The US presidential elections have the feel of the popular talent competition, America’s Got Talent (AGT).
Like the reality TV show, they are entertaining, emotional and highly competitive, and focus exclusively on the candidates’ talent and character or lack thereof, rather than anything that resembles political substance or agenda.
This is reinforced by the mainstream media’s “horse race journalism”, focusing mainly on the odds, through daily broadcasts of polls throughout.
The elections not only provide cost-free content for corporate media, but the windfall from campaign advertising makes it ever more profitable to treat them like a reality TV drama.
Today, the elections and their coverage are centred almost exclusively on whether Donald Trump or Joe Biden has the character, talent or experience to lead the country in trying times.
Trump insists that it all boils down to leadership, where “talent is more important than experience”.
He reckons, the choice could not be easier between himself, the strong and “stable genius”, and the “weak” and “cognitively challenged” Biden.
And so, in their efforts to anoint Trump the next president/king, the Republicans adopted an elephant and a crown as their 2020 convention logo.
However, it was Biden who had to go through the nomination’s loops and hoops, where like AGT, the gruelling primaries start with smaller auditions on the state level before going national.
While Trump was watching TV or playing golf, Biden was running a serious campaign against 28 other contestants/candidates, the largest number of nominees in recent memory.
And he was able to pull ahead early on, thanks in no small part to his coalition-building and connections within the Democratic Party.
Behind the scenes, party apparatchiks, consultants, and their financial backers, like the judges and producers of AGT, play a major role in vetting the candidates during the primaries, which make up the longest commercial reality TV show on television.
They decide on the schedule, makeup and shape of the highly produced debates and public appearances, where performances are scripted and practised well in advance to draw the loudest applause.
And like AGT, even emotions during the primaries seem rehearsed, packaged and edited for national audiences, to optimise support and participation.
Likewise, the dramatic spotlights on supportive family members beaming and cheering emotionally from the centre or edges of the stage are AGT par excellence.
But this year’s pandemic has disrupted much of the drama during the second half of the election process, frustrating Trump, who has been eager to “get the show back on the road” to catch up with Biden in the polls.
Even the parties’ conventions, which usually promise excitement before the elections, fell flat because of the absence of live-audiences shouting and cheering.
This was especially true for the populist Republicans, who attempted some bizarre stunts to manufacture drama by screaming and yelling at an audience of none.
The gimmickry and trickery reached a new low with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivering a speech from Jerusalem, trading Palestinian rights for evangelical votes for Trump.
Show me the talent
Whether live or virtual, entertaining or boring, the elections now depend on two old men with big egos and small talents of the required kind.
It is indeed tragic that the contest to choose the next leader of the world’s leading democracy is now between two septuagenarians, who espouse no fresh vision for America and its role in the world.
In fact, one is pressed to recall a single original idea, or even a memorable quote uttered by either man during their long careers.
Worse, Trump is unable to speak in full sentences or even read properly from a prepared script on a prompter. And the many who believe that Biden suffers from dementia are only looking for him to stumble on the next sentence.
But whatever the Republican and the Democrat lack in vision, speech and inspiration, they made up for in venom and indignation.
So instead of building themselves up, they have torn each other and the country apart.
Trump called Biden mentally unfit and anti-God, and Biden returned the favour, labelling Trump a racist and a fool.
Trump has inflamed the spirits of and appeals to the “demons of America’s worse nature”, while Biden has calmed the souls of and appeals to “the angels of its better nature”.
Trump has cultivated an image of an aggressive, uncompromising warrior who will fight for his base come what may, while Biden nurtured the image of a caring, compassionate leader who heals wounds and restores dignity to the White House and respect to America.
Biden’s message seems to resonate more, for now. But America may still embrace the warrior over the therapist.
Either way, the decisive votes will be those against a candidate rather than for a candidate, which does not inspire much confidence whoever wins.
All of which makes one wonder why a country as remarkable as the United States, which produces the most talented artists, writers, scientists, innovators and entrepreneurs, ends up with two old, uninspiring leaders.
Politics as showmanship
Many claim the establishment elites and oligarchs have rigged the entire political system through undue influence and big money.
And there is a lot of truth to that.
But there is another crucial factor that has shaped these and the last elections.
The rise of populism in America, and in Western democracies in general, has opened the door for demagogy, disruption and showmanship in the person of Donald Trump.
His unparalleled talent for political and personal spin gives him an edge over Biden as it did over Clinton.
He has already succeeded during the past year in making the presidency and the party, and to some degree the country, all about him.
Indeed, the talented Mr Trump has turned his entire tenure as president into a long and determined campaign to win the next election.
And it is why Trump, who is behind in the polls, is already going far and wide to discredit the elections, threatening to reject an unfavourable outcome.
This promises to turn the elections from an entertaining show into a chaotic nightmare.
If Biden’s victory is anything less than sweeping, America may end up weeping well after the show.