In the movie Gladiator, hero Maximus (Russell Crowe) enters an arena, makes short work of a half dozen or so better armed adversaries and then calls out to a silenced and shocked crowd, "Are you not entertained?"
Maximus means, I suspect, for them to realize just how bizarre and inhumane this blood sport is, but instead, a moment later, the crowd is going wild, chanting his name.
The climactic conclusion of Gladiator sees the emperor himself entering the arena to challenge Maximus and gain back the respect of the people. Today, we demand the same from our would-be political leaders. We're out for blood. We want to be entertained.
The media celebrates this approach. We highlight the moments of conflict, especially when they are about personal differences. Sure, policy will get some coverage when absolutely necessary, but as media consumers, we all know by now that modern politics is really about the scandals.
For example, late last month Idaho State Sen. Jim Guthrie, a conservative Republican, broke with his party to declare that while he'd have "to set aside some political and philosophical biases that I have," the need for action to expand Medicaid to 78,000 Idahoans was undeniable and he would be supporting it.
This statement received precious little coverage. Meanwhile, Guthrie's long-ago-ended affair with a fellow lawmaker, despite no evidence of any actual wrongdoing related to public business, was front-page news across the state. Why was news that impacted two married couples more important than news that could impact 78,000 people? At least in part because an illicit affair is more entertaining.
It shouldn't be surprising that we've turned our politics into entertainment. We've turned everything into entertainment, including our own lives. Social media allows us each to tell our own curated story to the world and take in the stories of our friends, told in one Facebook post, Instagram or tweet at a time.
Donald Trump is perfectly suited to exploit this moment. He's a man who learned political combat from hosting a reality TV show and delights in insults, especially fact-challenged ones short enough to be tweeted.
Trump is the ultimate villain who our media loves to hate — crudely provocative and obsessed with helping to drive up the ratings.
Sometimes it feels like the media is playing the part of judges on a bad reality TV show, purposefully taking it easy on Trump to keep such a delightfully sinister character around a little longer. (I'm looking at you, Matt Lauer.)
Meanwhile, they (again, Matt Lauer) subject Hillary Clinton to tougher questions, attempting to keep up the suspense. But we all know from reading the polls who is going to win in November, right?
Here's the thing: This isn't reality TV. This is reality. And despite the cries from conspiracy theorists, the results aren't fixed. Donald Trump could be the next president of the United States.
In Gladiator, Maximus, having defeated the emperor in very entertaining combat, but suffering a mortal wound in the process, uses his dying breath to call for political reform, to bring back democracy. It's a silly, overly dramatic film, but we live in silly times where we face dramatic threats.
I hope we can also move beyond treating our politics and our lives as merely entertainment. After all, this stuff is too important to be treated like another contrived blockbuster out of Hollywood. ♦
John T. Reuter, a former Sandpoint City Councilman, has been active in protecting the environment, expanding LGBT rights and Idaho's GOP politics.