Showtime’s The Circus Fails To Tame This Campaign Season’s Wild Political Animals

The docu-series falls prey to the same false-equivalency attitudes that have plagued mainstream media coverage of the election

Bipartisan news coverage is broken — a fact inadvertently corroborated by The Circus: Inside the Greatest Political Show on Earth, Showtime’s weekly campaign recap show. Returning after a six-week hiatus, last night’s episode took the “both sides are equally to blame” tack for 2016’s toxic tone by juxtaposing Donald Trump calling Hillary Clinton “an unstable person” and the Democratic candidate disparaging her opponent’s supporters as belonging in a “basket of deplorables.” Except Clinton quickly apologized for that atypical aspersion, while Trump has rarely expressed regret for insulting women, Mexicans, Muslims, African-Americans, prisoners of war, and the family of the dead Army Captain Humayun Khan. Lest we forget, the Republican candidate’s also been defiantly making fun of a disabled reporter, retweeting white supremacist memes, praising Vladimir Putin, jokingly calling on Russian hackers to disrupt the election, inciting violence at his rallies, and campaigning on the promise to commit war crimes.

The horserace-obsessed Circus is content to forget all that very recent history. Slick and soft, the series is a triumph of editing and cinematography, not journalism. Hosted by Bloomberg Politics editors Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, and Republican campaign strategist Mark McKinnon, it plays on our nostalgia for a news media marked by civility and moderation. But this navel-gazing look at the election from the POV of the political and media elite — in a year when those groups found new heights of irrelevance — exemplifies the intellectual sham of left-right “balance” in an election cycle when one of the parties dove head first into a fetid swamp of insanity and absurdity.

The hosts’ impressive résumés imply an irresistible promise: getting to sit in on conversations with influential, dispassionate insiders whose opinions are seasoned by context and experience. But the roundtables, frequently shot in fancy restaurants or cafés, merely rehash the news narratives of the week, like Trump catching up to Clinton in the polls and Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson’s “What is Aleppo?” gaffe. That’s helpful, I guess, if you wanna know what your political-junkie friends’ Facebook memes are all about a week after the fact. Heilemann essentially gives Johnson a free pass on knowing nothing about the current biggest refugee crisis in the world with a sympathetic “Everybody fucks up, right?” Uncaptured is their seemingly inevitable bro-five.

Access should be the other reason to watch, but the interviews with candidates and campaign honchos are softer than Brie. One RNC strategist thinks GOP chief Reince Priebus is “awesome.” Former Trump strategist Roger Stone drops clichés like, “The only thing predictable about Donald Trump is that he’s entirely unpredictable.” More attention-grabbing is a painting called “Big Black Dick” in Stone’s living room, in which the notoriously racist president sports a painful grin and a colossal Afro. (Sadly shielded from cameras is the GOP consultant’s Nixon tattoo.) Nor is actual news given more than a passing mention. Trump’s very possible bribing of Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi — he illegally donated to her from his charitable foundation, then threw a fundraising event at his favorite resort for her after she dropped a case against his university — gets all of five seconds of airtime.

Likewise, The Circus is shockingly uninterested in the more important and harder-to-parse story of this election cycle: the shifts in political thought, emotions, and demographics that have given rise to our hyperpartisanship. But that would mean the hosts taking their eyes off the TV and talking to voters instead — a step they seem unwilling to take. And so what we get instead is more false equivalencies, like Republican Rudy Giuliani fueling conspiracy theories about Clinton’s health with Chelsea Clinton calling Trump “misogynistic” in a flawless osmosis of this post-policy election from the Beltway into the media. Whatever terrible revolution we’re watching, it definitely isn’t being televised with analysis and curiosity here.