Many Americans don’t pay attention to politics. But they do watch TV. Most likely, more people know who Donald Trump is than they know who their congressional representative is. The Donald is a superstar of pop culture. He is a twotime Emmy Award-nominated “personality.” For 14 years, Trump was the star of The Apprentice and The Celebrity Apprentice on prime-time TV.
He is like a Rorschach inkblot test — he either represents the fulfillment of the American Dream or a symbol of capitalist excess and greed. He says he struggled to get started in the business world with only a “small loan” of a million dollars from his tycoon dad. For years, he was celebrated in mass media as a thrilling upstart. Then in 1979, the Village Voice published an investigative piece saying he was a bully and fraud whose success was due mainly to family connections and favors from politicians.
He later became “world champion comedy bait” in the words of People magazine. He’s been the butt of many comedians’ jokes. He has made appearances as a cartoon version of himself a number of times on TV and in films. So when he announced that he was running for president, many commentators wondered if he was really serious.
Trump is a wild and crazy guy whose political speeches resemble the stream-of-consciousness banter of an insult comedian. On a split screen, Jeb Bush harrumphs that Trump’s ideas are impractical while you see Trump is mocking him with funny faces.
Bloomberg reporter Eric Konigsberg argues that viewers of The Apprentice gave Trump “a giant base of committed, non-ideological enthusiasts.” He cites a study which shows that Trump’s support just after the second Republican debate was almost twice as high among people who watched the show than those who didn’t.
On The Apprentice, 16 young and inexperienced men and women competed for a $250,000 job doing such tasks as renting a Trump penthouse or constructing an ad campaign for a private jet company. Trump played the abusive boss who fires a contestant on each episode, yelling that the person is “stupid” or “a loser” or “absolutely terrible.” To promote the show, billboards featured Trump looking grim and saying, “You’re Fired!”
Trump’s Iowa campaign co-chair Tana Goertz is a 48-year-old Apprentice finalist who finds caucus goers via Apprentice-style game-show events. She is a self-made woman who spent 10 years going door to door selling Mary Kay cosmetics. She was once the spokeswoman for the BeDazzler, a home-crafts tool that affixes rhinestones. Konigsberg says she has “sculpted features, an aerobicized physique and a vocal delivery that sounds as if it were created in a laboratory specifically for infomercials.” She says, “I do motivational speaking, life coaching, product endorsements. The best part of my career? I’ve never had a boss. I learned that from Trump.”
What does this all mean? Recently, I re-read an old essay by Nicolaus Mills, a professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College, called “Television and the Politics of Humiliation.” It was published in the summer 2004 issue of Dissent magazine.
Mills wondered about the political implications behind the television programming which claims to be reality based. The Apprentice was the best example. There’s American Idol, Survivor and Fear Factor. He called it “humiliation TV” and said its “overriding lesson” is that “people will do anything for money, and that we are living in an America in which the only way to get ahead is to behave as ruthlessly as possible. Forget cooperation. Forget fairness. Think zerosum society.”
Mills concluded that it is bad news for the left and the Democrats when we have a television culture that teaches us that “empathy has no place in our lives.”
That was 2004. Now Donald Trump is the Republican frontrunner for president. Journalist Adele Stan points out that he is breaking new ground by “making the articulation of the basest bigotry acceptable in mainstream outlets, amplifying the many oppressive tropes and stereotypes of race and gender that already exist in more than adequate abundance.”
Self-identified white supremacists, fascists and neo-Nazis have been pleasantly surprised by Trump’s ability to get unlimited free air time. Hate crimes against Trump’s favorite punching bags, Muslims and Latinos, are on the rise. People are debating whether Trump is a fascist or the opening act for the real thing.
Like fascist demagogues of the 1930s, Trump mixes some economic populism into his shtick. For example, he boasts that he will really soak the rich but actually his tax plan is just as regressive as the other Republicans.
Fortunately, both Clinton and Sanders beat him in the polls. How many people go to his rallies just to be entertained?
He likely won’t be president but he’s succeeded in making American politics more toxic.
This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.