The phenomena that made President Trump lies at the feet of Kim Kardashian, Mark Zuckerberg, and ourselves. Are we not entertained?
Now that the unexpected and the horrible has happened, it’s time to make the initial cut in the post-mortem of the cadaver called “liberal politics.”
The question that all liberals are asking is: How is it that a vindictive, sexist narcissist has become the leader of the free world under our watch?
How did we not see this coming?
The factors that have led to this outcome are complex, interconnected, and multifaceted. Many of these are already being discussed robustly—globalization, an overemphasis on political correctness, the Clinton baggage, the role played by third-party candidates.
But I want to explore three less-discussed factors that I think the intellectual classes should have picked up on. They relate to the culture in which we live, and each have unwittingly done the groundwork for Donald Trump.
The Cult of the Nothing Celebrity
I came across the Kardashian phenomenon eight years ago in London when I encountered a long line of very young girls queuing up to meet Kim Kardashian, who was there to launch a line of perfumes. They were clearly excited to be meeting their role model.
Reality TV stars used to be second-rate celebrities, but Kardashian changed that. She is a phenomenon built brick-by-brick through one objectifying selfie after another. And at the foundations of this phenomenon lie a sex tape (possibly self-leaked) and a reality TV show.
None of the phenomena are new. What Donald Trump’s election has done is bring them to the fore so that we become more critical of our films, television, celebrity, and social media culture.
What appalled me was the failure of our intellectual class to critique the phenomenon. Some merely saw her as an entertainer. Others saw her ability to control and use her own life and body as entertainment for people as pure genius. In the meantime, she amassed millions, proving to the world, and most dangerously to our children, that success lay in relentless, blithe, and shameless self-promotion.
Kardashian made me think of the growing cult of the “nothing” celebrity—people who achieved success on nothing more than skills of dedicated self-promotion, and used that success for further self-promotion. Where would this phenomenon lead us to?
I got my answer in Donald Trump—a man who has taken precisely the same shallow route of relentless self-promotion, under the guise of entertainment, to the White House.
The Cult of the Superhero
When Trump declared during the Republican National Convention, “I alone can fix it,” it led to much derision in the media. We tittered at both the silliness and the narcissism of the statement. How could anyone in his straight mind believe that one aggressive, orange man could fix all the problems that beset America?
I think I know who would believe it: People who have been steadily fed a diet of superhero films—films where the world is neatly divided between good and bad people, and can be fixed by one man alone. What’s more, he is a man who is obliged to no one, breaks all the rules, and usually has a signature color. Does that remind you of someone?
Also on The Big Smoke
- Popped Culture: Kim Kardashian – Our modern-day Monroe
- Celeb endorsement: Ticket to the White House or glue factory?
- The power of social media policlicks
- Kanye West presidential run samples Obama’s beats
Of course, superhero films have been around for a while. However, earlier superhero films were the entrée course of a rich and varied meal offered by Hollywood. In the past decade, Marvel comic characters have taken over all the courses. Complex cultural offerings have become the preserve of paid TV. But somehow, I don’t think that the Rust Belt of the U.S. is big on Netflix and HBO.
The culture that we consume matters because it shapes our world for us. Much was made of the fact that watching a black president in the TV series 24 normalized the idea of a black president for many Americans. Could the opposite take place too? That if you overfed people the infantilizing myth of a superhero, they would seek a grand savior instead of an intellectual pragmatist for their leader.
The Echo Chambers of Social Media
The truly surprising thing about this election was not that Donald Trump got elected, but that no one saw it coming. How could he win the election when almost everything we read in the media about him was so terrible?
What we failed to consider is that we consume our news through social media, particularly Facebook and the site’s personalization of our newsfeeds. If I “liked” articles that presented Trump as a monster clown, then I was just fed more of the same. But what was true of me was also true of a Trump supporter. He or she probably got articles that presented Hillary as a hideous witch, thus Facebook created two alternative media universes for the Clinton and Trump supporters, with each side baffled by the other side’s inability to grasp the truth.
Add to that social media’s refusal to filter or wean out fake news from real news, presenting both as equally credible, and it becomes nearly impossible to say what any citizen’s idea of reality is. Belatedly, Google and Facebook have announced this week that they will be curbing fake news articles by restricting ads on them. But this is very small step towards fighting a very big threat to the effective functioning of a democracy.
When Trump declared during the Republican National Convention, “I alone can fix it,” it led to much derision in the media. How could anyone believe that one aggressive, orange man could fix America?
None of the above three phenomena are new. They have been bubbling away underneath. What Donald Trump’s election has done is bring them to the fore so that we become more critical of our films, television, celebrity, and social media culture.
Guess which other self-promoting narcissist has professed ambitions of becoming the American president? Kanye West. Once upon a time, I would have dismissed it as self-promotion. Now, I feel my hair stand up in fear.