Let's Stop Viewing Donald Trump Through Pop Culture Lenses
Since Donald Trump announced his vanity run for president with a kick-off speech charmingly insisting that our Mexican neighbors were sending wave upon wave of rapists over to us, he has dominated the news cycle to a nauseating extent. To coincide with a campaign that made me want to publically jab sticks into my own eyes, the entertainment press overflowed with think-pieces on how Trump's rise mirrored a staggeringly broad cross-section of pop culture. These included Idiocracy, A Face In The Crowd, Howard Beale's howls of existential rage in Network, and Black Mirror's constant attempts at persuading me to throw my phone into a river and burrow into the hills.
We have reached an over-saturation point for think-pieces tying Trump to disparate pieces of pop culture through the ages. As well-intentioned and overwhelmingly critical of the president as these pieces may be, at this point they seem both exhausting and counter-productive. Trying to shove the plot points of a movie into the slots of news history not only (usually) ends up discrediting an amazing piece of creative work, but it also distances us from the threat of Trump by making him more of a fantastical figure, and less of the actual danger that he is to a great number of people.
Not Every Fictional Billionaire Is Donald Trump
We need to stop seeing Trump as unprecedented and original when he's pulling nearly all of his moves from his trusty copy of The Billionaire Douchebag's Playbook. (Now on sale in the White House Gift Shop!) After all, Trump didn't originate the concept of a super-rich dude banging a bunch of models, then bragging about banging a bunch of models to anyone and everyone who would listen, sometimes while make-pretending to be his own publicist (okay, well, maybe that part is a little original).
Nor is Trump unique in wanting to slap his big, stupid name on everything he's involved with and a bunch of stuff that he's not. That's par for the course for terrible men with lots of money and a pathological need to broadcast their wealth in a pathetic, desperate attempt to overcompensate for their disgustingly small, child-like hands and presumably deformed penises.
"Always a pleasure, Dad ... I mean, Mr. Bannon."
During the campaign, and since the election, Trump has crowed about how he has built a business like none other, that is totally unique, and unprecedented, and amazing, and spectacular, and all the other words Trump throws around so gratuitously that they've lost what little meaning they once possessed. That is utter horse shit.
Trump built a business and a company exactly like a whole bunch of other ones. Heck, he didn't even really build it; he mostly inherited it. Like most rich, white, unethical, racist millionaire dudes, Trump's dad was a rich, white, unethical, racist millionaire dude who helped his son become a rich, white, unethical, racist millionaire/billionaire dude through that famously "modest" loan of somewhere between a million and fourteen million dollars.
Trump ran for president less as a real estate developer and reality show host than as a billionaire. His whole spiel was essentially, "I'm rich as fuck and if you elect me president, I'll use my magical wealth-generating powers to make our country rich and great" (which in Trump's mind are the same thing). His entire campaign was built on the idea that he was a money-shitting Gandalf.
Trump was devastated when he found out that "You shall not pass" was originated by a British person.
So it's understandable why pop culture writers have a tendency to see all fictional billionaires through the prism of Trump. Hell, in a three-week period I watched Rat Race, Batman Returns and even the little-loved Kevin Spacey-as-sassy-cat flop Nine Lives and was struck by how much the billionaire characters reminded me of Trump. I should not have been. The billionaire characters in those films do what billionaires in movies and in life always do. They meddle in politics, participate in flashy publicity stunts, callously manipulate the public to their own financial advantage and generally do the kind of nasty, amoral stuff that allows billionaires to stay billionaires rather than being reduced to the sad state of mere millionaires.
Donald Trump did not originate the concept of being a gross, greedy, narcissistic billionaire. Let's stop acting like he did.
We Need To honor Our History Of Immigration Without Connecting It To Trump
Despite being married to an immigrant, Trump has made demonizing immigrants the cornerstone of his campaign. Trump has terrible, half-formed, half-baked ideas flying in every direction but his core issue is immigration. He screeches about how a nation built upon the toil and dedication of immigrant dreamers from around the world should now station MechaGodzillas along its borders to discourage immigration and treat every small child from a Muslim country as a sentient hydrogen bomb just waiting to explode and kill countless real Americans.
If Trump finds out about this guy, we're done.
But immigration is so much bigger than Trump. Just as it is insulting and reductive to define the Jewish people by Hitler's attempts to exterminate them, we must resist the urge to make immigration, one of the most important themes not just in American life but also in pop culture, as the American Tail sequel powerfully attests, all about Trump.
When we see a movie or a play or even a goddamned beer commercial extolling immigration, we should be able to appreciate them on their own terms, as rightful celebrations of something historically considered pretty goddamned special and essential to the American character, and not just as a rebuke to Trump's scary cracker-ass nationalism. If I'm not mistaken, there's even a big statue of a giant woman or something somewhere around New York that's all "Rah rah! Immigrants are awesome!" People seem pretty keen on the immigrant-loving giant statue lady, which suggests that maybe they haven't entirely soured on the concept of immigration, despite Trump's ongoing attempts to make it seem worse than cancer and any Nickelback album after 2002 combined.
