Donald Trump simultaneously represents the “every man” and the traditionalist view of achieving the American Dream. He is so ingrained in the American psyche that almost all of his shortcomings can be glossed over, while even the wildest conspiracy theories directed toward the “other side” can be accepted as truth. His image has been in the public-eye for decades: from cameo appearances in “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York” and the “Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” to hosting the popular reality television show “The Apprentice,” and even “The Simpsons” predicting his presidency, Donald Trump is the epitome of a household American celebrity. My essay will theorize how Trump was elected, and how his image and persona contributes to political thought via a concept I call neo-popular culture. In order to accomplish this I will analyze some of the most important aspects of the 2016 presidential election to establish context; this includes controversies such as the letter FBI Director James B. Comey sent to congress prior to election day, the role of social media, and reports of alleged Russian hacking in an effort to help Donald Trump win the election (specifically the WikiLeaks dump of John Podesta emails). When looking into these issues I will place particular importance on the role of facebook and the responses of various political circles within that platform.
The failings of both the political left and right to listen to each other led to a lack of pragmatism which resulted in Donald Trump’s victory. In particular, two sides (the alti-right movement and the progressive-left movement) became the dominant voices and created strangleholds on debates within the political narrative. By establishing a set of specific and legitimate circumstances surrounding the election of Donald Trump we may set ourselves down a cathartic path of understanding, perhaps as a method of vaccination against future demagoguery. No doubt, however, this road will be painful as it will almost certainly come with a necessary amount of compromise. If anything has been clear this election cycle it is that opposite ends of the political spectrum dislike pragmatic compromise, favoring wars of words and mass protests.
The Rise of Donald Trump
The question of how Donald Trump became president is something that is going to be debated for decades to come by political scientists, statisticians, journalist, and media / cultural experts. There are an innumerable number of factors that went into him overcoming historically poor favorability rankings. As of writing this a number of reports have recently come out from the Hillary Clinton camp claiming that the former Secretary of State blames her loss on two primary factors: 1) the letter that FBI Director James Comey sent to Congress on October 28, 2016 (just 10 days before election day), and 2) supposed hacking by Russian agents with the goal of influencing the American public to elect Donald Trump. The former is something that Nate Silver, statistic wonderkid of the blog FiveThirtyEight, has outlined had a measurable effect on last-minute undecided voters in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania (the “Blue Wall States” that Clinton assumed would protect her win). Silver admits that it is impossible to measure the effect of the WikiLeaks dump of the John Podesta emails because of the “drip, drip, drip” nature of their release. However, the documents released in the Podesta emails, which the Clinton camp would refuse to acknowledge or condemn, contained information which absolutely provided her opponents with cannon fodder.
One of the most common explanations for Trump’s win is, as one Vox journalist wrote, “The message his victory sent to nonwhites, Muslim Americans, immigrants, and their families is clear: Never underestimate the power of racism and bigotry.” Racism and bigotry are the knee-jerk reactions to such a polarizing figure winning the presidency, this is often the connection that is drawn between the Comey letter and the WikiLeaks hacking – these issues enabled racism. However, the idea that racism is to blame for Donald Trump winning the election ignores the data available. We can safely assume that racists and bigots voted for Donald Trump, but in addition to those demographics are voters who shifted away from politics-as-usual, likely because faith in government had fallen between 23 – 17 percentage points since 2012. We should consider that Trump won a higher percentage of both black and Latino voters than Mitt Romney in 2012, and women voted for Clinton at roughly the same rate as they voted for Obama over Romney. The Pew Research Center also confirms that Trump won the white vote by nearly the same margin as Romney over Obama in 2012. In fact, it was a small number of counties in three states (Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin), which voted for Obama in 2012, but Trump in 2016, which helped him win the election. This creates a strong argument that a portion of the Obama coalition helped elect Donald Trump. If racism is responsible for the election of Donald Trump, I am not convinced it is, some of those same racists voted for a black man named Barack Hussein Obama more than once.
