The Wilderness | Issue .52 | 7 . 9. 2015 | Tweet
In 2008, egged on by a media swooning with romantic feelings of hope and change, the country made a willful decision to elect an unqualified celebrity to the Oval Office. Since then, America’s number one export has been fame and its politicization: we have politicized fame. Advances in social media have made intolerable and talentless pop stars and D-list cable attention leeches alike into permanent fixtures of pop culture, and have rendered the concept of “statesmanlike decorum” extinct. Now a President slinging a selfie stick or a candidate doing Simpsons impersonations are just a web-click away. Pop singers are humanitarians. Reality TV stars are political scientists. And funny (albeit creepy-looking) clowns in bowties are climatologists. The 2002 California gubernatorial recall race, which if you recall saw Arnold Schwarzenegger beat out a porn star and and a muppet resembling Arianna Huffington, turns out to have actually been a prescient instruction manual for our national politics.
The cumulative product of this suppurating confluence of culture and politics into one befouled cesspool is Donald Trump. He is the candidate that only this country, at this point in time, could create. The media phenomenon surrounding Trump didn’t just materialize overnight. It’s been metastasizing for years in the bowels of Fox News, E! and NBC. Donald Trump is basically the (somewhat) humanoid embodiment of that river of pink mood slime growing and flowing under the streets of New York City. (Note: that’s two pieces in a row I’ve had to make a Ghostbusters II reference, so I’m probably retiring from blogging after this.)
He’s an unlikeable buffoon blowing air out of the hole that occupies the oleaginous center of his putty-mushed melon. He waves his arms in the air and throws money at any click-monger with a camera or microphone. But that’s not the point. The point is, looking at the cable TV landscape, that this same description also applies to any MTV Jersey Shore star or E! Network debutante living under a Kardashian roof. Somewhere in the recent past, not too long ago, Americans decided to start worshiping the loudest and least talented people among us in films, music, sitcoms and cable news. So why wouldn’t politics naturally follow suit?
Ariana Grande can lick donuts and say “I hate America” and can still amass 24,000 retweets for a purple heart. Adam Levine of Maroon 5 stated the exact same thing on NBC’s The Voice and was rewarded with a contract extension. By any measure Kanye West has the personality of a gay fish, and is showered with compliments as pop media culture eats his albums up. Beyonce’s songs are written by men but she is somehow a feminist icon. Lena Dunham can’t interest more than 200,000 people weekly to watch her HBO show but she is nevertheless forced down our throats via endless magazine covers and web profiles. American Idol cast-off Clay Aiken, with no serious job experience or policy agenda to his name, unsuccessfully ran for Congress and oh by the way just happened to film it all for a “gay candidate in the South!” TV show he was pitching to cable networks. TLC basically throws the words “Midgets,” “Triplets,” “Monstrously Obese,” “Double Amputee” and “Amish” into a hat and then creates shows based on whichever three it randomly pulls out. Studios and networks made the decision that they were going to train their cameras on our perceived realities by reflecting the worst qualities among us and we were all too happy to participate because we thought we weren’t part of that freak show. Except now we are.
Just call Donald Trump “Caitlyn.”
“The Apprentice” was NBC’s number one rated show for a time, netting millions of viewers a week at its height. People tuned in breathlessly to see what antics a passel of otherwise unemployable D-list celebrities would get into, or if this would be the week that Gary Busey finally went on that naked cannibalizing rampage he’s been implicitly promising us since 2005. Trump didn’t partake in any of this. He simply mediated the proceedings. He created the circus and then sat at the head of the table and decided who got to stay or go. And that’s exactly what he’s attempting to do with the 2016 election: Trump thinks he can put himself in a position to oversee the circus, judge the contestants and decide who will stay or go. And a sensationalist, click-driven media is all too happy to let him do it. Trump knows a profitable show when he sees it. He’s been happy to take NBC’s sponsor money just as he’s been happy to take CPAC attendees money. In both cases what Trump was getting from the deal was simple: a platform where Trump can be Trump, with an appreciative audience willing to cheer on whatever car wreck was placed in front of him.
This has nothing to do with political solutions and everything to do with entertainment factor; this is the culture we as a people chose when we went to the voting booth in November of 2008. We decided showmanship, stage-fainting, snake oil and promises of ocean level decreases were more important than substantive policy ideas and solutions. We elected a President based on what Hollywood studios and corporate branding experts told us, and those same people haven’t stopped giving us their opinion in the form of tweets or slogans written on hands ever since. Conservatives, desperate to join a culture that has all but decided to pass them by (or force them out completely), aren’t so much looking for an articulate salesman to get them back in the conversation as they are looking for an indestructible tank to bust through the wall and take it instantly by force.
The talk-radio powered part of that base thinks they’ve found it in Trump.
