From Howard Stern to Donald Trump as democracy amuses itself to death

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump campaigns at the Iowa State Fair on August 15, 2015 in Des Moines, Iowa.

I caught a few minutes of an incredible spectacle on cable TV news on Friday night. Donald Trump had just held court with reporters in New Hampshire and now he was giving a speech in prime time - and the punditocracy was as giddy as 13-year-old girls reading the latest tweets from the boys in One Direction.

Did you hear what Trump said about Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, calling him "a clown"?! Just listen to The Donald raving about the "magnificent" airport in Qatar (why?..who knows?) and how you can get a massage there but not Trump because "I don't like people touching me," as his audience erupts in laughter. Other candidates draw crowds, if they're lucky, but Trump comes with an audience, a human laugh track. They roared when he bragged about "the summer of Trump," unconsciously echoing 2001's notorious "summer of the shark."

I saw the best political minds of the young generation -- smart analysts like Dave Weigel of the Washington Post and NBC's Kasie Hunt -- dragging themselves into this madness, torn between serious commentary and giggling. This was Chris Hayes on MSNBC -- the Serious One -- but they all struggled to break away from the Manhattan billionaire's rock opera of a presidential campaign, even though most of the other top contenders for the White House were also making news on an hot Friday night in August.

Here now was Hunt, live from Clear Lake, Iowa, the town where America's rock 'n' roll dreams famously crashed in a cornfield in 1959. Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and the other Democratic candidates were all slated to appear at an event there:

"All right. Kasie Hunt, let`s take a listen for a second to see what Hillary`s reception is like inside that Wing Dings dinner in Clear Lake, Iowa. Take a listen."

Finally! Grown-up time. Here was the former secretary state, already into her speech, addressing the peace deal aimed at stopping Iran from developing a nuclear bomb and also preventing the Middle East from erupting in World War III. The Democratic front-runner was offering a more full-throated endorsement of the deal than ever before. It sounded important. It sounded newsworthy -- more newsworthy than the state of the airport massage trade in Qatar.

But to some producer at MSNBC, it sounded boring. The network cut away again after Clinton had uttered just 56 words. Host Hayes turned to his guest, Weigel: "Dave, you were in Iowa. How do you think the state fair is going to receive the Donald?" As the Post journalist answered about Trump, Hillary continued to speak on mute, shrunk and lowered to a corner of the screen as if she were Cindy Brady in the opening credits of "The Brady Bunch," prattling on silently about matters like paid sick leave, a silent victim as "the summer of Trump" tugged political sanity into the frigid waters yet again.

The joke is long past over. With autumn closing in, it's getting harder to see how the short-fingered vulgarian of the American business world doesn't take his presidential odyssey at least to the gates of the GOP convention in Cleveland, if not beyond. It's starting to look like the author of "The Art of the Deal" may be able to pull off a leveraged buyout of a weak and vulnerable-to-takeover Republican Party that has lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. He's putting up very little capital -- political or otherwise -- to do this, just borrowing against accumulated Tea Party xenophobia and misogyny to gain a solid 25 percent, for now, of a Balkanized field. They may just be enough.

His campaign isn't even based on an issue but a concept: The war against "political correctness." That means anything that might be a campaign-crushing gaffe for any other candidate -- from John McCain's war record to Megyn Kelly's menstrual cycle -- only causes Trump to rise. Offensive comments aren't a bug in Trump World. they're a feature. It all raises two big questions. How did we get here? And how in the name of God do we get out?

A brilliant social scientist and academic all but predicted the rise of Donald Trump. His name was Neil Postman, an NYU professor, and in 1985 he wrote his masterpiece called Amusing Ourselves to Death, arguably a blueprint for the decline and fall of the American experiment in democracy. Postman argued that predictions of coming totalitarian censorship -- think George Orwell's 1984 -- had missed the mark and that with the rise of TV the greater likelihood was that entertainment values would drown out serious political debate. "How delighted would be all the kings, czars and fuhrers of the past and commissars of the present," Postman wrote, "to know that censorship is not a necessity when all political discourse takes the form of a jest."

That same year, 1985, the godfather of the political movement that begat Donald Trump was skyrocketing onto the scene. Howard Stern, so-called "shock jock," was making his move to FM radio in New York and becoming the "King of All Media" by waging war on "political correctness." (Sound familiar?) Like so many things, the rise of Stern -- and his TV doppelganger Morton Downey Jr., to be celebrated this week in a CNN documentary -- came from the ashes of the 1960s and '70s. Conservatives had won the political wars -- it was Reagan's "Morning in America" -- but liberals had made huge gains in the culture wars, including growing recognition for the rights of minorities, women, and gays.

