Some Thoughts on Fame and the Political Ascendancy of Donald Trump – posted 1/2/2017 and published in the Concord Monitor on 2/12/2017
Probably for a long time people are going to be trying to understand why Donald Trump won the presidency.
So far, most of the answers I have seen are neither satisfactory explanations nor are they very probing. We are talking about electing someone who has been a television reality game show host, someone with no relevant political experience. True, he has been a businessman and a real estate magnate but his focus has been selling his own brand for personal profit.
Trump used fame and celebrity to catapult himself ahead of the pack. He believed there was no such thing as bad publicity. This was epitomized by his statement that he could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and he would not lose voters.
By tweeting outrageous things almost everyday and by following that up with complementary speeches, he made himself the story. He obtained massive free publicity this way. What he said became daily news. None of his opponents could grasp or imitate it.
Although Trump has constantly been demeaning reporters, ironically, it was the media’s non-stop coverage that moved him ahead of his Republican rivals. The media played into Trump’s hand by giving him so much free coverage. Of course, they had their own cynical reasons. Trump jumped their ratings. People tuned in to hear the next outrageous thing he said.
I think Trump’s rise is tied directly to the increasing influence of celebrity culture. In America, we pay disproportionate attention to stars whether they are in TV, movies, music or sports. As a TV star for years and as someone who worked hard at staying in the public eye, Trump had no problem with name recognition. He had been a character in Doonesbury for 30 years. For many candidates, just becoming known is a major challenge.
Trump knew that being a celebrity was also a way to sell his brand. Celebrity is fundamentally a marketing tool. Doubters should check out the massive literature on celebrity branding. Association of stars with a brand is a primary way to make the brand more popular and sometimes edgy. In Trump’s case, he used his celebrity to sell himself like a commodity. Mixed into the campaign was his selling of Trump steaks, wines, golf courses and hotels. Reflecting a new level of crassness, there was no degree of separation of private businesses from the campaign.
Fame has now become a dominant value in our culture. Consider all the TV shows like Access Hollywood, Entertainment Tonight, The Kardashians, and Celebrity Apprentice. It does not matter that celebrities may be all about empty glitz. While some may be extremely talented in a discipline, that is certainly no requirement. No positive human value necessarily attaches to celebrity.
A study published in the journal Cyberpsychology documents a societal shift in dominant values among young people over the last 20 years or so. In 1997, dominant values demonstrated in their survey were community feeling and benevolence. By 2007, fame came in first, followed by achievement, image, popularity and financial success. By 2007, in the aspirational value ranking, community feeling fell to 11th place and benevolence was 12th out of the 16 values ranked. In 1997, fame had been 15th out of 16.
A 2006 survey from the Pew Research Center aimed at 18 to 25-year-olds found that 51% cited being famous as either the first or second most important life goal for their generation.
The writer George Monbiot has written that the principal qualities in a celebrity are vapidity, vacuity, and physical beauty.
Trump embodies the vacuous nature of celebrity. His career has been about the pursuit of money and self-aggrandizement. He appears to have an unquenchable appetite for self-praise and for being flattered. At the same time, he is utterly lacking in intellectual curiosity, empathy, or any sense of compassion. His strongest feelings run toward revenge.
In spite of all the awful things Trump has said, you know he stands for nothing except his own self-promotion and wealth. He seems to get most upset when anyone questions how rich he is. He would, no doubt, reverse almost any of his positions if he decided that was advantageous. He used to be a Democrat and he was pro-choice. When he decided to become a Republican, he shed his old positions like a snake shedding skin.
Never has a candidate for President had less regard for the truth. That is an assertion that is hard to question. People now talk about living in a post-truth environment. It is hard not to think of George Orwell:
“Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
The best articulation of Trump’s message that I have seen comes from the law professor and writer, Stanley Fish. Fish described Trump’s message this way:
“…I am Donald Trump; nobody owns me. I don’t pander to you: I don’t pretend to be nice and polite. I am rich and that’s what you would like to be; I’m a winner; I beat people at their own game, and if you vote for me I will beat our adversaries; if you want wonky policy details, go with those losers who offer you ten-point plans; if you want to feel good about yourselves and your country, stick with me.”
I would have to acknowledge the message worked – at least to the extent of obtaining an electoral victory if not a popular vote victory. While I see the election result as a failure of critical thinking, it was a product of what was widely perceived as a bad choice between two actively disliked candidates. Both had hugely high unfavorability ratings. So many people voted against the other candidate. This worked both ways.
It remains to be seen whether Trump will function as a normal-type conservative, business-oriented President or whether he will veer in a quasi-fascist, authoritarian direction like an American Putin. His scapegoating tendencies are profoundly disturbing. When things go south, as they inevitably will, he will be looking for others to blame.
An unfortunate aspect of celebrity is its profoundly demobilizing character. I think it is true that the people most interested in celebrity are usually those least engaged in politics. Celebrity is a spectacle, a distraction from everyday life, and a way to tune out difficult realities. For the viewer, it is a relationship of passivity.
It is too early to know whether Trump will seek to mobilize his more fanatic followers in brown shirt fashion. The idea this one-percenter will take more than token symbolic action against income inequality remains highly dubious.
As for fame, I will leave the last words to Mark Twain:
“Fame is a vapor; popularity an accident; the only earthly certainty is oblivion.”