While some of the blame for Clinton’s poor performance at the voting booths can be blamed for the WikiLeaks email dumps, perhaps that blame is unwarranted? Cyber security played a major role in shaping the narrative of the campaign and the debates thanks to the discussion surrounding Hillary Clinton’s private email servers while serving as Secretary of State. So much discussion has been had on this topic that I hesitate to broach the subject here, there is no new information under the sun when it comes to Hillary Clinton’s private email server. However, one of the least talked about emails released also happens to point to a major flaw in Hillary Clinton’s campaign – the “Pied Piper email.” I will consider these emails credible as no official in the Hillary Clinton campaign and no major news outlet ever worked to discredit them. According to the “Pied Piper email” the Democratic National Committee actively sought to elevate three Republican candidates over the rest: 1) Ted Cruz, 2) Donald Trump, and 3) Ben Carson. This email sought to operationalize a way to elevate these candidates above all of the other “more-established” candidates by forcing mainstream republicans to recognize the legitimacy of their radical candidacy. According to the email, “we need to be elevating the Pied Piper candidates so that they are leaders of the pack and tell the press to [take] them seriously.” In my view this is a damning assessment of how the DNC and Clinton Campaign sought to create a more normalized political environment for the most radical group of Republican competitors. The DNC also sought to undermine the credibility of the other more “centrist” competitors (such as Jeb Bush and John Kasich) by connecting them and the GOP to the radical “Pied Pipers”:
The “Pied Pipers” of the field will mitigate this to a degree, but more will need to be done on certain candidates to undermine their credibility among our coalition (communities of color, millennials, women) and independent voters. In this regard, the goal hear would be to show that they are just the same as every other GOP candidate: extremely conservative on these issues.
Ultimately it was a tragic and comedic series of events that led to the rise of President-elect Donald Trump. The information released in the WikiLeaks dump legitimized some of the greatest fears that our nation had, particularly on-the-fence voters, when it came to Hillary Clinton. Further, the DNC strategy of “elevating” Donald Trump as a serious candidate, insofar as the media was concerned, worked to perfection. As the next section will demonstrate, Donald Trump was already a steadfast component of the American psyche. By elevating his position as a serious presidential contender the DNC actually undermined their cause and helped create a “serious” candidate capable of winning a general election.
On the facebook page God Emperor Trump over 200,000 of Donald Trump’s most dedicated supporters engage in the cult of the alt-right movement. As a way of connecting and archiving their shared appreciation for all things Trump the page shares video clips of their movement’s heroes praising Trump, memes illustrating Trump as a cultural savior (often using a caricature of Trump’s image), and the occasional editorial detailing Trumpian accomplishments. A brief survey of the user profiles on this fan page indicates that the vast majority of its fans are young white males. Would it be fair to assume that all users engaging in this page have elevated Trump to the status of “God Emperor?” Probably not, this is mostly a facetious and playful way of illustrating their level of fandom and hero-worship of the alt-right icon. To the users, Trump represents a departure from political correctness and politics-as-usual across the country. This is not a page meant for intelligent political debate, honest criticism, or analytical introspection. For the most part, God Emperor Trump demonstrates a digital renaissance in white male hegemony.
The hero-worship elevation of Trump as a satirical God Emperor is an example of what I consider Neo-Popular Culture. It is, admittedly, difficult to call any form of popular culture “neo,” as the term “popular culture” seeks to define what is, and as a result is not, popular at any given moment, particularly within Western society. Popular culture is in a constant state of flux and as such becomes new once it has been established as popular. What makes popular culture “neo” is that it is simultaneously new and revived. For our purposes we must seek to understand how popular culture is defined before we can appropriately define Neo-Popular Culture.
