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In a Week of Painful Narratives, a Filibuster and a Trump Media Empire Vie for Our Attention

Just in time for the one-year anniversary of Donald Trump’s candidacy (and only a few days late for his 70th birthday), Vanity Fair published an unsettling report early Thursday morning which is serving as a fitting, dysfunctional cherry to a long, painful week. Sarah Ellison reports that Trump is “considering starting his own cable empire.” The piece is well worth a read — both for the wild, circuitous attempts from Trump’s closest advisers to avoid commenting on the matter, and for the sense of surreal wonderland that Ellison’s reporting creates.

Trump is a man driven by endless ego, and a media empire surrounding what he finds to be his brilliant public-facing strategy is no exception. Ellison notes, drily, that various sources attribute Trump’s desire to create his own media platform to a sense of being “irked” that other companies are making money off of his brilliance. When she approaches Trump’s spokesperson Hope Hicks for comment, Hicks has to amend her adamant denial of any such nascent media empire with the qualification that “Mr. Trump garners exceptionally high ratings.”

But this is a decision that is about more than just Trump’s ego, even if that is all on Trump’s carefully coiffed mind. This is a man who is so obsessed with being the center of attention that he will say or do nearly anything to get there, and the rest of us have been, naturally, captivated, as he has followed through with a campaign that is immediately the stuff of farce. And though there’s little to respect about his policy, Trump seems to know — to embody, really — a truth at the core of this election cycle, and of our current media climate: What matters most about people is what they’re deciding to watch. Reading and listening are also important, of course, but watching is the most universal, the most accessible, and the most communal; watching is where it’s at.

So what do you do with a world that is watching Donald Trump? Not a world that “wants to watch” Donald Trump — I think the action of watching Donald Trump is a bit warier, like watching a lumbering grizzly bear. But our eyes have been on him, for quite some time now.

This week, it feels like for at least some late-night hosts, something has really shifted. And partly that is because this has been a week of extraordinary and upsetting news. The most prominent story has been the horrific massacre of 49 clubgoers in Orlando, which has led to a week of statements by politicians, 24-hour news narratives, and viral bits from pissed-off late-night hosts. But that’s not even all: There was a British politician assassinated on Thursday, an alligator dragging a toddler to his death, and a shooting captured on Facebook live. It has been a week of incomprehensibility.

Occasionally, late-night comedy just adds to the cacophony — accompanied by laughter, thunderous applause or Facebook likes. But this week more than most, seven- or eight-minute long bits have been coping mechanisms during a particularly brutal week — a reminder that someone, somewhere, agrees with you, and feels what you do, too.

Samantha Bee, on her still-new TBS show “Full Frontal,” brought the house down with a segment on semi-automatic weapons that showcased the vicious, take-no-prisoners approach she is unafraid to unleash on her targets. Bee has the liberty to use expletives and delve into vulgar humor from her perch on TBS; she unleashed both at the American gun lobby (and Florida Governor Rick Scott, in particular).

Other hosts, like Stephen Colbert and Conan O’Brien, were somber and heartfelt. On Tuesday night, Colbert went on to produce one of the best segments he’s had on “The Late Show,” and it was taking on Trump head-on, both as an object of ridicule and one of great fear. In a type of comedy that Colbert doesn’t often do on “The Late Show,” he dissected Trump’s speech on Monday about the Orlando shootings, exposing every contradiction and pillorying the hatefulness underneath. It ended, breathtakingly, with Colbert concluding that Trump’s logic made the shape of a Nazi swastika — a gag both hilarious and deeply painful.

These are the type of segments that get shared and reposted and aggregated, because watching them seems important; watching them is acknowledging their power, just as watching Trump is, in a way, acknowledging his. Which is why, on Wednesday night, one of the most interesting things to watch on television was the late hours of Senator Chris Murphy, who launched a filibuster to force the Senate to act on gun control. By the evening, Murphy’s filibuster had become one of the top ten longest in Senate history; when he stopped speaking, very early Thursday morning, he had been standing for just shy of 15 hours.

A filibuster is, by nature, extremely boring. It’s a marathon that tests endurance more than rhetoric, or even logic; after all, the longest filibuster in history is Senator Strom Thurmond’s against the Civil Rights Act, which clocked just over 24 hours. The point, in some ways, is to dominate the proceedings with an act of extreme tedium, so that the other Senators are compelled to give you whatever you want.

Not even binge-watching whole seasons of “House of Cards” could prepare an audience for going on nine hours of Senator Murphy telling the stories of the teachers and children killed at Sandy Hook on much-maligned C-SPAN2. His voice was hoarse, and he was clearly exhausted, but Murphy remained clear and on-topic, describing how quickly bullets leave the clip of a semi-automatic weapon, or the final Snapchat post of a woman dying in the bathroom of the Pulse nightclub.

Most interesting of all is that throughout the night, “Full Frontal” promoted the filibuster — essentially live-tweeting it as if it were must-see-TV. The show’s official account posted drinking games and real-time fashion commentary. At 9:41 PM: “To anyone DVR-ing the filibuster: sorry for spoilers!”

It worked. The filibuster, in its own way, became a watching event, one that drew away both from Trump’s machine and from the constant commentary around him, too. Though it remains to be seen if the filibuster changes gun control laws, it did produce an ethereal but significant counter; it gave us something else — and, depending on your point of view, something better — to watch.

In itself, the filibuster is an interesting object lesson for the future of political television. Bee and “Full Frontal” realize, I think, what Trump’s media machine seems to do so well: If what people are watching is important, then giving them something else to watch that they can believe in is a pretty good way to start a movement.

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