Can you imagine if Donald Trump had the same ideas, had the same barbarically bulbous personality and the same comically orange hair and face but he was a mailman or schoolteacher and had only a few thousand dollars in the bank instead of his (alleged) billions? Would we still be listening?
Trump supporters, the press and nearly everyone else – at least at first but even now – listen in part because Trump is wealthy and he is famous. Take that away and what do you have?
Too often in our culture we equate wealth and fame as virtues. These people have climbed two ladders that our society has placed the upmost importance on. And, the logic goes, anyone who has managed to become rich and/or famous must have done something to get there. They are intelligent; they are good leaders worthy of following; their words and ideas, whether in their field of expertise or not, are relevant and meritorious.
We see this, intentionally or not, in movies and TV – the Kardashians, “Real Housewives” – and become fixated. We may not like them as people, but, my, isn’t their wealth something to gawk at and envy. We see it on the religious right with the gospel of prosperity, where wealthy “preachers” claim that you too can become rich if faithful enough (and willing to part with a notable amount of your own money first). The ubiquity of riches and fame, in reality TV especially, gives wealth and fame outsized status and even makes it seem attainable.
This phenomenon, of course, is not new to Trump. Successful people in any field can and do make great leaders and politicians, and fame and fortune do not disqualify someone from having a brain with decent ideas (or in Trump’s case, “a very good brain,” according to him, producing gems like “I know words, I have the best words.”)
But the alarming thing here: Few have risen to the level of potential power that Trump has, and rarely, if ever, has someone in his position drummed up so much xenophobic, demagogic, racist, misogynistic, bigoted, fear-mongering support as Trump has.
At his base, Trump is little more than an entertainer, and his press conferences follow suit. While handing Trump a free megaphone, reporters fawn over his boorishness and off-the-cuff tendencies, drooling over the chance to spread Trump’s latest tack because people will lap it up. Ratings shoot up and readers come back for another fix.
With the help of a starry-eyed press, many of Trump’s flimsy policies get a passing glance, and Trump himself is rarely pressed on the truth (the Pulitzer prize-winning website PolitiFact has labeled just 23 percent of Trump’s statements as true or somewhat true). If the media were less interested in being entertained, less apt to get caught up in the day’s horse race, perhaps the insanity would be easier to remember.
And that’s all a part of the problem, I believe, this confusion between entertainment and real life and a desire to be entertained over everything else. Showmanship and cartoonish feats of power work well on reality TV but how about negotiating trade deals with China or nuclear pacts in the Middle East? How about domestic policies on higher education or health care, real issues that could have a serious effect on millions of people, where clear us-against-them solutions are not always available?
That real life/entertainment confusion is alive on the left as well. In a New York Times article last week, a Bernie-or-Bust Sanders supporter, Victor Vizcarra “said he would much prefer Mr. Trump to Mrs. Clinton. Though he said he disagreed with some of Mr. Trump’s policies, he added that he had watched ‘The Apprentice’ and expected that a Trump presidency would be more exciting than a ‘boring’ Clinton administration.”
This is the presidency, people. Many of us would like to see real change. But this is all becoming realer and realer each day. It’s time to discard the mistaken notion that this is all some entertaining game without consequences. It’s time to sober up and get real.