This political season has been one that has epitomized the theatrical element of American politics. In turn, in many ways, this 2016 presidential primary cycle has forced me to recognize the hubris running through American political and social thought.
Honestly, if you would have told me a year ago that one month away from the Iowa Caucuses and the New Hampshire Primaries, Donald Trump would be leading the Republican field and polling in the top-three-or-four of all national candidates, I would have laughed in your face.
Trump’s rise from successful businessman and eventual reality TV star to a major political figure has shocked everyone; however, the real estate mogul has utilized his made-for-TV persona to gain a foothold in the Republican electorate. With a lot to be said for name recognition, Trump has also realized the transcendent power of multimedia buzz that he specialized throughout his public business and entertainment career.
Of all the candidates in his crowded field, Trump can see the similarities between the roller coaster of presidential campaigning and the rise and fall of reality television seasons.
Because if you were to lay out the candidate’s actions over the past few months, you can see that the controversial moments, the click-bate quotes and proposals have fallen in line with the poll indications, much like ratings influence changes in tone for a television program.
Just as the American audience becomes enamored with this staged reality, never seeing the irony of people’s ‘everyday lives’ rising and falling in perfect dramatic story arcs, so too have they become enamored with the Trump candidacy, ignoring the perfect orchestration of its chaos.
It’s like watching a house from MTV’s The Real World explode in drama when their exes arrive ‘unexpectedly’. Except, in this case, the Real World house in which a bunch of strangers come together is a major political party and the collective group of exes with all their varied baggage and associations with the housemates is Mr. Trump.
After all, ‘The Donald’ has been unabashed in letting his Republican fellows and the American voting public know his history of political donations to various individuals in both major parties so that they would ‘owe him’ later.
He is the embodiment of the flood of special interest money flowing into the American political process since the Citizens United SCOTUS ruling. He is the eccentric billionaire, loud and unforgiving in his beliefs, pointing out the faults in a government that has fallen short of the basic function of creating opportunity or quality of life for its citizens. Trump is the one who is screaming the loudest in proclaiming his apparent shared fury with Republican primary voters, all the while admitting to being one of the special money interest forces that halts the workings of that political process. It’s as if Trump is a man after the hearts of Roger Ailes and Charles and David Koch.
He has been effortless in his handling of the media, barely spending any money financing his campaign entering the New Year, all the while leading the well-funded and cash-regurgitating Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio campaigns in all the polls.
He understands the premise that the key to dominating the American news cycle and, in turn, those who consume it 24-hours-a-day is to speak the loudest, sound the most different, and be unrelenting and unapologetic in your comments. No need for much substance, the media will allow you to hand-wave that away. On the contrary, you get extra points for comments that incite tension and unruly argument, because the media bundles those clips into debate-and-primary promotional ads.
But aside from his mastery of media and of shaping his image to those who consume it, Trump has keyed in on a clear underlying current of the American electorate.
Whether this current was forgotten, kept to the periphery or just ignored altogether, I’m not sure. However, in this season of Trump, in this political cycle soaked in drama and theater, it would be impossible to ignore that this character has exposed the hubris in both the American political and social cultures.
More than any other–and despite a lack of any political experience–Trump has convinced Republican primary voters that he is the most competent candidate in his field. Trump has sold this notion mostly by projecting the confident, unabashed air of a successful billionaire (David Frum of The Atlantic calls it Trumps projection of ‘executive excellence’). Trump’s block of the electorate boasts admiringly of the candidate’s career successes in a way that makes the 2008 financial crisis seem so much longer ago then it actually was.
If you boil down all of Trump’s stump speeches, controversial comments, sparing policy proposals and rhetoric from the past several months, you are left with one central message. You are left with a man screaming that we’ll be great again, because right now we are in the midst of a massive fall-from-grace, one brought about because “our leaders” are “incompetent people” who have let our competitors–Mexico, China, Iran–walk all over us and wreck our economy, while letting outsiders–Mexicans, Muslims–into our country and join in on the attack–by blacks, women, gays–on our traditions.