John Fiske argues that the structure of society as a whole formulates “… a complex matrix of axes of difference (class, gender, race, age, and so on), each of which has a dimension of power” (Understanding Popular Culture, p. 30). It is the complex matrixes, a matrix being a collection of individuals with similar admitted identities, which formulates the larger culture. Each matrix is different in some way compared to another matrix, although individuals, being complex and multifaceted, may belong to more than one matrix at a time, these difference create a power struggle, “there is no social difference without power difference, so one way of defining the popular… to identify it by its oppositionality to ‘the power-bloc.’” In this instance we assume that “the power-bloc” represents elitism in society. What is “popular” for Fiske becomes a representation of the opposition to the elite classes and their views on the ubiquitous term “culture.” Fiske attempts to defines culture for our purposes as:
… recognizing that the structuring social relations provide us with preformed frameworks of meaning or ways of making sense of our social experience, that they equip us with value systems by which to orient ourselves toward the events of our everyday lives, and that they teach us to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate pleasures. All this is the work of culture, but it is only part of its work, it is only the ideological part by which dominant norms are produced, circulated, and maintained (p. 322).
Thus we can surmise that culture is the way in which “we” begin and maintain our perspectives towards events in our lives. However, it is necessary to undertake an understanding of what “legitimate and illegitimate pleasures” are? Perhaps those pleasures become the popularity function within the culture. If “legitimate pleasure” is popular than “illegitimate pleasure” is unpopular. It would seem that such a vast and different society would have distinctly different interests and motivations for determining the validity of what is / is not popular. Fiske outlines:
One way of defining the term “popular” is “what is most popular is what appeals to most people. Another, a more productive one, is that “the popular” serves the interests of “the people.” “The people” as we use the term here, is not a class or social category, but rather a shifting set of social interests and positions that are defined by their subordinate relations to the dominant society (Ibid).
The dominant society now becomes the central authority for defining popular culture and that is problematic in the modern sense, who and what is the dominant society? When it concerns the alt-right community we can safely assume that what is pleasurable is drastically different from the progressive-left community.
The difficulty in establishing the legitimacy of a dominant society provides the opportunity for Neo-Popular Culture to create a multichotomy of social interests and positions. This is especially true in the age of anti-political correctness culture, movements for and against identity politics, and the re-emergence (perhaps re-defining?) of Donald Trump as an American cultural icon. The alt-right movement is one associated with white supremacy, anti-semitism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, misogyny, and homophobia (This paper is not seeking to validate or invalidate the truthfulness of falsity of these claims, that shall be left to future papers and other academics. I do not identify with the alt-right movement, and find many of their tactics and politics to be counterproductive and often distasteful. However, this paper seeks to create space for the movement within Neo-Popular Culture). However, consider one of the alt-right’s most visible and publicized icons (Milo Yiannopoulos) is a homosexual man of Jewish descent. So loved is Yiannopoulos within the alt-right community that he features prominently within the God Emperor Trump facebook page. One of the most popular videos on the page is one in which Yiannopoulos himself refers to Trump several times as “daddy,” calls himself a “daddy supporter,” at one point says, “I’m referring to the God Emperor and his incoming ‘Trumpen-Reichen,’” applies the famous a few moments later “SpongeBob SquarePants” cutscene to the video, and at the end implies that Yiannopoulos should be considered for the position of White House Press Secretary by the President-elect. This video is a mere 38 seconds in length but it epitomizes the contributions of the alt-right to Neo-Popular Culture, and questions the narrative of homophobia within the movement. The comments on the video are overwhelmingly positive, praising Yiannopoulos for his contributions to conservative intellectualism, and lack any consistent homophobia. In fact, Yiannopoulos offers a rather interesting observation on why the alt-right movement is an attractive option for, particularly, young white heterosexual males. He outlines that they, “openly crack jokes about the Holocaust, loudly – albeit almost entirely satirically – express its horror at ‘race-mixing,’ and denounces the ‘degeneracy’ of homosexuals… while inviting Jewish gays and mixed-race Breitbart reporters to their secret dinner parties. What gives?” It is what Yiannopoulos calls the “meme brigade” having fun by “watching[ing] the mayhem and outrage that erupts when those secular shibboleths are openly mocked. These younger mischief-makers instinctively understand who the authoritarians are and why and how to poke fun at them.” Thus, the heart of the alt-right movement, at least for Yiannopoulos, is actually troll culture which rose out of a desire to combat elitism perceived within the politically correct nature of the progressive-left movement (the authoritarians he refers to). His claim is that the alt-right doesn’t actually have many problems with diverse societies but is instead the result of consistent minimalism of their experiences and conflicting political philosophy from mainstream leftism.
