One of the most evergreen tropes in our national political lexicon is that America is deeply, perhaps impossibly divided, riven between two competing ideologies. This idea stretches back before the founding of the Republic and seems to take on only slight variations over time. Today, those divisions are as cultural as they are political.
We argue about sexual harassment. Hollywood. Race. Statues. The honesty of the media. The precise role of religion in society. Feminism. The NFL. Immigration. You name it: there are at least a dozen topics, some of them only tangentially relevant to public policy, much less law-making, in Washington, but all reliably creating deeper divisions and seemingly unbridgeable rifts between one America and another.
And the man who salivates over and benefits from these divides more than anyone is a onetime liberal New York billionaire real-estate developer. Donald Trump, now President, fans the flames at every opportunity he gets — by creeping into every corner of our culture.
Some people like to say our nation is more divided than ever. Obviously that’s a laughable notion for a country that lost over a half-million of her sons in a bloody Civil War.
Still, there are sweeping, powerful forces pushing our society into Balkanized camps. The catalyst of today’s division isn’t royalists vs. patriots, freedom vs. slavery, or big government vs. small, or hippies vs. squares. Today’s cultural and political divisions are driven now by more potent forces: celebrity, and rage.
Trump hasn’t just infused every single aspect of our politics, but, like some Japanese movie-monster kaiju he’s furiously, inexorably consuming our culture, from entertainment to business to education and every other institution in between.
The personal is entirely political now, and Trump has accelerated the process by which we’ve become a nation where every… damn… thing is judged and presented through a political filter.
Ironically, that very idea — that politics have crept into and corrupted every corner of the culture — is one of the forces that drove many Trumpkins into their would-be savior’s corner. Now, Trump’s the one ensuring that nowhere and nothing is safe from politicization.
It’s a feature, not a bug, of living in Trumpmerica.
Powerful as it is, Trump’s cultural overhang even darkened the sun this holiday season. His incessant claims that he finally liberated Americans from an imaginary tyranny forbidding them from saying “Merry Christmas” were as ever-present as they were ludicrous.
It’s clear what is happening here. Trump’s relentless, overwhelming drive in life was never to become President. It was never even simply to become ubiquitous.
He is the ultimate fame monster, a rabid consumer of public regard, attention and adulation. No drug is more powerful for him than exposure. He is a man who lives by the philosophy of ratings uber alles.
He didn’t get in the race to Make America Great Again. His dream wasn’t to wisely yield the awesome power of the highest office in the land. It wasn’t to lead our nation in good times and bad.
His dream was always to be the most famous person in America, and beyond. By winning the Presidency he became the most famous person in the world, the center of every debate and discussion. Ask the British about the strains on the Special Relationship after Trump decided to beef with Prime Minister Theresa May on Twitter over phony “Muslim” videos, combining his special brand of bigotry, his love of fake news when it fits his narrative, and an itchy Twitter finger.
And so, now much to the President’s delight, just as reality TV is our national guilty pleasure, Americans can’t seem to look away from Trump Show. They can’t stop watching the daily catalog of outrages, excesses, mental infirmities, insults, sight gags, and moral and political pratfalls. Some of it is the pure absurdity of this President’s appearance and performance, a terrible novelty of the car-crash rubber-necking variety.
He’s the Uncanny Valley President as game show host — almost human in appearance, but with a set of uniquely and hideously arresting off-notes.
The visuals of Trump — the enormous, jiggling bolus of wattle-fat beneath his chin, his squinting visage, the pursed, prissy mouth, the wispy construct of his Manhattan mullet, the knee-length ties, the weirdly crypto-Papal gestures — make him creepily iconic. The constant outrages, the hair-trigger fury, the famously short temper all make him the biggest driver of news and entertainment coverage in history.
Every morning, I wake up and wonder two things. First, has he started a nuclear war? Then, when I thank God we’re not living in a post-apocalyptic radioactive hellscape yet — with the emphasis on “yet” — the next thing I wonder is, “What fresh hell will his tweets bring us today?” Because Trump is unconstrained in almost every meaningful way, and because the White House enablers surrounding him can’t take his phone away, there’s no escape.
He’s become the face staring from every screen, the voice whining and bleating in every news broadcast. Big Bother, constantly present, constantly enervating, a cultural presence bigger than politics, and a thousand times more irritating.
If it weren’t so obviously random, shambolic, and self-referential, Trump’s culture takeover would strike some very dark historic chords. Fascists and authoritarians of every variety have desired a political homogenization through control of culture. Benito Mussolini was omnipresent in Italy’s fascist period, and we’re fortunate that Trump doesn’t have an actual political agenda.
We’ve barely survived a year of this without having a national nervous breakdown. How are we going to take it for three, or possibly seven, more years? (Seven, if the Democrats don’t get their act together, which is as always, an open question.)
