I’m more fascinated than vexed by the rise of Donald Trump, Presidential Front-runner. How on earth could something as patently ridiculous as Trump leading the polls for the Republican presidential nomination occur? And then I realized it all made total, complete sense. And pop culture is to blame.
For starters, The Donald has high pre-awareness. Ask any filmmaker today what sort of movie gets made, and they’ll tell you that you have an immeasurably better shot of getting a sequel or a reboot or an adaptation off the ground. Including thus far through 2015, my back-of-the-envelope math suggests that on average fewer than a quarter of the 20 highest-grossing films each year since 2010 have been based on an original (i.e., not a sequel, reboot, spinoff or adaptation of a book) property.
Thinking about The Donald’s run this way, Trump 2016 has benefited greatly from the hit network TV program “The Apprentice”; his series of books such as “Trump: The Art of the Deal,” “Trump: How to Get Rich” and “Trump: The Best Golf Advice I Ever Received”; and his landmark, luxurious hotels such as the classy Trump Taj Mahal. His pre-awareness is through the roof. No wonder Trump 2016 is a ratings hit; Fox News must be thrilled with the ratings garnered by last week’s debate.
Speaking of the debate, it’s interesting to note that another facet of pop culture taught audience members how to treat The Donald. This was no staid political event, no boring forum: When he gave an answer they didn’t like, he was lustily booed. Did The Donald apologize or back down in the face of such angst? No, of course not. He smirked. He shrugged. If he had had some more space, he probably would’ve strutted. Because he learned from the world of professional wrestling how to act like a heel.
Laugh all you want, but professional wrestling is a potent cultural force. It was amusing to hear the political classes crow about Jon Stewart’s near-record ratings for his “Daily Show” finale. Almost 3.5 million people tuned in! Wowser! That’s almost as good as, say, a normal edition of “Monday Night Raw”, though it’s nowhere near as good as a truly special edition of the long-running wrestling program. Trump appeals to those who feel disaffected — those who, say, enjoy something as déclassé as spandex-suited strongmen snapping suplexes and slapping themselves silly.
These voters have found a champion in Trump. And it’s no surprise that we self-proclaimed elitists in the media have latched on to the image of The Donald as a latter-day Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho, the leader of America in 2505 as envisioned by Mike Judge in the classic, prophetic film “Idiocracy.” This is, after all, another way that pop culture has prepared us for The Donald’s rise. It has provided a heuristic that allows us to easily dismiss the concerns of Trump’s base and its sense of frustration with the “establishment” GOP. The Donald is a professional wrestler and reality television star and a loudmouthed jerk (just like President Camacho!), therefore his followers’ concerns are easily brushed aside.
As others have noted (see: Matthew Continetti, Fred Barnes and Ron Fournier), it is both easy and wrong to dismiss The Donald’s supporters thusly. Sure, he’s a buffoon. But there’s a reason he’s striking a chord with people, the same reason that Ross Perot struck a chord with people, the same reason Ralph Nader stuck a chord with (a much smaller number of) people. It’s because he’s a straight shooter, a real talker, a man who doesn’t beat around the bush that just might beat Bush.
Instead of looking to Mike Judge as the explanation for The Donald’s appeal, maybe we should look to Aaron Sorkin. He’s spent a career insisting that straight-shooting, real-talking, non-bush-beating pols are what get the people all hot and bothered. Who can forget the rousing finale of “The American President” when the triangulator stops triangulating and spits hot truths about gun control and crime bills and the environment. Let’s not forget “Bulworth’s” bravado or “The West Wing’s” response to the wickedness of the Bush presidency and the squishiness of the Clinton years.
In this fantasyland, Sorkinesque Real Talk inspires not snickering but action, not plummeting polls but massive new support. The courage of a pol’s convictions will carry him far.
If only The Donald actually had some convictions, who knows how far he could go.