Showtime's The Circus Presents The Deferential American Political Media at Their Laziest

Mark Halperin embodies what Joan Didion called "the deferential spirit"

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Showtime's <i>The Circus</i> Presents The Deferential American Political Media at Their Laziest

As depicted in The Circus: Inside the Greatest Political Show on Earth, Bloomberg Politics managing editor Mark Halperin—co-host, with fellow Bloomberg Politics managing editor John Heilemann, of MSNBC’s With All Due Respect—approached this summer’s Republican and Democratic National Conventions as an awestruck child, absent skepticism and, by extension, cogitation. Despite covering every presidential election since 1988, which might imply the successful navigation of the learning curve, Halperin casts his eyes to the rafters, marveling, as he enters Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena, “If you love politics, coming in here and seeing this setup is like going home for Christmas.”

In treating a four-day infomercial for the party in control of the Senate, the House of Representatives, 31 governorships, and 30 state legislatures as if he were the star of a heartwarming Folgers commercial, Halperin thus positions himself as an innocent abroad, a pilgrim in the Holy Land; the notion that a member of the press so eager to find himself in the loving arms of those he’s meant to report on is unlikely to produce journalism of any real merit is as distant as Mark Twain’s Mount Tabor, unreachable across the plain. In Showtime’s The Circus, Halperin’s remarks often resemble the speculative prattle of cable news, though in this case—a sleek, stylish, impeccably edited half-hour—he faces no particular pressure to fill the time with, say, the insistence that Bill Clinton and Barack Obama purposely held back during their DNC speeches so as not to “upstage” the nominee. And yet: He does.

More worrisome still is Halperin’s intransigent resistance to posing tough questions, pressing for answers, ruffling feathers. After Donald Trump, Jr. awards the New York delegates that secure his father’s nomination as the GOP’s standard-bearer, for instance, Halperin corners him in the arena’s fluorescent bowels to ask after the plagiarized passages in Melania Trump’s address the night before—so far, so good. “Whatever happened, happened,” Trump, Jr. responds. “For me, it’s not even about the words. Everyone delivers words. Everyone can have someone write something for them and then read it.” Here, too, we are on familiar terrain, the campaign surrogate’s inartful dodge, to be precise an utterly nonsensical non-answer, terrain on which it’s reasonable to assume that the managing editor of a major news organization’s political arm might be comfortable enough to muster a follow-up. And yet: He does not.

If The Circus possesses a central thrust, a through line, it’s that Halperin is not in the business of interrogating his sources, or indeed himself, on the finer points of what now passes for political intelligence, and as he shakes hands with Trump, Jr., offering congratulations, a smile, and a thumbs-up before sending the candidate’s son on his merry way, the erstwhile reporter emerges as the exemplar of Republican consultant Mike Murphy’s contention, in the same episode, that the political convention is a buffet of “pre-chewed meat for the media.” Here he is in Cleveland, mouth open, catching the regurgitated nibbles of “news” his unparalleled access affords him; there he is in Philadelphia, wide-eyed and inconceivably credulous, clinging to his boyish belief that being on one or another candidate’s “nice” list means his stocking will be filled with presents, when in truth The Circus generates the interest of an exceedingly large lump of coal.

Joan Didion, writing in the New York Review of Books in 1996, coined the term for this frustrating obeisance to figures of prominence: “The Deferential Spirit.” It is the mechanism by which, as she notes of Bob Woodward’s The Choice, the behind-the-scenes dispatch from the front lines of American politics has become a form of journalism “in which measurable cerebral activity is virtually absent.”

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Remaining on the “nice” list—abdicating the obligation to submit their sources’ statements to even routine cross-examination—is, of course, exactly why Halperin, Heilemann, and former George W. Bush and John McCain strategist Mark McKinnon are afforded such unparalleled access. (“The informant who talks to Mr. Woodward,” to quote Didion, “knows that his or her testimony will be not only respected but burnished into the inside story, which is why so many people on the inside, notably those who consider themselves the professionals or managers of the process… do want to talk to him.”)

If Heilemann at least has the wherewithal to scratch his head at Trump confidant Roger Stone’s reference to “apocalyptic times,” pointing out that the candidate’s “echo” of Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign is closer to a primal scream, the extent to which his colleagues accept their interlocutors’ assimilation of any and all events into a pre-fabricated narrative betrays a certain spinelessness, the fear of the grade-schooler who hands over his lunch money before having to fight it out. Halperin, preening in his hotel room shortly before the Iowa caucuses, proclaims that he prefers “to ask zero questions that they’ve been asked before”—and then proceeds, in the next scene, to wonder what Ted Cruz thinks of the “conventional wisdom” that his campaign’s organization is the best in the state.

McKinnon, of the white cowboy hat and many-layered scarves, tends to avoid asking questions altogether, apparently convinced that his conspiratorial asides, muttered to the camera before, during, and after various coffee klatches and Rotary Club meetings, are sufficiently astute to suggest his political acumen—and then proceeds, in the days leading up to the Nevada caucuses, to say, “When you talk about the idea of confidence, Donald Trump has an extra chromosome.”

