Episodes of a sprawling national reality show

Does it really matter if the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles visit the White House or not?

When President Donald Trump canceled the visit this week it was already clear that most of the players wouldn’t be coming, their absence a protest against Trump himself and his policies.

That’s certainly their right. But then, President Trump is well within his rights not to facilitate the planned protest in abstentia.

Why, though, should you and I care all that much about any of this?

Trump is hardly the first political leader to understand the value of distracting the masses. The Roman poet Juvenal coined a term for it: panem et circenses, or bread and circuses in English.

He was referring to the tendency of Roman politicians to give away free grain, and stage lavish public spectacles, for the sake of accumulating and maintaining power.

In modern politics the culture war serves this purpose. Rather than staging events and giving away free food our politicians rally their political constituencies by picking fights with the other.

For Trump, the NFL — where players have taken to provocative protests during the playing of the national anthem at game time — has become a useful foil.

He snipes at the celebrity athletes and they snipe back, and that’s hardly the only front Trump has opened in the culture wars. Every week brings a new feud with a new figure or group.

We don’t have news cycles any more. We have episodes of a sprawling national reality show.

As Russell Crowe once asked, are you not entertained?

The public, meanwhile, is lapping it up. Even those factions in our country who hate the President can’t seem to help being fascinated by him.

Some media scolds, those not gleefully participating in the circus themselves, admonish the public over the distractions from serious debate.

Politics is serious business, they tell us.

This isn’t how things are typically done, they tell us.

They whinge on about statesmanship and the decorum of the past.

Tell that to the Romans.

Heck, tell that to Andrew Jackson, perhaps our first populist president. A man who had more portraits painted of himself than any other president. A man so intensely interested in the media’s coverage of him he subscribed to 16 newspapers and kept massive binders of clippings. A man who campaigned as the “people’s president” but was fond of showing off the opulence of his mansion.

Any of that sound familiar?

Still, the scolds have a point. The culture wars may be useful to the ends of politicians, but they’re dividing our country and distracting from the important business of governing.

Nothing will change, though. Trump and other politicians will continue as they have for the same reason the Bachlorette is still airing 15 years later.

Ratings, after all, are ratings.