This Editor’s Note appears in the Fall 2021 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe to the journal, click here.

In 1997, Barry Levinson and David Mamet created Wag the Dog, a film about a president who faked a war to distract America from allegations of sexual misconduct in the Oval Office on the eve of an election. In 1998, America learned about Monica Lewinsky: Bill Clinton, you will remember, immediately bombed Afghanistan and Sudan. The movie’s fake war is in the Balkans: Clinton went to war there, too. Levinson and Mamet even dared to show a government justifying war using false threats about weapons of mass destruction, which will remind you of the younger George Bush. Their crowning audacity was to add a Nobel Peace Prize on top of it all, a distinction that, strangely enough, Barack Obama won. They don’t give Oscars for prophecy, but Mamet did get nominated in the category of Best Adapted Screenplay for this uniquely timely script.

Wag the Dog told the truth about the corruption of the times, but did not rouse America to an indignant recovery of republican virtue or a revolt against media deception. Partly that’s because the media is liberal and so was Clinton. But the deeper cause is that the media elite who stand between audiences and authors are blind to their own corruption. They applauded the film’s satire and simply ignored its warning of a coming world where rhetoric replaces politics, words and especially images replace events, and the news merges with entertainment, the press and Hollywood becoming one big TV show.

This is the America we’ve inhabited at least since 2016. The conjunction of the media and the “Deep State” has become central to our political discourse and, consequently, conspiracy theories (whether they deal with Russia, QAnon, or other visions of corruption) now flourish everywhere, from Congress to cable news to anonymous gatherings on social media. We would have done better to learn from Wag the Dog. After all, David Mamet is second only to the late Tom Wolfe when it comes to satirical portraits of our increasingly crazy way of life, and both deserve far more respect than we give them.


Wag the Dog portrays the moral and intellectual decadence of America’s elites through the friendship between two remarkably gifted men played by Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman, the former a political fixer, the latter a movie producer. D.C. and Hollywood come together in these two mysterious men thanks to a crisis in the White House. The need for elite concealment is wedded to popular ignorance to form a conspiracy. We’re not supposed to hear about such crises or know anything about these kinds of fixers. Instead, we are meant to focus on the “fixed,” the types of people we generally call leaders: famous musicians, movie stars, politicians, athletes, and activists. The crisis is a pretty sleazy story: the president did something untoward to an underage girl, and the press is going to run with the allegations, so De Niro is called in to preempt a political catastrophe. He quickly decides America needs better news, and he’s certain that news is all you need to rule America. He will replace the sordid sex scandal with a noble scandal—a war.

De Niro flies off to Hollywood to persuade Hoffman to help put on the show, and he finds the producer only too sympathetic. Hoffman then assembles a team that will deal with every aspect of the show, from the story to the theme song to fake footage for the broadcasters. Apparently no one involved has any scruples about lying to the nation, from the over-the-hill, drunkard country musician (Willie Nelson), to the middle-aged writer who has to come up with one cockamamie idea after another (Denis Leary), to a young, up-and-coming actress who has to pretend to be a war refugee (Kirsten Dunst). How can it be so easy to corrupt everyone? In part it’s because they identify patriotism with self-interest; they’re also all working for the White House, or at least for someone well connected at elite institutional levels, so there’s no need for any one of them individually to worry. Besides, work is work—business has no conscience, and there is therefore no guilt.

The movie producer, of course, thinks of everything he’s doing in terms of a movie, in three acts. This setup, getting everyone together as one big team, or perhaps a crazy family, is the first act. When for all their daring and inventiveness they have difficulties executing the very clever plan, that’s act two. Political institutions come into play at this stage, the CIA and the opposition party, but they are eventually overcome because they do not grasp just how ambitious the heist or deception they are dealing with is, where stealing the election is the smallest part. Finally, act three provides us with the desperate conflict and the wonderful happy end. Here, it seems, nature and God get in the way, but they prove to be no match for all-American enterprise. Hoffman’s confidence carries him through the entire ordeal—or adventure—and at every bad turn or nasty surprise he replies with avuncular amusement: “This is nothing!” His characteristic attitude is a combination of reminiscence and exhortation. He regales his fellow conspirators with fragments of one wonderful story after another from his old days in Hollywood. He’s been through it all, and if he’s learned anything, it’s that you can get away with anything if you keep trying.