Americans are addicted to the show, and Conservatives, as much as they relentlessly deny it, are arguably more so. We exist almost completely in a world whose contours are shaped by–and at the mercy of–leftist talking points, and are beaten repeatedly over the head with them. Little wonder then, that when a snake-oil salesman of our own comes along, saying the things we want to hear, it’s like sweet endorphines are being released into a media saturated hemisphere. (That Trump has–as recently as 2008–been on the record endorsing such progressive dreams as single-payer healthcare, maximized corporate taxation, and First Female President Hillary Clinton is, frankly, irrelevant; his fans weren’t reasoned into their support for him in the first place, so you’re not going to reason them of out of it by pointing out that his only true political conviction seems to be Whatever Is Good For Donald Trump.) Conservative pundits and talk show hosts are just as eager to catch Donald Trump in a blustery gaffe as their liberal counterparts. This is what establishment conservative media either doesn’t understand (or does understand and is just rolling with the joke). The promises Trump is making about walls, China, Iran and Mexico are at their core no different than the type of free-shit promises Barack Obama makes to his base. But the entertainment wing of the Right is going to allow it, for now, because it offers at least a pale simulacrum of what Obama offered to his loving throngs of admirers. That’s how desperate for cultural relevance we are.
The problem is that Barack Obama knew how to sell his politics. Donald Trump does not. Barack Obama is true believer in the ideals he promotes. Donald Trump is not.
For all the blustering of the conservative Twitterati over the incompetence of Hillary and the craziness of Bernie Sanders, there isn’t one discernible difference between Donald Trump’s campaign and Bernie Sanders’. Supporters of both candidates talk about how political culture is “tired of all the political bullshit” and how the “Washington establishment” has sold America out. Both teams of partisans agree on little else, but they would both happily talk your ear (and/or your eyes) off about how the system is rigged toward the political elite. If I described a candidate by saying “he’s getting them to talk about issues that nobody else in the party wants to talk about,” you wouldn’t know whether I was referencing Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump. Progressives see their incomparable idol getting ready to exit stage left. Conservatives are desperate for theirs to enter stage right.
But there isn’t going to be another Barack Obama. Not in Ben Carson, not in Sarah Palin or Ted Cruz and certainly not in Donald Trump but as long as there are PACS, political conferences, and radio talk show hosts eager to take our money, the show will go on.
I fully understand the value for “blunt objects” in politics, especially in the place where politics collides with culture, but that interaction has to be nuanced and clever. Andrew Breitbart was a master at recognizing where this intersection existed and he happily guided the traffic. Politically, Newt Gingrich was a bit better at it. Ultimately the biggest problem with Trump’s incoherent message is not what he’s saying, it’s his complete inability to articulate it with any humor, grace or authority. Trump is just playing “angry” for his schtick. Monochromatic anger doesn’t sell, except to people who are themselves already angry. Just like rock always breaks scissors, humor always defeats anger. The first GOP candidate to tell Caitlyn Trump to put his opinions where the monkey puts the nuts in that manner most likely will be the one to win the nomination. This is the most diverse and youthful group of candidates running in American history. Their solutions on how to nuke ISIS can wait until a debate with whichever 65-year-old white person the Democrats nominate.
Their first priority should be figuring out how to Nuke Trump and do it with a confident smile on their face.
Right now the GOP field is like that baseball team Mr. Burns assembled to win a bet with a corporate rival. A can’t-miss collection of All-Stars who, one by one, all fall ill/into another dimension of space-time and miss the game, leaving the Clueless Oaf to win it by an accidental hit-by-pitch in the last inning. That’s the only way Trump wins a debate, a primary, or an election. But the talk radio-powered hydra is all too happy to humor him for ratings, and drag the most electable candidates into Hades to debate Trump on the level of an angry, senile C-SPAN caller ranting about contrails and fluoridation — because it’s all part of the show.
Ultimately, conservatives who entertain the idea of Donald Trump, or encourage his continued participation in a generational election, are no different than Occupiers dropping corporate dollars for their Guy Fawkes mask off eBay. They don’t really care what Trump believes (just as the Left doesn’t really care what Hillary Clinton believes), only what he says. But people don’t tune into the Kardashians on E! every week, or day, to hear what any given member of that family of manatees believe. We ceded academia and culture long ago before Donald Trump was appearing with Hulk Hogan and on the David Letterman show promoting his book.
Our media is demanding coliseum-style entertainment and they will flock to the showmen that are willing to give it to them. Barack Obama is more than happy to appease them. Someone needs to fill that void when he leaves office and Trump believes it to be him. Conservative critics of Trump who drop their money at conferences or tune into his television show need to realize that they are part of the show as well. As long as we’re willing to abide a circus of politainment, there will always be someone auditioning to be the ringmaster. Right now that ringmaster is Donald Trump.
And the circus isn’t leaving town any time soon.
– SM –