“You do not hear ‘win-win’ much lately”

You do not hear “win-win” much lately. One of the loudest political messages of the past year, across the entire ideological spectrum, has been that all promises of balance and mutual gain are actually humiliating traps, set by exploitative people still snickering in secret over how easily you fell for the last one. And so we have barreled instead into the realm of pure “winning,” where there is no such harmony of interest. Either exert your power or slink home ashamed.

A loud warning of this development came in 2011, cleverly disguised as shabby tabloid nonsense. This was the period currently summarized on Charlie Sheen’s Wikipedia page under the subheading “Meltdown,” when television’s highest-paid actor, after years of drug problems and abusing women, was fired from his CBS sitcom, had two of his children removed from his home by the police, gave grandiose interviews about his “tiger blood” and “Adonis DNA,” amassed a million Twitter followers and embarked on a nationwide speaking tour. Throughout, he remained so stubbornly committed to a single catchword and life philosophy that when a journalist suggested he might have bipolar disorder, he instead labeled himself “bi-winning.” “Every day is just filled with just wins,” he told “20/20.” “All we do is put wins in the record books.”

The warning here lay not in the number of Americans who rubbernecked at this episode, but in how many were genuinely thrilled by it. A USA Today story quoted one fan as saying “The dude is awesome” and that he was “living the lifestyle most of us wish we could”; a woman who found Sheen’s “rants” troublesome said she was nevertheless “impressed with his honesty — so tired of the lame apologies offered by celebrities like Tiger Woods when they get caught misbehaving.” These responses offered proof of concept for something critical in American life: There appeared to be a market for a public figure who, insulated by enough wealth and public approval, could stomp past all the usual lines of shame, scandal and impropriety, roaring and grinning, shouting that he did not care how anyone reacted to his behavior and could not be stopped. People would even purchase tickets to see it. It was possible — difficult, but possible — to make erratic line-crossing and unrepentant bluster look like victory.

Four years later, large segments of the Republican Party seemed to agree that they were faced with a very similar problem: a vain, volatile, win-infatuated celebrity running a squalid sideshow the country couldn’t help gawking at. In September 2015, early in the presidential primaries, Bobby Jindal ran an attack ad that juxtaposed clips of Donald Trump’s campaign speeches (which would soon culminate in lines like “We’re going to win so much, you’re going to be sick and tired of winning!”) with clips of Sheen bellowing about his own wins. But Trump’s rallies, unlike Sheen’s “My Violent Torpedo of Truth/Defeat Is Not an Option” speaking tour, only grew in size, and his focus on the nation’s win-loss record only deepened.

Nitsuh Abebe, “Power Games”, The New York Times Magazine (25 June 2017), 11-12.