As Tocqueville teaches, Americans, even if they lose their minds, never lose their hearts. That rainbow is out there, and self-made men and women can eventually reach it. This is, of course, a caricature of the patriotic sentiment that the land of the free must be the home of the brave, since everything is promised but very little guaranteed. The caricature is not meant as an insult to America, only as a revelation of the possible comic and criminal implications of such great belief—we might be played for suckers.

The three-act structure of the movie and that of the fake war both depend on interpreting this American enthusiasm as making the best of a bad situation. The original plan, to fake a war, is aborted when the CIA backs the opposition party instead of the president, using its intelligence authority to declare publicly that America is in no way threatened by Albania, the country so unfortunate as to be picked by De Niro as a would-be enemy. Curtain, then act two: The war is over before it’s begun, but what if an American hero has been lost behind enemy lines? Of course, he must be saved: America is a country on the march, and “no man gets left behind”! This arouses patriotic feeling as surely as a war would have done, and America can now enjoy the moral glow of being the underdog. The worse things get the better, it seems—until a further catastrophe hits, when the man supposed to act the part of the war hero on whom the entire nation can gaze lovingly drops dead most ignominiously. Curtain, then act three: A dead hero turns out to be even better than a live one since he cannot disappoint expectations, much less reveal the conspiracy. He can be everything we need him to be, above all in not making any demands on us. The nation can turn to piety, to grief, all thought of doing anything now forgotten.

Every carefully plotted accident turns to comedy in Wag the Dog, and the ultimate victory is built, inevitably, by one failure after another—but Mamet points out something very dangerous in this way. The war fever with which we began was at least potentially a sign of American strength. But then strength turns into weakness, patriotism moves from aggression to a worried defensive and finally to the nation weeping for a dead hero wrapped in the flag. Of course, none of it is real, not just because it’s a movie but because it’s a deliberate deception, but isn’t it disturbing that even at the level of fantasizing, America seems impotent? Perhaps in playing with the national soul, this is only revealing the fears that haunt us when once we replace politics with flickering images.

The one person we never see is the president. This comedy might seem cynical, but it is built on a sense of shame: were he an actor in the story, we would inevitably judge his character, and we would find it intolerable to see a shameless president orchestrating this cover-up. Nevertheless, his absence is a mark of the absence of politics, and the movie is very clear-eyed about the political problem off-screen: China, which the president is visiting when the scandal begins. As we know now, China is the great challenge America is facing, or failing to face, a danger perhaps greater than that posed by the Soviet Union. But in the ’90s, when something could easily have been done about it, since America was very strong and China was still poor and needy, there was no statesmanship to be found, only corruption—the profiteering of the corporations, the selling of national-security secrets, and the indulgence of various kinds of espionage—all the scandals of the Clinton years. Instead of facing real enemies, America was busy fighting fake wars because they looked real on TV.


TV is all about the next story driving the cycle, like the next episode of a show. Its principle is that nothing ever changes and the good guys always win, or at least our favorite characters do. Next week, we can tune in again; in a nostalgic mood, we can enjoy the reruns. Fantasy not only replaces reality the more we pay attention to the TV, but it consequently ends up giving us fake memories. The general tendency of TV is to feed us fantasies. Everything TV advertises is secondary to this primary problem: TV is advertising the power of fantasy to take over our lives. In the third-act crisis of Wag the Dog, the one woman who matters to the plot, a White House adviser who has asked these marvelous men for help but fears their dangerous ideas, screams angrily at the Hollywood producer that TV has destroyed the electoral process. Indeed, seriousness has been replaced by “human interest” or, on the other hand, “October surprises.” Wag the Dog takes place in October, not two weeks before an election.