Trump’s opponents and the merely appalled are drained by the constant normalization of Trump’s daily outrages, wondering what kind of country we’ll have after this ends.
But they fail to see that he’s unified one segment of American society at least: people, exemplified by Sens. Bob Corker and Jeff Flake, who wish our politics was back to the old ideological tug-of-war, the political homeostasis where the Ds and Rs, left and right fought over ideas and issues inside a broad lane of human decency.
Trump’s fans and defenders even feel it; they’re called upon to endlessly defend, explain, and try to excuse Trump’s utterly failed agenda. “But, Gorsuch!” was fun while it lasted; the mostly empty trophy wall in the White House of big legislative wins tells another story.
They sense that despite Trump’s omnipresence in our political and media lives, his works to date are table scraps. They know that executive orders are ephemeral, and can be swept aside with the stroke of a different President’s pen.
Even the brighter ones who bristle publicly at any critique of Trump, quietly whisper, “I really wish he’d stop tweeting…”
Yes, we’re coming rapidly to a reckoning where even some of his fervent fans are going to have to admit that the man doesn’t have a clue of what he’s doing as leader of the free world.
But again, that was never the job he really wanted. Trump’s table-flipping super-power is an adept culture warrior. Here, he gives the people, at least a minority of them, exactly what they crave.
What his base craves most is his vulgar, brutish cultural war anarchy. They revel in his insult-comic shtick. They consume every one of his insults to war veterans, POWs, Gold Star families, the handicapped like the latest episode of the Real Housewives of Vulgaria.
They have accepted the hair-pulling, cat-fighting, ohnoyoudinnacashmeoutside style as a substitute for the things we used to believe Presidents should do and care about.
The intersection of Trump and pop culture has been on fascinating display as the Bill O’Reilly sex scandal moved on to the Harvey Weinstein scandal and to the Matt Lauer sex scandal to the Roy Moore sex scandal, seemingly endlessly. These stories have consumed the nation’s attention, becoming a major cultural moment … so of course, Trump is a part of it.
Weinstein and Trump are so very much alike in so many ways, that aside from their party labels the could easily be conflated. What other powerful man has multiple accusers saying he exploited his fame, wealth and status to pressure women into sexually demeaning and compromising positions? What other powerful man is said to have used an army of lawyers carrying briefcases full of non-disclosure agreements?
The popular culture hasn’t loved a Republican President for generations, and honestly, I didn’t expect they’d go easy on a President Jeb Bush, or Marco Rubio, or John Kasich. That’s baked in the cultural cake.
But for every comic in America, humor about Trump almost transcends itself.
The topical comedy of “Saturday Night Live” suddenly isn’t seen simply as liberal, New York-centric pokes at whatever Republican held the presidency. Now, people look to it as something that will deflate the dirigible-sized balloon of this President’s ego, and the knowledge that Alec Baldwin’s characterization irritates Trump beyond worlds has turned the cold open into must-watch television.
Television shows have written Trump and Trump-manqué figures into everything from crime shows to the reboot of “Will & Grace.” Every magazine in the country has covered more of Donald Trump than anyone could have imagined. Newspapers and television networks write 700-word analyses of 140 character tweets.
This is exactly as Trump would have it. It’s what he’s dreamed of his entire life. And yet somehow, all the attention only makes Trump and his acolytes hate the media more.
Television, music, theater, and the entirety of social media have been touched by the catalyst of Trump.
There’s just one saving grace here if you’re an optimist about America and human nature (and I am). While his fans love the chaos, while they can’t get enough of the crazy show, social and political arson is a niche product in the end.
People in the country understand Trump is unconstrained by any ideology or internal moral structure, and that the White House staff excuses and encourages the worst of his excesses.
The House and Senate leadership can’t and won’t discipline his actions due to their terror over Trump’s base voters, and their desire to avoid his Twitter rages. The Founders hoped that the three independent and coequal branches of government would limit and balance the others.
Even as far as we’ve drifted as a nation from Constitutional purity, the notion of an ever-inflating Trump makes Americans anxious.
So while it might seem as though Trump’s cultural and political monopoly will never end, if we look at it from an entertainment perspective, there’s hope for a less-Trumpish future.
The arc of cultural phenomena is short and bends towards obscurity. Every show runs its course. Even the wackiest and most colorful entertainers move from transgressive to amusing to tiresome to embarrassing to reruns on late-night basic cable. Everything on television eventually jumps the shark, and the number of diehard fans dwindles.
Someday, and someday not that far away, I know we’ll look back at that time that Trump ate America culture. We’ll wonder how we let one man define and devour our national attention like the worst reality show host in history. Well lament that we let it happen. For the sake of the future of the country, I hope we resolve to change the channel.