anthropologist eager to understand something about early 21st-century life in the most powerful nation on Earth — and having to explain Les Moonves' severance package.
For over a decade Moonves has been paid tens of millions of dollars a year for his contribution, as CEO of CBS Corporation, to entertaining the American masses. That's made Moonves a very rich man. Now he's been credibly accused — by a dozen women — of sexual misconduct. That got him fired. But his contract stipulates that, pending the results of an internal CBS investigation, he will walk away with as much as $120 million extra, as a kind of parting gift, for his troubles. Because capitalism. And freedom. Or something.
Welcome to America in 2018, a veritable carnival of injustices, outrages, absurdities, provocations, and stupidities. It would be good for a laugh if it weren't our country and our culture that's locked in a never-ending downward spiral. But it is. So we respond, instead, with anger and anxiety. Or we self-medicate with alcohol, anti-depressants, opioids, and pot (now increasingly legal, because why deny Americans yet another way to withdraw from the world into artificially induced contentment?). Or we plunge head-first into the digital unreality that beckons us through our phones 24 hours a day.
It's tempting to trace our problems back to our singularly awful president, and a lot of people do. Who can blame them? To pick one example among thousands — and one that, like all the others, will be forgotten a day from now — on Monday morning President Trump tweeted
The GDP Rate (4.2%) is higher than the Unemployment Rate (3.9%) for the first time in over 100 years!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 10, 2018
As any number of people pointed out within minutes, this is a blatant, unambiguous, undeniable lie that can be easily and quickly disproven. (GDP has exceeded the unemployment rate in literally dozens of quarters over the past century.) Yet Trump announced it knowing his base of rabid supporters would believe it and instinctively dismiss anyone who denied it.
According to the anonymous author of the "resistance" op-ed in The New York Times, senior members ("unsung heroes") of the Trump administration regularly act to prevent this lying, ignorant, impetuous president from getting his way on policy. However necessary this might be to avoid a catastrophe, it's still coupish behavior and not at all the way government is supposed to be conducted at the highest levels — with unelected and unaccountable appointees and staffers overruling and countermanding the wishes of the man who prevailed in a democratic election.
But even if it's lamentably necessary in the current outlandish circumstances, what's not at all necessary is for those undertaking these dubiously constitutional actions to brag about it in the pages of a newspaper or in interviews with a journalist writing a juicy would-be bestselling compendium of political gossip. Yet that's precisely what lots of people did — talking at length to Bob Woodward, and penning that op-ed, which some agents speculate could land its author a seven-figure book advance.
And that's why, although Trump may be close to the core of our problems, he's hardly the cause of them. In the hyperbolic, cybernetic swirl that passes for our culture — really more like an anti-culture — publicity, notoriety, self-promotion, gushing approval, acidic outrage, and the shameless pursuit of profit build off of and augment each other in an endless cycle. That's how Trump's decision to launch a presidential campaign as an exercise in brand enhancement ended up with him in the Oval Office and ambulance chaser Michael Avenatti testing the waters for a presidential run of his own. Because, really, why shouldn't the guy hired to defend the porn star against the scumbag in the White House, who had an affair with her shortly after his wife gave birth to their son, get a shot to parlay his fame and facility with hurling insults on Twitter into a chance to become the next president of the United States?
If you think it's ridiculous to suggest that Avenatti could run for president and win, I wonder just where you've been hiding yourself these past three years. Just a few weeks ago, he showed up at a summer meeting of the Democratic Party in Chicago and was greeted enthusiastically, with numerous attendees referring to him as "Hottie Avenatti." ("I wouldn't not f--k him," said another.) I'm not saying it's likely. But what exactly is it that would stand in his way? What norms? What standards? What guardrails would protect us from Stormy Daniels' lawyer leapfrogging over the heads of the two dozen standard-issue Democrats who'll be clamoring for the honor of going up against President Trump in 2020?
The answer, dear reader, is none. There are no norms, standards, or guardrails to speak of anymore. Not even on the Senate Judiciary Committee, where some of those standard-issue Democrats spent last week saying and doing anything they could, no matter how nonsensical, to convince angry members of their party that they really, really, really don't like Brett Kavanaugh, Donald Trump's very mainstream-conservative nominee to succeed Justice Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court. It was an impressive show, but as with so much else in our public life these days, it was only a show, since everybody in the room was well aware that the Democrats can do nothing to stand in the way of confirming Kavanaugh. So we were left with a pantomime of genuine, effective opposition.
That's the way it goes now. And don't get any bright ideas about withdrawing from the ignoble spectacle of American politics into a seminary — since you might well end up assaulted by the priest running the place and then have to endure, over the following decades, watching him ascend the Catholic hierarchy as he's repeatedly promoted, even after you've reported him to his superiors.
Even religious institutions are no refuge from the degradations and depravities of our time, which permeate everything, from top to bottom. Including the conviction that it's possible to uphold the distinction between top and bottom.
For us it's all bottom, all the way down.