The movie producer seems innocent, although he’s involved in deception, because to a remarkable extent he believes in what he’s doing—however skilled, he is naive. Putting images on screens is not a job for him—it’s life. He is bitter that he never won an Oscar but proud that he produced the Oscars. At one point, Hoffman even impersonates the president, giving a heartfelt speech from the Oval Office to the best focus group you can imagine for politics: the assembled White House secretaries, who leave weeping but satisfied. His success shocks his fellow conspirators, who are all too sophisticated, clever, and ironic to believe that earnestness works.

The producer shares their experience but not their prejudices, because he is essentially as gullible as his audience. He then says he could easily have been president instead of an entertainer—the difference is mere circumstance. Doesn’t everyone believe the same thing when they say that in America anyone can be president? Or, on the other hand, to be successful in America you have to be a salesman, and first of all you have to sell yourself on yourself. You have to believe in yourself, however madly, and then people will be taken in by this confidence, since they themselves do not share it but envy it. This is the illusion of leadership, the image of gravitas, the look of the old news anchors, who were not, after all, any wiser than ordinary citizens. It is speeches replacing deeds, because speeches become deeds in our imagination. As soon as we can put a face to the speech, we begin fantasizing that we have found our hero or villain and can love or hate accordingly.

All this should persuade you that it’s no accident TV became the biggest American pastime, swallowing up everything else for two generations: music, cinema, political conventions and primaries and general elections, sports, and even civil rights protests. We need to judge people if we are going to judge events, systems, and technologies—because most of us inevitably lack the experience and the expertise required to speak competently on most matters, but we believe we can judge character, if only we have access to the people whose character we need to judge. TV gives us that access to people and things happening far away.

Worse, once it became popular, TV took over the education of character, too, so that mastery of TV became more important than seriousness about character. There’s no law about TV dominating our minds or those of our children—TV is not mentioned in the Constitution. But if we study our Constitution, we will immediately find a fearful flaw: separating the electorate from the elected representatives makes it almost impossible for us to believe that the people governing us are any good, not least because we may not even know who they are. What is there to connect us? The Constitution is silent here. We invented parties for this purpose, our first great extraconstitutional institution. The press also serves to connect far away but powerful offices to the people. At various points, churches also served this purpose. But gradually they faded away and TV seemed almost destined to fill the gap because it is as intimate as anything else in the home, as familiar as anything preliterate children encounter, but also as big as the world and as powerful as America. It’s private, it’s public, it’s in-between, it’s all around: it threatens to replace God as the all-knowing authority regarding human things.

Wag the Dog makes every effort to illuminate this problem by allowing whatever shows up on TV to dominate the plans and ideas of the characters. They try to preempt or mitigate the fate that unfolds on TV screens across the nation. But they can never thwart it, nor do they even bother trying to believe something else than what gains assent through broadcasting. Lying to the world is considered the easiest thing; separating America from TV is impossible. The plot of the movie is dominated by the political fixer De Niro because he never hesitates to obey the imperatives of TV. He understands much more clearly than the producer the difference between what’s real and what’s made up—he doesn’t have an emotional investment in the wonderful story of America. For that very reason, he sees clearly the power of TV to spellbind and has concluded that the truth doesn’t stand a chance. He has decided that because America is the land of the free, it cannot be the home of the brave—no one dares stand against the growing fantasy taking over the American mind, because Americans wish to be free not merely from hardship but from reality. Mamet suggests that the final frontier is fantasy, and America is stepping through it. Tricksters can profit by knowing this but cannot change it. This is an interpretation of the “End of History,” the archetypal idea of the ’90s: since there’s nothing left to do, we not only may but must fantasize.

Reducing politics to entertainment has now become the language of the chattering classes, which is not only not clever but is not even novel. Wag the Dog treats it as typical of the ’90s and suggests it is a form of decadence. Americans seem lost in nostalgia. They neither understand nor care what happens in D.C., but they are easily sold a fake war because patriotism still appeals to them, at least once it has been reduced to something like a TV sports broadcast.

