Throwing out some thoughts for discussion:
(1) In American culture over the past 20 years, media in general, and television in particular, have increasingly blurred the lines between various genres.
The most obvious example is reality television, which to greater and lesser degrees involves what has been labeled “scripted reality.” Scripted reality in its pure form involves presenting a completely scripted drama to its audience as if it were a documentary. By contrast, hybrid forms of reality television combine scripted with unscripted elements. For example in a “competitive” cooking show, certain competitors may be favored or disfavored by the judges on the basis of what the audience is intentionally misled to believe are irrelevant factors, such as the extent to which the competitors are audience favorites, create dramatic tension in the competition, etc.
(2) A particularly interesting form of scripted reality is professional wrestling — a massively popular pseudo-sport, in which what is presented as athletic competition is actually, as Andre the Giant once put it, an Aristotelian mimesis masquerading as something else.
The mental state of the pro wrestling audience is a weird (to an outsider at least) mixture of the psychology of sports fans with that found in a theater: a kind of doubled or meta suspension of disbelief, in which the audience both believes and does not believe what it is witnessing is “real” outside the confines of the mimetic script.
(3) Politics and in particular political journalism have been infected by these various hybrid performance genres. Political conflict has long been reported as if it were a traditional athletic contest, in which the entire significance of the event is reduced to its competitive outcome (aka horse race coverage), or conversely as if it were a mimetic performance, judged in essentially aesthetic terms (aka theater criticism).
But the contemporary American political climate is marked by an increasing psychological hybridization, in which the mental states associated with reality television and scripted reality — that is, genres in which it what is “real” is presented in a deceptive and/or ambiguous way to the audience — become increasingly commonplace. (ETA: Nick never Nick in comments: “Another thing that should be included here is the blurring of comedy and news. The Daily Show and its numerous spin-offs and imitators have changed news consumption into something very different from what it used to be — they combine shows like Kids in the Hall with Walter Cronkite; and they have an amplifier in Facebook and Twitter.”)
(4) Exhibit A of all this is of course the career of Donald Trump — a man whose supposed competitive successes in the quasi-sport of Who Wants to Be a Plutocrat were actually pure scripted reality, as opposed to what used to be known as reality simpliciter. Indeed Trump’s political career resembles nothing so much as the classic trajectory of of the dramatically fascinating yet morally repulsive heavy in a crime melodrama — think Ralphie Ciffareto rather than Vito Corleone — or the “heel” of in a long-running wrestling character script. (In regard to the latter identity, Trump is clearly living the gimmick).
Trump is an almost literally cartoonish, melodramatic character, whose political success is only possible in a decadent political culture, within which politics has come to be treated as some sort of particularly baroque reality television show by both a large portion of the audience, and by the journalist-critics who help create and maintain that culture. It’s a culture in which the catharsis offered by schadenfreude becomes the prime aesthetic-political value, and which kidding on the square — joking but also meaning it — becomes as epidemic as it is on a pro wrestling internet discussion forum, or 4chan.