Collective fear stimulates herd instinct, and tends to produce ferocity toward those who are not regarded as members of the herd. — Bertrand Russell
Belonging is a drug and we are all addicted to it. When a “like” validates our social worth, or we ignore work to respond to our most recent email, we confirm our identity in a tribe. Our brains reward the recognition with a dopamine rush.
For years, I started my day with a dopamine hit at six a.m. from Morning Joe.
Actually, I got my fix a little later, recording the show, to feed my craving at a more civilized hour. The debate was fun and stimulating: This tribe was passionate, intelligent, and slightly mutinous. I, along with other beltway viewers, wanted to belong and be insiders, too. When Don Imus self-immolated and left Washington suffering a painful withdrawal, Scarborough Country, then Morning Joe, stepped up to provide a home.
It was great television. At its best, TV is an ensemble medium, an instrument of belonging. Whether we watch a local TV news program, sit-com, or talk-show, we tune in to become part of a TV family that reflects our own.
There, Morning Joe excels. Its great communal cast is familiar to everyone who has traded political shots around the Thanksgiving table. On Morning Joe, we could wage intra-household electoral combat, punctuate it with laughter, then finish with a group hug.
The cast has grown stronger over the ten years Mika and Joe have brewed our mornings. We have enjoyed Mike Barnicle, the grumpy uncle of the family, slightly startled by the disruptions of the modern world but lending a wise eye to them. From near beginning, we’ve watched this family raise an All-American son, Willie Geist, who looks like he sleeps in his college letter-sweater.
There is also the bad son, Donnie Deutsch. The advertising legend plays a loveable rogue who didn’t come home to sleep in his bed the previous evening. As jester, he unites the rest of the ensemble to roll their eyes but then embrace his unsanctioned insights. Occasionally, when Deutsch is not available, he is replaced by his teenage understudy, the pleasantly adolescent Sam Stein. A rotating cast, evolving from Nicole Wallace to Kristin Soltis Anderson and Kasie Hunt, plays the perky, promising young daughter.
The kids, as well as mom and dad, have bookish and nerdy reporter friends who bring home the day’s top stories, casseroles of information. There are also neighbors who drop in to provide context and connection — but this is no ordinary community: Every neighbor is a Pulitzer Prize winner. Peggy Noonan knocks on the door to lend melodic perspective. John Meacham lets us see the brevity of our furies through the longer lens of history. Eugene Robinson defends the establishment and inclusion. More eccentric neighbors, like Reverend Al Sharpton, drop in to enflame outsiders. And at the center of it, radiating sexual and political energy for over a decade, stand mom and dad, Mika and Joe.
Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski used to represent the political battle of the sexes, daddy-bear Republicans versus the mommy-party Democrats. The couple simmered: Mika and Joe were a flesh-and-blood version of the age-old evolutionary conflict that drives human progress. They fought, embraced, and respected each other in smoldering discussions that left viewers envious of make-up sex. Matlin and Carville could not touch them.
Their clashing views gave show dramatic power. As their relationship grew stronger, viewers found Morning Joe was also their home: a safe space for political conflict. Now, that Morning Joe is no more. As our President might tweet, #Sad. #FailingMorningJoe.
The conflict between mom and dad is gone. The relationship that once ignited sparks has been dimmed and homogenized. Every cast member reads the same script, disowning differences and drama. Morning Joe has become a sea of sameness. The performers play indistinguishable parts, predictable bobble-head dolls that hate Donald John Trump.
Every morning, Joe trods the same path: “Can you believe what Trump has done? He does not respect the institutions that we, the establishment, have been running. He does not understand the principles that we, the establishment, have been upholding. He is disrupting the status quo that validates our superiority. When will Republicans in the Senate say “enough” and stand up to Donald Trump? And when will someone pass the Grey Poupon?”
One of the show’s tedious discoveries is that Donald Trump lies, as if the benighted, backward Americans who elected him aren’t aware of that. This, of course, from a TV program that would return power to an establishment that is a palace of lies and deadly, institutionalized deception. Ah, yes, if we could only go back to those days when “You can keep your doctor.” Spoiler alert: Trump does lie, incessantly, perhaps for sport, even when it is unimportant. However, many of Trump’s supporters would say Trump often gets the facts wrong, but the truth right, unlike the media which get the facts right but big truths perilously wrong. Perhaps the “fake” is real in Donald Trump’s depiction of “fake news?”
The show’s monotone political chanting makes for incredibly dull television. From six to nine a.m., Morning Joe is where Washington goes to learn it need not change at all.
On rare occasions, a contrary point of view does make it past the bookers. These awkward moments produce hilarity. Recently, when New York Times op-ed editor and writer Bari Weiss discovered, mirabile dictu, there is another side to today’s arguments about gender, free speech, and immigration, Joe was stun-gunned into speechlessness. Could there be an intellectually coherent argument that our status-quo alternative to Trump wasn’t producing a utopian wonderland? Who knew?
I would not ask anyone in this television family to become what they are not or defend what they find indefensible. I would not ask that they consider what is becoming obvious to others: Donald Trump may end up not only being a good president but a great one, with a powerful record of accomplishment, precisely because he is doing the opposite of everything Morning Joe supports.
What might help is introspection: Donald Trump was a hand grenade thrown under Washington’s door. Millions of Americans saw Trump, with his gargantuan failings and excesses, and chose him anyway over the world Morning Joe continues to defend. Someone might ask, “Why?”
“What have we been doing wrong? Was our failure that majestic?” Joe might even ask, “What should we, the family that represents America’s establishment, learn from this massive rejection, since our country did risk the entire future of humanity on Donald Trump rather than go one more lap around the track with us.”
Of course, neither old political party is asking those questions, so neither is this program. And that’s where we find ourselves: This week, if you miss one Morning Joe, don’t worry. The same show will run again tomorrow. The Trump outrage under discussion will be different, but the script will be identical. If you want to see a great American family parrot the political establishment, pour yourself a cup of Morning Joe and fit in. This tribe is where you belong.