My friend Joe (not his real name) looked up from my Barcalounger, which he's been hogging all week. One tentacle held the remote, the other an empty bag of Smartfood.
"I have two questions for you," he said. "The briefing papers I read on the way here gave the impression that your planet was in deep - what do you say?"
"Yes. Melting icecaps, rising sea levels, rampant extinctions, hurricanes, draught. War, terror, genocide, government-sanctioned torture. People losing their homes. Food riots. Financial collapse."
"Sounds about right."
"But on this screen of yours all anyone talks about is some guy who ordered orange juice instead of coffee, and was bad at knocking things over with a heavy ball, and said something about people in small towns being bitter."
"That's what he said."
"How many of them has he tasted?"
"In this context, 'bitter' means angry and disillusioned. He said some small-town people are bitter because their jobs have been shipped overseas, their communities have been gutted, and politicians keep making promises to them and then screwing them."
"No. Cheating them, exploiting them. After a while, he said, people stop believing that their votes can improve their lives, so instead they vote to protect the things they have left, like their guns and their faith. That's how the party of the rich stays in power."
"Is that true?"
"Then why did he get in trouble for saying it?"
"Because it makes him sound like an elitist."
"Is he an elitist?"
"Of course not. He was raised by a single mother who had to rely on foodstamps, and by grandparents who just barely managed to stay middle class. He worked as an organizer in communities devastated by the shuttering of steel plants. He and his wife only recently finished paying off their college loans."
"So who is calling him an elitist?"
"A man who's been living off his wife's $100 million fortune for the past quarter-century while supporting policies that have made the rich richer, the poor poorer, and the middle class poor. Who has eight homes, and thinks that when people lose their homes it's their own fault."
"A woman who grew up in an upper-middle-class family, has lived in mansions all her adult life, and had an income of $109 million over the past eight years. And who worked hard to pass the trade agreement that helped these small-town people lose their jobs."
"So I guess this man and this woman belong to the same party - the party of the rich?"
Joe eyed me keenly as only a creature with three eyes can.
"On second thought," I said, "maybe they do."
"Why does anyone believe them?"
"No one does, really."
"So why do the people on the screen keep repeating their words?"
"Because the people on the screen are rich, too, and spend their lives being driven in big cars from big houses to fancy restaurants to TV studios, and don't have the vaguest idea what ordinary people think."
"Then why do ordinary people bother watching the screen at all?"
"I don't know, really. I guess it's addictive. What was your second question?"
Joe smiled. With his left tentacle - its indigo sheen now smudged with whitish grease - he held up the empty bag of Smartfood.