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When the game of politics plunges into dangerous spectacle

American politics today has a certain Roman-era feel

An image of Donald Trump appears on video screens before his speech to supporters from the Ellipse at the White House on Jan. 6, 2021.
An image of Donald Trump appears on video screens before his speech to supporters from the Ellipse at the White House on Jan. 6, 2021. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

“Are you not entertained?” shouts Maximus as the titular “Gladiator” in the 2000 film. And actor Russell Crowe sells it — enough to snag an Oscar — as he repeats the line to the stadium. “Are you not entertained? Is this not why you are here?”

Everyone loves a spectacle, even now, which is why more than 123 million viewers reportedly tuned in to this week’s Super Bowl, whether you were there for the Kansas City Chiefs, the San Francisco 49ers — or a shirtless Usher.

Don’t forget, though, that the shouted movie line was about a lot more than the show. It was a taunt, used to communicate the gladiator’s disgust with the reason the crowd cheered him. They weren’t interested in a game well-played by evenly matched opponents, which I’ll wager was the main reason Sunday’s Las Vegas event was a must-see.

That ancient Roman audience showed up for the blood. The more gruesomely the gladiator dispatched the fighters in front of him, the louder the crowd’s approval, no quarter nor empathy given.

In politics today, I’m afraid too many political gladiators are harking back to the example of ancient Rome’s idea of what will win over the citizenry, rather than pulling a page from Kansas City coach Andy Reid’s strategic playbook.

Entertainment, sure. As fractious as possible.

Valentina Gomez, 24, a Republican candidate for Missouri secretary of state, wants to make sure voters know what she thinks of LGBTQ-inclusive books. A campaign video that went viral on social media shows the candidate using a flamethrower to torch a few, with the message: “When I’m Secretary of State, I will BURN all books that are grooming, indoctrinating, and sexualizing our children. MAGA. America First.”

Rather than back away, her campaign responded in a statement to NBC News: “You want to be gay? Fine be gay. Just don’t do it around children.”

Not good news for the teens who are gay, struggling for understanding and acceptance.

Kathy Belge, one of the authors of “Queer: The Ultimate LGBTQ Guide for Teens,” which appears to be a book Gomez targets, told NBC it “was written to give teens accurate and helpful information about what it means to be part of the LGBTQ community.”

“We discuss important issues that teens face, like coming out, bullying, dating and finding community and support. And yes, dealing with haters like this political candidate.” 

State Rep. John Bradford of North Carolina is trying to rise to the top of a GOP primary race for the 8th District, one that features six candidates vying for the U.S. House seat.

So he brought his bat, the one he promises to take to Washington, D.C. In a television ad, he uses it to smash a screen playing a speech by President Joe Biden as he decries: “Record illegal aliens. Record drug trafficking. Record crime.” 

Staying in North Carolina, where gerrymandered districts reward the most extreme candidate, Grey Mills is a state representative now angling to be the Republican candidate for the 10th District seat. To do it, he is making tough border policy a signature issue, with a campaign ad that says he will use military force against drug cartels, accompanied by murky images of something being blown up. If the site of his planned assault is on Mexican soil, he might get some pushback from our neighbor to the south.

There seems to be little thought to what angry words and images can lead to.

Were the men the FBI recently announced were involved in a plot to travel to the Texas-Mexico border to kill Border Patrol agents and immigrants crossing illegally and basically “start a war” at all influenced by the dehumanization of asylum-seekers? Do the cynical politicians who would rather use desperate individuals as political weapons than work with Democrats on a solution care?

I’m sure one of the main things these candidates with the viral ads crave, along with the views, would be a hearty endorsement from the man whose tactics they emulate.

It has worked for Donald Trump this election season, as his control over the GOP hardens.

Fear of the threats and harassment that would await witnesses prompted special counsel Jack Smith to ask the judge in Donald Trump’s classified documents case in Florida to shield the witnesses’ identities.

Aggression is such a part of the Trump playbook, it’s shocking how much he gets away with, like his statement that Vladimir Putin and Russia could do “whatever the hell they want” to NATO allies that don’t pony up to the GOP front-runner’s satisfaction.

His Republican followers fall in line, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, onetime protector of strong defense and international relationships. The excuses make about as much sense as recent Trump speeches, full of distortions, random rants and a charge that a reelected Joe Biden would rename Pennsylvania. (And they say the president has lost a step.)

It is possible to urge NATO members to be more diligent in funding their countries’ militaries without threatening to throw them all to the proverbial wolves — including one wolf in particular who disposes of opponents and imprisons American journalists.

But would the crowd that cheers an emboldened Trump and his acolytes be entertained?

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. She is host of the CQ Roll Call “Equal Time with Mary C. Curtis” podcast. Follow her on X @mcurtisnc3.

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