Recent fights over censorship on the internet also speak to the replacement of politics by entertainment but in a new formulation. Censorship is no longer about controlling a few broadcasters but controlling a few platforms with hundreds of millions of narrowcasters. It’s so easy nowadays to see how powerful a technology TV is because so many of us are now doing TV through social media. We’re not merely passive spectators but producers, stars, aspiring executives, or creative talent—social media has us fighting for an audience, making money from advertising, and trying to sell compelling stories, whether sentimental or scandalous. Wag the Dog looks only at public life, rather than our increasingly documented or counterfeited private lives, but it teaches the fundamental lesson: reality TV is blocking our access to reality.


The situation confronting us stretches from war to eros—from the most public kind of activity, which includes the entire community, to the most private, which is also the most exclusive. This shows the range and the limits of politics. Even as it turns politics into entertainment, TV in all its forms, including what we now call social media, is an attempt to politicize human life as such, in its entirety, in order to create a more coherent version of humanity, one that follows a script, with roles, audience expectations, and twists in the story on the way to a pleasant conclusion, however illusory it may prove. It creates images of us and equivalents of all the human things we say or do or think. These are then broadcast around the world, fostering the delusion of globalization because they are everywhere the same.

But these images, the most powerful poetry of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, are of course not the same as our nature—they are merely instruments by which we are trying to grasp our nature. If we forget their instrumental or artificial character, we end up with a very funny mistake with tragic consequences: we forget almost everything we know about causality until we come to believe that the tail wags the dog rather than the other way around. It’s a basic error, taking the part for the whole and therefore misunderstanding a being as a function, but it is for that reason catastrophic. This ends up infantilizing us, undermining the very basis on which we reason about things, until we think reality is made by TV, since after all it causes us to accept whatever we see advertised, even politicians.

The erotic scandal in the movie is a secret: it’s meant never to get out, but nobody doubts that it really happened—perhaps there is nothing left for a president to do other than break moral prohibitions. Clinton called this bad habit “demystifying the office.” The suggestion, of course, is that politics is just a façade, that morality is pretense—and underneath, the most rewarded or prominent people in America have little self-control and no admirable principles. It’s an open secret, which is why it can be part of the story—it’s not just about Bill Clinton or any other sleazy politician; it’s about a society that lacks the moral confidence to punish miscreants because it has lost the prior, deeper confidence that love is a divine gift.

Instead, finding an erotic identity, whether forbidden or not, becomes an alternative to politics, a hope that something can be salvaged even as our desires turn to ashes. We see this in our times in the dangerous attempt to politicize erotic identity, itself a sign that the dreams of the ’90s are turning to nightmares without yet being abandoned. At any rate, the movie only advertises three erotic possibilities: the president debasing some kind of girl scout; a political operative sleeping with someone to plant a story; and a madman who raped a nun. It’s a shock to see abuse of power turn into something reeking of the unholy, but this is only because we’re not used to taking seriously the moralistic character of satire.

Nothing of ordinary life is presented here, partly because the movie does not wish to laugh at our simple virtues, but also because the story wants to make the argument that it is the extreme cases and extreme events that best announce which way the wind is blowing. Normality is obsolete, as are norms, which are a delusion blinding people to real changes, nostalgia without self-awareness—this is the judgment Wag the Dog makes of our times. The mad people in this story are funny only so long as you think they’re basically innocuous. Nowadays they wouldn’t be characters in an implausible political story; they’d be everyone desperate for attention, influence, and money on social media. And instead of satire, their doings would be an earnest, if debased, lifestyle promoted by influencers. Everything would retain its implausibility, but we would all be forced to acknowledge that the implausible has taken over our world. It is the curse of satire to be debased by being enacted. This is because people don’t really care to see themselves reflected in the ugliness satire thrives on.