It's ... it's terminal.
It's one thing for audiences to cheer a line about the importance of immigrants in a Hamilton performance when Mike Pence is in the audience. That makes sense. The performers had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to speak truth to power, in person. They were uniquely entitled to draw comparisons between the art they were performing and the curious and fraught socio-political moment we find ourselves in.
It's another matter altogether for applause to break out during Cher Horowitz's line about "Partying with the Haitians" during a showing of Clueless that I recently attended. We should be able to enjoy Clueless without the short-fingered shadow of Donald Fucking Trump looming over it. True, the applause for the lines about immigrants in Hamilton and Clueless was intended as a "fuck you" to Trump's xenophobia but they were nevertheless another illustration that even when we hate Trump with every fiber of our being, we still can't stop obsessing about him.
Cher Horowitz wouldn't give too shits about Trump. In this case, be like Cher Horowitz.
We Need To Stop Making Him The Face Of Social Media De-Evolution
Trump's Twitter feed is one long/short cry for attention. Every tweet says, "Look at me! Pay attention to me! What I'm doing is very important and big time and you should be very impressed, you fucking jerk." That's why he tweets constantly: He continuously needs to remind the world of his existence and importance and imporistence (a portmanteau we just made up on Trump's behalf that judges someone's combined importance and existence).
Trump loves to tweet because it's so easy that even a technology-impaired senior citizen like himself can do it. Like all non-weirdos, he seldom uses email and isn't the sort of man to own and/or use a personal computer. Why would he? It's not as if personal computers have any sort of practical uses, nor business or organizational applications. And it's not like owning and using a laptop regularly might help you understand how the modern world works or anything.
Yet we feed into Trump's limit-testing behavior by tweeting constantly in rage about his tweets, forever perpetuating the notion that Trump is the sun around which the internet earth revolves. True, Trump is bloated, gassy, and orange, but despite what he thinks, the people of earth do not need him to exist. In fact, we'd do much better without him.
"I'm going to give the sun back to the people. By that, I mean I'm going to further global warming so much that it kills us all."
The old adage not to feed the trolls was seemingly conceived with Trump in mind. Yet right now the president has the curious distinction of being just another hateful, questionably informed troll spreading nonsense and bigotry on the internet AND the man with the world's largest nuclear arsenal at his disposal. Combine that with a mind that can be swamped with visceral, soul-shaking rage by a random tweet about him, and he becomes the ultimate pokable bear.
It's bad enough that Trump's juvenile Twitter feed, with its middle-schooler-speak about "bad dudes" who must be kept out of the country (although, to be fair, Trump was clearly operating from his beloved Fascism For Dummies handbook, also available in the White House Gift Shop!) and leering commentary about Kate Middleton sunbathing naked, dominates the news cycle the way it does. It's a shame that I think about his stupid fucking garbage tweets all the time.
We don't need to make a despairingly bad situation worse by tying Trump's Access Hollywood leaked footage and social media presence to everything from A Face In The Crowd to The Running Man. Those movies/cautionary tales have been invoked for demagogues before. Just another reminder that Trump is nothing new, even if the threat he poses now to democracy certainly is.
Damn. Public domain images know what's up.
Even Reality Television Deserves Better Than To Have Donald Trump Define It
One of the reasons the press underestimated Trump's candidacy and his movement in the early going is because it, and he, seemed so unreal. He wasn't a real candidate, we told ourselves, and found false comfort in that notion. Trump was not a serious man so how could he possibly be a serious candidate? Jeb Bush: now THERE was a serious candidate, not the pussy-grabbing, crazy-haired TV clown on his third marriage.
The Republican side of the campaign in a single image.
It was easier to interpret Trump's candidacy less as a sincere attempt to win the highest office in the land and more as a flashy publicity stunt designed to launch a news channel to the right of FOX NEWS with Trump's name on it and his big, cantaloupe face all over it.
In its earliest stages, Trump's presidential run felt like just another plea of "NOTICE ME." The presidential field felt like just another realm where reality and fiction mixed so freely that it became difficult to tell where one began and the other left off, and where truth morphed into the nebulous realm of "alternative facts." After all, Trump had appeared in something like a dozen movies where he played himself, or a fictionalized version of himself, opposite fictional characters like Kevin McCallister and Derek Zoolander in fictional worlds, on top of countless TV appearances and the occasional cameo in a Playboy video.
You just have to resist making "He's the real Richie Rich" references.
But reality TV is what he was most known for, and would still be most known for in a just, loving world. Trump took immediately to reality television because it was such a perfect fit for his narcissism, cheap vulgarity, ego, and sense that American life, ideally, should constitute an endless quest for Donald Trump's approval and validation. Now Trump clearly sees the presidency along those lines as well.
Trump already uses his Twitter feed to announce major important moves as if he's teasing Battle Of The Network Stars in a 1978 TV Guide blurb. "WHO will replace Justice Scalia on the Supreme Court in the political appointment of the century? The DONALD alone decides. Will the angry, controversial billionaire use the move to promote his increasingly radical right-wing agenda or enact vengeance against a world that despises him? Tune in Thursday, 7:00 p.m. on FOX News. Lorne Greene and Bea Arthur guest star."
