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The TV Show ‘Survivor’ Can Help Us Understand Impeachment

by | Dec 17, 2019 | News

Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.

— Winston Churchill

The TV Show ‘Survivor’ Can Help Us Understand Impeachment

It has to do with Kurt Gödel, sort of.

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Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

The reality TV star was accused of repeatedly abusing his position. There were calls that he be voted off, which were pushed aside. At a key moment, he received the backing of two members of his faction, who confessed that they cared more about their own viability as candidates than the truth of the charges. Last week, however, came news that he had been expelled.

You missed all of this? Haven’t you been watching Survivor?

For the first time in the nearly 20-year history of the show, a contestant was removed not by a vote of his peers—the way Survivor is supposed to be played in pursuit of its $1 million prize—but by the producers. This was a shocking step for the show, which prides itself on being a free-for-all of deceit, mind games and treachery. The motto is, “Outwit. Outplay. Outlast.”

The contestant who was removed during the latest episode of Survivor: Island of Idols, 48-year-old talent manager Dan Spilo, had been accused by a fellow contestant, 29-year-old student Kellee Kim, of repeatedly touching her against her wishes. When Kim first told producers about Spilo’s actions, they kept him on the show, informing other contestants of the accusation and seeing how things would play out.

As it happens, they played out to Spilo’s advantage, as competitors used the allegations to help their own cause. Two women claimed—falsely, as they later admitted to the show’s cameras—that Spilo had harassed them too. Kim was kicked off after her accusation became public and Spilo kept surviving, all the way to the finals. Then came the brief update last week, that Spilo had been removed from the game in response to another, off-camera “incident."

After 39 seasons of backstabbing and chicanery, Survivor finally conceded that a community without any purpose beyond winning can turn depraved and cry out for outside intervention.

The nation is going through a similar ordeal, of course, wondering how a system of rules, our Constitution, can address bad actions that puncture the closed world of government—that cry out for some sort of outside intervention. In this way, opponents of the president looked to a special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, to act as the Survivor producers had (eventually), and announce that a player in our political game had broken the rules and disqualified himself. When Mueller ultimately concluded that any bad actions President Donald Trump may have taken could only be handled by impeachment, he was saying that the game must continue: A corrupt political system should correct itself.

There is ample reason to doubt his judgment in this case. If you believe the findings of the Mueller report, Trump intentionally broke the rules by trying to impede an investigation into his own campaign’s possible solicitation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. As president, he was in a position to evade accountability.

The president could, for example, claim immunity from criminal prosecution. (On Survivor, immunity to being voted off is a treasured status, achieved by winning competitions in each episode.) He could also carry out his presidential duty of appointing judges, who might one day rule on whether and how Trump can be prosecuted for actions taken before and during his presidency. Likewise, as the country's chief executive, he has ample resources with which to reward members of Congress who oppose his being held accountable. And our chief executives need just 34 votes in the Senate to defend themselves against any impeachment charge.

The debates in the House over articles of impeachment have homed in on the meta-question that Mueller skipped: What can a political system do about the abuse of a power obtained through abuse of power? Republicans propose that voters wait until the election, which is less than a year away, to punish Trump, if they think that is what he deserves; the Democrats reply that we can’t wait because the president has repeated his provocation. Now he’s using extortion to get election help from a different foreign power, Ukraine.

To cheat in such a way as to avoid being held accountable for cheating exists on a different plane than the “high crimes and misdemeanors” that the Constitution speaks of. It challenges the idea that a self-contained series of rules like the Constitution even works as a social blueprint.

Interestingly, the brilliant mathematician Kurt Gödel, who was fascinated by recursive ideas, had similar concerns about the Constitution’s resiliency. The story, as told by his friend and fellow Nazi-era refugee Oskar Morgenstern, goes like this: Gödel was preparing for his US citizenship exam after the war by reading the nation’s founding documents when, to his horror, he discovered a problem.

He explained to Morgenstern and the other witness at his citizenship ceremony, their mutual friend Albert Einstein, that he had discovered “inner contradictions” in the Constitution that “made it possible for someone to become a dictator and set up a fascist regime.” Einstein told him to focus on the test and “not worry about such things nor discuss the matter.”


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The mathematician never revealed what contradictions he’d identified. Scholars, who refer to this idea as “Gödel’s loophole,” suggest it may have centered on the fact that the rules for amending the Constitution could be themselves amended. In any case, Gödel’s friends assured him that America would be just fine, and after passing his test, Morgenstern recalls; “Gödel had his head free again to go about problems of philosophy and logic.” You know, the big stuff. But still his warning lingers, a caution about trusting words and rules with safeguarding our democracy.

Mueller’s insistence that we rely on the political system—and impeachment—to address a president’s bad actions was, he said, based on what he believed the law required. In the process, he cut out the judiciary and our criminal justice system from protecting our government. One would hope that federal judges with lifetime appointments might function like the Survivor producers—concerned outside observers who could, in rare cases, intervene to save a broken political system.

With that path foreclosed, our country is left to power politics that resemble a win-at-all-costs reality show. No system of rules, in TV or in real life, can last without checks on such behavior. There must be some value beyond the rules themselves—call it civility, fair play, virtues—that can bolster the system under extreme threat.

According to show host Jeff Probst, Spilo came to accept an external agent removing him from a game he was winning. “When we first told Dan we were pulling him from the game, he was not happy,” Probst said. “We talked through everything for quite a while, and by the time he got on the boat to leave he had calmed down and was actually very respectful as he departed.”

Here we are, hoping that life could be a bit more like Survivor.

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