Now, if you take a moment to take a look at that message and unpack its implications, American hubris is evident.
- The notion that America was always great, stopped being great when ‘outsiders’ to our culture were let in, and will be great again by adhering to the candidate’s (only) proposed policies of social cleansing is not only xenophobic, Islamaphobic, and bigoted, but in turn highlights the residue of American exceptionalism.
After all, American history–and current American culture–is full of examples of suffering and struggle for its people who weren’t/aren’t white, heterosexual, cis men.
- Trump’s constant refrain that “our leaders” are “incompetent people” is a call back to his real emergence in the modern political scene. In the dying days of the 2008 McCain presidential campaign, then-Gov. of Alaska Sarah Palin was noted in asserting or allowing supporters to assert that would-be-Pres. Barack Obama was a Muslim, a terrorist, or just entirely un-American. Studies have shown that such rhetoric and McCain campaign material were racially charged. The ‘birther’ movement was born from this rhetoric, and Trump garnered massive political attention throughout Obama’s first term publicly demanding that the president provide a birth certificate to prove he was a natural born citizen and thus eligible for the office. Discrediting Obama has been at the core of Trump’s political message over the past seven years.
- The only policy platforms or ‘serious’ proposals presented thus far by the Trump campaign have been to achieve the end of keeping some outsider group out of the country in order to correct America’s downward spiral. This refrain has created buzz among a certain block of mostly white Republican voters who have been expressing increasing notions of disenfranchisement from American politics and culture. This feeling of disenfranchisement has been triggered by increased economic hardship caused by legitimate societal issues. While these feelings of anger are based in reality, they have been highjacked by interests–like the GOP, the Tea Party and the Trump campaign–to misplace this anger to groups that challenge them culturally, religiously, or so on, instead of looking to the economic conditions and forces that have actually brought about these issues.
It makes sense that Donald Trump is the candidate of now.
After all, ‘now’ is a time where the once dominant white culture is quickly being supplanted in population majority and thus in political influence.
This cultural reality has been amplified by the sweeping victories by Pres. Obama in the last two general elections despite overwhelming numbers against him among–shall we say–certain demographic groups.
Now is the time where the GOP has fallen fully from the ‘party of family values’ to the ‘party of Wall Street’, shaping its ensuing platforms to promote division between American political, cultural, sexual and gender groups, while those groups are being held or pushed down by forces poised against them in the realm of socioeconomic status.
Trump has corralled all that angst, all those buzz phrases, all those loose strands of the party platform, all the disenfranchised groups who are willing to unite under his banner.
Under this banner, he speaks the words that America was great, and fell from greatness because of Islamic violence and hate, Mexican criminals who have stolen our jobs and raped our women, and black thugs who mooch from taxpayer-funded social programs and bring crime into our communities. These groups, plus slutty women and gays and transgender people, have contributed to the dismantling of the idealistic American family of the 1950s.
And yes, the dichotomy presented by this theirs-and-ours rhetoric is one that has been evident since Trump announced his candidacy in June.
While Trump’s supporters sit in the audience and soak in this brand of political theater, when they exit out into the real world, they are just as much the victims of the implications of this demagoguery as the groups that their orange-toned character is railing against.
And so, alarmingly, I feel inclined to once again evoke the similarities between this Republican presidential primary season and a season of The Real World. You see, the show always had house members read an introduction that concluded by declaring to the viewer that what they were about to see was “what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real.”
In the past several months, Trump has helped create and thrived in a political atmosphere that rejects the notion of being polite. He has even used this being “anti-politically correct” as a rallying call.
With the help of the media machine, Trump has kept people focused on “what happens when people stop being polite” or are in any way concerned with their common man. The problem is that our future very much depends on our ability to “start getting real” about our many shortcomings and looming challenges.