"C'mon, kids. Let's all sit on the couch and watch democracy breathe its last as a family."
Trump twisted a position so important that it's downright sacred into the big prize at the end of the ultimate reality TV competition, pitting "Battling" Donnie T against The Wicked Witch Of Benghazi. So while Trump is famously ill-prepared and unqualified for the presidency, of course he would win a vulgar reality television competition. Politics may have been Hillary Clinton's whole deal, in the sense that she scandalously and unforgivably seemed qualified and prepared for the position she was seeking (BORING!), but television, the internet, and the American public's feverish imagination are all Trump's home turf. THAT is where the election was ultimately fought and won.
Trump is treating the presidency like The Apprentice. He's sneering at checks and balances and anointing himself an ultimate authority like he was on The Apprentice. Motherfucker is trying to host his way through the pesidency. Let's not let him. This is reality, not reality television. We expect, hell, we even kind of demand, that reality television be fake but we must demand that the Reality Star In Chief start telling the truth, or suffer the consequences.
"Classic conservative values, you're fired."
Trump Shouldn't Have A Monopoly On The Way We Think About Stupidity, Gullibility, And Racism
These think-pieces on how pop culture has predicted and commented upon Trump's rise have served an important societal purpose in allowing my family to live outside my in-laws' basement. They do not, however, seem to do anything to change the minds of undecided voters, or win Trump voters over to the other side, or even help motivate Trump foes. At best, I suppose, these pieces give people who already passionately oppose Trump another angle to consider his current cultural dominance. At this point I'm not sure there's much, if any, value left in that if there ever was. It's bad enough we see Trump's gloating, awful image everywhere we look. Do we really need to be exhaustively informed in how often we can see funhouse mirror distortions of him in pop culture as well?
I fear that some of these pieces actually energize the other side while dispiriting anti-Trump folks. I wrote what I felt was a scathing piece about how Falling Down anticipates the toxic white male whining and "White straight men are the real victims" posturing of Trump's supporters. Yet it ultimately just fed into all these angry and paranoid Trump supporters' beliefs that the entire media was conspiring against him, including the pop culture press, and were desperate enough to rope an innocent old Michael Douglas movie into their evil scheme to discredit Trump and his movement.
I don't know if defending Michael Douglas as he threatens to shoot up a helpless restaurant is a hill that I want to die on.
Did I change anybody's mind with that piece? I doubt it.
Trump is so synonymous with racism, of both the casual and not so casual variety, that of course we associate it with him, just as Trump is intimately linked to stupidity and gullibility. That's why Idiocracy has enjoyed a vigorous second (or would it be third?) life after Trump's candidacy proved that the public really was ready to hand over the reigns of ultimate power to a flashy moron from the television on account of being real, real dumb and unable to make informed decisions.
Idiocracy hit theaters towards the end of George W. Bush's presidency and it's worth remembering that his reign was filled with fictionalized and metaphorical depictions of the dim-witted president and articles about his fictional analogues and doppelgangers. If I remember correctly, none of these pieces did a goddamn thing to hinder his popularity or prevent his re-election.
It's kind of comforting to know that, long after I'm dead, Luke Wilson will still be a cultural touchstone.
I suspect that a similar dynamic is at play with Trump now. We must confront and resist Trump as a real, tragically important figure, and not retreat into metaphor. On some level, this is about self-care. I am suffering from a condition I have taken to calling Trumpression, or depression and anxiety related to the policies, presence, and words of President Trump. One of the only ways we're going to survive Trumpression, or manage it, is by choosing to limit our exposure to President Trump. A great way to kick-start that process is by choosing not to see him in pop culture, in choosing not to filter all of existence through this one shitty human being and his terrible ideas and collaborators.
As a thought experiment, I decided to test my theory that everything could be linked to Trump by turning on the TV at random and seeing if I could mount a compelling argument that whatever was on the old boob tube was actually about Trump. The TV belched out Billy Madison. Needless to say, I did not have a hard time at all linking this lowbrow comedy about a bullying man-child born into privilege and wealth who must grow up when faced with scary new responsibilities to the saga of the bullying man-child in the White House who we're all hoping against hope will grow the fuck up now that he has a position of ultimate responsibility.
You can do it with anything. Check out the front of a cereal box, with those talking animal assholes telling you to thoughtlessly follow them into a realm of vague "tastiness." Trump. All of them.
When a metaphor or symbol is overused, it begins to lose its value. That happened with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype, a phrase I coined and lived to regret. It happened with chess and vampires ages ago and it is happening with Donald Trump now. As a metaphor, Trump has become over-used to the point of uselessness.
To see the two inexplicably polar opposite muses in Trump's life, check out Donald Trump Is The JFK For Millennials (Seriously, Folks) and How Actual Nazis Are Influencing Trump (More Than He Knows).
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