What does this have to do with Neo-Popular Culture? Ultimately, the alt-right movement was created to specifically highlight a perceived power difference in a specific culture; the alt-right certainly has “oppositionality to ‘the power-bloc’” and within its culture has created a set of social norms (Norms meaning for this specific group of individuals and not for all of society. It is important to highlight a need for sensitivity and understanding of the fear that historically marginalized and oppressed persons feel when discussing the alt-right. I understand that this is a difficult topic to normalize). If we apply Fiske’s definitions of the terms “popular” and “culture” to the alt-right movement it doesn’t in the strictest sense make its cultural productions “popular culture.” However, the alt-right has established itself as an attractive alternative to the matrixes which make up identity specific politics and culture which often finds itself in a proxy war with white male hegemony. Neo-Popular Culture, thus, has become both a “new” and a “revived” form of popular culture within the matrix of various specific cultures. The alt-right movement has appropriated digital forms and tactics which the wider lens of digital popular culture also utilize. The cultural production of memes on God Emperor Trump, just one example of many alt-right facebook pages, have taken on a distinct life of their own, in which they both mirror and reinvent more mainstream political thought. While memes alone do not constitute popular culture, they do contribute, considering the prevalence of social media in modern Western life, to the formation of cultural thought and, thus, popular culture.
Unless something drastic happens Donald Trump will become the next President of the United State of America in one month’s time (this essay was written in December 2016). It appears that the events that led to his victory in the general election were a combination of several factors. The failure of the Democratic National Committee to fully understand the thirst of the national populace for a change candidate was a significant issue. This is especially true when we consider the controversy surrounding Bernie Sanders’ Democratic primary campaign. Arguments are currently being made that because Hillary Clinton won the popular vote that the Electoral College is somehow an illegitimate, outdated, or a racist way of electing the president. However, that misunderstands the type of campaigns that were run at the national level. Donald Trump’s campaign organized and operated in order to win the Electoral College, not the popular vote. No doubt if the goal was to win the popular vote his campaign would have run differently. The same could be said of the Clinton campaign, but there is some evidence to the contrary – especially considering that their internal polling clearly missed the fact that Clinton needed to do more campaigning in both Wisconsin and Michigan. Cyber security was a significant issue considering the role it played inundating Hillary Clinton with negative press outside of her campaign, such as Congressional hearings on private email servers, and controversy within her campaign (WikiLeaks). Finally, the alt-right cult of Donald Trump played a significant role in marginalizing his controversies. Social media helped normalize his rhetoric; his use of twitter became major news on a daily basis and we should remember – again – the DNC wanted this, a tragic mistake on their part.
As a relatively young American there has hardly been a moment in my life when Donald Trump has not been ever-present. His image is pervasive in my memories and invades my thoughts – his “Time” covers and radio interviews, television appearances and movie cameos, his marriages and children – they belong to my mind’s eye. His insipid use of language, the flip of his hair, the color and tone of his skin, the way in which his eyes squint, the size of his hands, the way his lips part and pinch and fold, these are all constants in my psyche. Donald Trump belongs to American culture as much as American culture belongs to Donald Trump. Perhaps America deserves the Donald. At the time of writing this the electoral college has “faithfully” elected Donald Trump, it seems that we do indeed have the government that we as Americans deserve. The next four years will illustrate exactly what form that government takes, and what role (if any) Neo-Popular Culture plays in shaping the social and political zeitgeist.
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