To tee up Cruz to praise his own campaign, or read Trump’s bluster as a mark of “confidence” and not a symptom of depthless insecurities, is not simply to blunt the tip of the spear in the name of “civility” or “fairness.” It is, rather, to become the servant of the powerful interests one is ostensibly covering, the trusty conduit through which politicians, staffers, and surrogates might pass their “message” to the public more or less undigested—”which is to say,” per Didion, “as it is manufactured.”

That The Circus is a participant in this process is, on the one hand, unremarkable; it is the ne plus ultra of the reportorial fecklessness Didion identified in 1988’s “Insider Baseball,” and which, as I’ve written for Paste throughout the spring and summer, has come into full flower in the course of this campaign. That The Circus has succeeded, much as Woodward succeeded, in performing the aesthetic jujitsu by which shallowness itself is seen as an asset, on the other hand, suggests that Halperin’s insurmountable learning curve is also our own; it signals the final submission of the adversarial instinct to the desire for access, the tacit agreement to present the campaigns as they intend to be presented, in exchange for a few insignificant crumbs from the moveable feast that is life on the other side of the curtain.

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This is the promise of the title sequence’s final image, its illustrated hands pulling open the American flag that descends from the stage’s proscenium arch: That The Circus is the nearest we’ll come to seeing the gears of “the process” whir into action. In fairness, there are moments captured on camera—Sen. Bernie Sanders’ rendition of “the monster” he plays for his grandson, Gov. John Kasich’s groan-worthy “jokes”—that no nightly news segment is likely to feature, moments that depict the candidates, however briefly, at human scale, though it must be said that even these are more rare than one might expect from a series that punts on nearly every issue of import.

What’s so flagrantly irresponsible about the series is not that it pays heed to the performative aspect of presidential politics, but that it does so—with a wink and a nod to its subjects, for whom fielding softballs on matters of style amounts to spring training for their exchanges with heavier hitters—to the near-complete exclusion of positions and policy proposals, to the exclusion, for that matter, of demonstrable facts, and then frames this as an honest assessment of the state of affairs.

The result, to return to Didion, is “an Erewhon in which not only inductive reasoning but ordinary reliance on context clues appear to have vanished,” as in Halperin’s appraisal of Trump’s RNC speech as one that “showed a lot of discipline,” only to find himself wrong-footed the next morning, when Trump, repeating the baseless claim that Cruz’s father was an associate of Lee Harvey Oswald, goes “back to his old ways.” The result is the “Zen purity” of ”[t]he refusal to consider meaning or outcome or consequence,” as in McKinnon’s reliance on cute aphorisms (“Iowa picks corn, but New Hampshire picks presidents”) to substitute for anything approximating actual thought. The result is the “crude personalization [that] works to narrow the focus, to circumscribe the range of possible discussion or speculation,” as in Heilemann’s jubilant reaffirmation that Gov. Chris Christie “can feel… knows he’s getting traction here,” “here” being New Hampshire, where Christie subsequently finished sixth.

It takes an outsider, if perhaps an unwitting one, to describe The Circus for what it is: A now nine-hours-and-counting belly flop into the wading pool of “political theater,” as former MSNBC anchor and The Atlantic senior editor Alex Wagner says in the aptly titled “Confidence Game”—or, as she adds later, “this shit.” To those for whom the roped-off confines of the big top have come to constitute the entire apparatus of “politics”—ringleader, sideshow acts, animals, and audience subsumed within an impregnable and increasingly indistinguishable whole—such criticism is easily cast as mirthlessness, or worse yet misunderstanding, on the part of the those, myself included, for whom the election of the president is more than the season finale of America’s Next Top Commander.

But it’s no stretch to suggest that The Circus distills the frustration with “the establishment” to which its own correspondents devote so much of their attention, and about which their most incisive analysis amounts to “Frustration with ‘the establishment’ exists.” The danger the series poses—and I use the word “danger” advisedly—is that which Trump’s candidacy has exposed: The Circus prizes the spectacle of the modern campaign to such an egregious extreme that the on-the-ground consequences of “politics” are effectively erased; in it, the foundational principle that well-informed voters cast their ballots to indicate preferences with regard to the candidates’ positions on the “War on Terror” or “the economy,” “healthcare” or “education,” is sacrificed at the altar of the humorous anecdote, the unfiltered comment, the useful idiot’s ardent belief that riding shotgun in the clown car is akin to understanding how combustion works.

In short, the series not only declines to interrogate the sort of dithering typified by Donald Trump, Jr., but in fact assents to the idea that “Whatever happened, happened,” that there is no higher calling than recording the mundane, even meaningless utterances of those inside American political culture’s not-so-big tent and relaying them, unchallenged, to the rest of us. For Heilemann, Halperin, and McKinnon, then, safe in their lucrative sinecures despite failing to introduce a single morsel of worthwhile information or original insight to the discourse surrounding the current campaign, the deferential spirit is also the spirit of the times, the path of least resistance to wealth and influence, or at least the illusion of it. The sole requirement is unconditional surrender to the powerful interests they are ostensibly covering. If The Circus is any indication, there have scarcely been three more willing signatories.

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