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America has a history of watching politics for entertainment

Aug 12, 2015

Whitney says Republican candidates need to begin challenging Trump if they want him out of the race.
Credit Flickr user Greg Skidmore / http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

We will not head to the polls to choose our next President for another 15 months.

Yet, candidate announcements have been raining down on us since March 23, when Ted Cruz became the first major candidate to jump into the race. With 17 Republicans showing up in major polls and five Democrats, it's proving to be a crowded field.

Is it all too much, too soon? And what of the tone of these campaigns?

"Well, this far out I don't think it's terribly unusual to have a lot of people show interest. I think because of the media cycles we're into now people feel the need to declare and raise that money early," says historian Gleaves Whitney, Director of the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies at Grand Valley State University.

But Whitney does say he was amazed by record number of people watching last Thursday's debate.

"I thought that that was a good sign that people are tuned in."

And he hopes  voters will begin to be serious about Donald Trump.

"Trump is somebody whose bubble is going to burst here before too long. He cannot sustain this faux campaign. It really isn't even a campaign. Go to his website ... there is not a position paper on the website," Whitney says.

"Neither party can have a serious discussion with Donald Trump because we don't know how he would really do the things that he talks about doing."

Whitney says Republicans seem to be tiring of Trump's antics. He hopes other contenders will begin to stand up to him "and, frankly, force him to be serious or get out of the race"

But Trump isn't the only one to compete for air time with attention-grabbing antics. Ted Cruz can be seen in a recently released video cooking bacon on a gun, and Senator Lindsey Graham destroyed phones with a variety of tactics as a response to Trump giving away his phone number.

Whitney says these stunts may be heightened to attract coverage by cable television, but they're not unique to our contemporary politics.  

"I have no doubt that there were a lot of shenanigans in the past, some of our past campaigns were outrageous, much more outrageous than today," he says.

According to Whitney, Debates between Lincoln and Douglas could last for hours, being viewed as a source of high entertainment. And Whitney says the campaign between Jefferson and Adams included its own mudslinging.

"Let's not fool ourselves. Let's not act too sanctimonious. Americans love a clown show."

But Whitney suggests there may be some upside to American's viewing politics for amusement.

"The fact that we can take it so for granted and be so lighthearted about it and buffoonish about it indicates maybe, in some sense, a relative strength of our democracy."