How far can the new politics of fantasy go? Could it go so far as war, when people hate to kill and be killed? Here, Wag the Dog makes a subtle argument. De Niro persuades Hoffman to produce a war by telling him that we remember not the wars but the slogans: “54 50 or Fight!,” “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too!,” “Remember the Maine!” The implication is that Americans are imperialists, and they fight whoever gets in the way—but America has no memory of its past; it’s always looking to the future instead, so this is imperialism without a bad conscience. There’s no downside to fighting wars, nor is there any need to worry about the justice of the cause. If people feel their fighting spirits rise, America’s happy. Since we forget the past, we can get away with anything.

What about those men who want not to be forgotten, who want their greatness remembered: the founders, the heroes, the most American Americans? They will have to be replaced with shadowy figures too aware of their impermanence to have moral scruples. The suggestion is that America is now in the habit of doing much evil under the guise of patriotism, since the fantasies of TV give perfect cover. It’s not just that propaganda could deceive us, but that novelty by itself makes us forgetful, inattentive, unlikely to be too judgmental.


Taken to its conclusion, this view of the politicization of our lives seems to say that America has turned into FantasyLand, like a Disney extravaganza, and the only real thing left is something like the imaginary story of Wag the Dog. The strangest thing about Wag the Dog is that it offers us an inside view of politics while telling us that nobody can find out the truth about politics anymore. This is paradoxical, but it makes sense if we remember the movie’s fate: America heard the truth about the crazy ’90s and nobody cared.

Wag the Dog presents political corruption without moral condemnation. In part we can call this a result of the all-American love of adventure—it’s a story, it has audacity, enterprise, and a very low view of morality. But satire is characteristically very serious about morality, serious above all about the dangers of replacing seriousness with entertainment, and so it must do more than expose corruption—it must explain why morality is losing out to decadence. A movie that shows us how ugly crimes successfully masquerade as high patriotism points to the idea that crime is more moral than lawfulness. This is rather like the beloved liberal slogan that says dissent is the highest form of patriotism. The implication is twofold: first, high moral virtue is very rare and therefore undemocratic, whereas everyone can be a criminal; second, high moral virtue seems to be entirely a lie—it conceals low motives behind a noble façade and sets up great statues of heroes, but they’re all hollow. Crime is comparatively honest, free of boasting.

Nobody wants to be a sucker in America, or to be taken for a sucker—from that point of view, corruption seems realistic, since we all know it’s happening, whereas idealism seems to be a lie the powerful tell in order to get away with murder. Corruption suggests to everyone that they are right to despise politics and to fail to act in a public-spirited way. But corruption does not merely offer moral liberation from the great burdens of citizenship; it also offers intellectual liberation. It reassures us that all there is to life are conspiracy theories and their debunking, so that we don’t need to think about the character of politics and its limits or where we should act forcefully and where we should reconcile ourselves to disappointment.

Wag the Dog does not attempt to fix this central problem—America is a nation of patriots who hate themselves whenever they come to suspect that their patriotism is being used against them by corrupt but much more successful people. As we say, nice guys finish last. Instead, the movie tries to show just how far the American dependence on the medium of TV has corrupted us: America is being replaced by FantasyLand before our eyes, yet we don’t notice because we’ve lost the pride to demand the real thing instead of pleasing images. The intention of the movie overall is to excite contempt rather than indignation—not to start a revolution but to show us the magicians of TV as the debased people they really are.

If there is merit to this description of the great heist of our times, the stealing of the American mind, then understanding the problem will allow us to figure out at least some elements of the solution. For example, the very charming political fixer and producer couple could just as easily work against our debasing elites as for them—if anyone were interested in giving such men a job worth their time, a job that could put their talent to work. Mamet’s stories often turn on the Socratic idea that the best doctor is by definition also the best poisoner; or as we say, it might take a thief to catch a thief. The vast American democracy needs mediating institutions to let people know where they stand and how things are going—some kind of press and cinema are necessary if we are to make sense of ourselves—but Hollywood and D.C. should be as strictly separated as possible. We need better storytelling to prepare us to judge more seriously, and more harshly, the delusions of our elites.

Titus Techera is the executive director of the American Cinema Foundation.