With American manufacturing and the decent working-class jobs that went with it in a state of collapse, with the Watergate generation bitter and cynical about politicians, young males -- primarily but not exclusively blue collar -- felt their world was under assault. In the popular view of Stern and his fellow "shock jocks," they were the only telling it like it is -- even if "like it is" was, at least during Stern's rise to fame in 1980s, before he toned it down a little, a toxic stew larded with homophobia, racism and sexism. He was using the freer speech wrought by the 1960s not to uplift, but to insult -- especially anyone who threatened white male heterosexual hegemony. In a foreshadowing of Trump, Stern's seeming "gaffes," like pretending to call Air Florida and ask for a one-way ticket to D.C.'s 14th Street Bridge after a jetliner crashed there in 1982, inevitably led to promotions and more riches.

A lot of dudes ate this up. When Stern published his first book in 1994, Private Parts (which said of L.A. police violence victim Rodney King, "they didn't beat the idiot enough"), it not only became a No. 1 best seller, but 10,000 people -- "10,000 Maniacs," the tabloids screamed -- lined up outside a Manhattan bookstore to meet him. Wrote one columnist: "I haven' seen such a concentration of white men in one place in Manhattan since the hockey playoffs." The loosely libertarian Stern and his followers were passionate and firmly apolitical -- but that would change.

Increasingly, starting with Rush Limbaugh in the late 1980s, a new generation of radio talkers took advantage of the end of the so-called "fairness doctrine" in licensed communications and a need for content on AM radio to adapt the political incorrectness of the shock jocks to the promotion of conservative Republican politics. Indeed, it was a failing "morning zoo" shock jock, Glenn Beck, who for a short time at the dawn of this decade would find the sweet spot where radio histrionics could command a political movement, the hard core of the Tea Party. The beauty of Trump is that he has eliminated the middleman. Political incorrectness has evolved from a ratings ploy to a political platform, amid the evolution from "Gay Tarzan" radio skits to a crass campaign for the nation's highest office. The apolitical 20-somethings who lined up with their copies of Private Parts are now 40- and 50-somethings with a mortgage and a shrinking paycheck...and they vote!

Indeed, Trump is the perfect storm of 21st Century excess. Worried about the influence in politics of billionaires like the Koch Brothers or George Soros? Just have a billionaire run himself -- problem solved. Think that modern political campaigns have become nothing more than elaborate reality shows with the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue voted to the winner by our national studio audience?  Donald Trump learned how to entertain  and influence people on his own reality show, "The Apprentice." He says whatever is on his mind, and it's not only conservatives who agree with the best of his zingers, such as his explanation of how he and his billionaire friends buy conventional politicians.

Indeed, there's only one problem with the rise of Donald Trump. He's a demagogue -- arguably the most dangerous one that America has seen in generations. His "truth telling" and one-liners have been built atop of a brownfield of poisonous industrial-strength xenophobia. It's impossible to ignore the intentional non-gaffe that launched his campaign and sent his poll numbers skyward, calling Mexican immigrants criminals and "rapists." His motto "Make America Great Again" is in fact a thinly veiled threat against The Other. That threat that sprung to life this week as the Trump campaign unveiled an immigration policy that includes the forced march of 11 million people -- uprooting families that have been in America for years -- and also goes against 100 years of settled constitutional law regarding citizenship. His first so-called "policy plan" spits at the idea of Congress and consensus, spits harder at the U.S. Constitution, and puts its faith in just one thing: The cult of the personality of Donald Trump. And we've seen how that movie turns out.

Look, the odds remain strong that Trump loses -- that he goes all Ross Perot and quits over some petty grievance, or that the GOP establishment unifies in a stop-Trump effort (although it's hard to see where that level of political skill would come from). And even if Trump shocks the world and wins the Republican nomination, the so-called "Obama coalition" of non-whites, coastal educated professionals, "waitress moms," gays, young people, et cetera -- which gets bigger every four years -- will probably rally around the eventual Democratic nominee.

On the other hand, history's dustbin of the last 100 years is littered with despotic rulers who started out as a joke until they weren't, who ran on a platform of restoring national greatness against the alleged pollution of outsiders, of immigrants or ethnic minorities, who manipulated the real and perceived grievances of the masses to get their foot in the doorways of power, and who had little use for the niceties of diplomacy or even the rule of law once they got in. The time to stop laughing at Trump's demagoguery and take it seriously is today, not next July and heaven forbid not in November of 2016. When it comes to democracy in America, to quote Yogi Berra, it gets late early out there. American has survived civil war, slavery and segregation, and all types of crises. This is no time to amuse ourselves to death.