It wasn’t a joke, a spoof, a scene in a film. It was one of yesterday’s crawls: Russia unveils new nuclear missile called the Satan 2.
This is the world we live in.
Another weapon of mass destruction, which speaks to nuclear proliferation, which defies arms agreements, which will only escalate the tension between the U.S. and Russia, which impacts the world since the world, at least for now, lives and dies by these two superpowers, which highlights the bottom-line heart-of darkness within mankind, didn’t even make headline news.
It was the crawl.
Perhaps more disturbing, and more comical in a Dr. Strangelove how-the-hell-did-we-get-here way, is the missile’s moniker. The missile’s real name is the Sarmat Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, a horrifying noun that should give us serious pause.
The missile’s nickname, "Satan 2," is almost laughable, cartoonish, conjuring exaggerated devils with long-reaching (intercontinental) talons and the kind of explosions that happen in apocalyptic blockbusters produced for mid-summer viewing.
Hollywood. Comical. Cartoonish. That’s what current events have become, pared down (not drilled down, the cartoon-word of the season) for easy digestion.
The real names of our two presidential candidates are Hillary Rodham Clinton and Donald John Trump. But what started during last summer’s TV viewing (when the Republicans kicked off their series of debates) was the cartoon-ization of our political process.
Trump is partially responsible for this dumbing down.
Instead of talking issues, he went after his rivals the way a junior-high kid, sitting safely in the back of the room, mocks his peers — Trump relegated Marco Rubio to "Little Marco," branded Ted Cruz "Lyin’ Ted," and permanently scarred Jeb Bush as a man too tired to become president.
But Trump isn’t solely responsible for making cartoons of flesh-and-blood men and women. The media incessantly covers the flaws of each candidate, replaying the gaffes, exposing the dirt, looking (because that’s what generates buzz — a cartoon-sounding word) to put each political candidate in the harshest light.
That’s fair to a degree, that’s what hard-hitting journalists should do like seasoned fighters they should “work the body” to expose weaknesses, reveal strengths, highlight the grace-under-pressure of those running for the country’s highest office. But the harsh light they’ve shone has been consistently negative, often mean-spirited and mocking, and petty.
Light, when it’s too harsh, washes out instead of clarifies the subject.
Each of these candidates has layers. Hillary Clinton has a lifetime record of public service and, say what you will, has been on the right side of many humanitarian causes.
Donald Trump has excelled in the private sector — condemn his business practices if you like, but enter any one of his properties and you’ll be impressed. Still, broad strokes are easier to paint and harsh lights are easier to shine.
As Samuel Becket, that most nuanced playwright, might say with disdain, “Critic!”
The late-night comedy shows have piled on. SNL has done its job mocking the candidates.
And what we’re left with at the end of this race is an orange-haired, orange-faced orangutan named The Don and a scripted, smiling criminal named Crooked Hillary, two cartoons, one of whom will become President of the United States.
I’ve never been a cartoon watcher, not as a kid, and as an adult I’ve never been a fan of animated movies. But my one-year-old son has shown me the way. Or at least he’s shown me that cartoons really do engage kids.
I don’t see the appeal of SpongeBob, who looks like a figure out of a bad trip, but when the yellow sponge with the manic face starts laughing, my kid stops whatever he’s doing and sits there, mesmerized. (I usually change the channel after five minutes — the frenetic antics are too much for me; I’d rather see my kid smashing the floor with his plastic hammer.)
Maybe it’s the animation, exaggerated and colorful. Maybe it’s the movement. Maybe it’s the music. Maybe the high-pitched voices. But if I’m flipping channels and a cartoon comes on, my kid’s eyes go right to the TV.
What it really is, I think, is that cartoons are easily digestible. Big eyes mean nice. Wide, toothy smiles mean friendly. Twirly mustaches mean mean. Crooked mouths mean silly. Frenetic motion means funny. For a kid, cartoons are easy.
But we’re adults. And two adults are running for president. And easy can be dangerous.
Like the marketing genius he probably is, Trump has plugged into this easy aesthetic.
He doesn’t need to know the Constitution. He doesn’t need to speak the truth.
He has boiled things down to winning and losing and he’s plowing forward, doing and saying whatever it takes to win. And too many of his supporters have latched on to this man because in his cartoon way he’s made our country’s problems easy to understand.
Make America Great Again is a homogenized slogan with little weight underneath.
As for Clinton, her obfuscation is a tactic to tamp down the layers of her and her family’s deceit. She’s running out the clock now, the easiest way to finish a fight. Her smiles are wide and toothy, but I wonder how much selfless care is truly there. And her campaign slogan "Stronger Together" belies the truth of a singularly ambitious politician.
Relegated to cartoons, these two candidates are playing their animated selves perfectly and, sadly, predictably.
On Election Day, caught between two cartoons, I’m thinking of picking up my kid’s plastic hammer and smashing the floor.
Adam Berlin is the author of "Both Members of the Club" (winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Prize), "The Number of Missing,” "Belmondo Style" (winner of The Publishing Triangle’s Ferro-Grumley Award), and “Headlock." He teaches writing at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and co-edits "J Journal: New Writing on Justice" (AdamBerlin.com). For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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