Donald Trump’s ascendancy has prompted a lot of soul-searching among establishment figures and institutions who failed to predict or stop him, among them pundits who insisted publicly and repeatedly that there was no way he could possibly become the Republican Party’s nominee, much less the president of the United States. So given that Trump’s victory in the Indiana Republican primary last night virtually assures the former outcome, I figured I might as well revisit my own coverage of Trump over the course of his campaign to see whether I owe you all any serious mea culpas.
I first wrote about Trump last June in a piece headlined “Why Donald Trump is running for president now — and why it’s great to have him.” I still think the analysis in that piece, that Trump was finally acting on his long-stated political ambitions because the fragmentation of the television landscape meant he had less to lose from entering politics than at any previous point in his entertainment or real estate careers, holds true.
But clearly, when I predicted that Trump was mostly jumping into the race to pivot to another profitable media career in conservative punditry, I underestimated his prospects. And when I welcomed Trump into the race, suggesting that his primary purpose would be to expose the racket that people like Mike Huckabee and Ben Carson use, launching presidential campaigns not to make serious bids for the presidency but to boost their book sales and TV contracts, I didn’t anticipate all the other ugly strains in U.S. politics that he’d help bring to the surface. Whether his candidacy ends up being a useful purgative of lingering racism, xenophobia and sexism, or whether it reinvigorates some latent nastiness, is something I won’t try to predict.
If seeing Trump primarily in media terms led me to underestimate Trump’s ambitions, I do think that those of us who covered him from a cultural perspective were somewhat better-prepared for the idea that Trump might actually be popular, both in terms of his own image and in terms of his ability to play into existing cultural scripts (even if we still assumed that you have to graft political experience like Ronald Reagan’s onto an entertainment career to get serious traction).
Observers often talk about “The Apprentice” as if it’s the only piece of pop culture on Trump’s résumé. But Trump had been a media staple for years before he embraced reality television, making cameos that burnished his image as wealthy, tasteful, straight-talking and even sexy.
And I still think Sonny Bunch’s August 2015 Act Four post on how the Hollywood fantasy of a straight-talking president, advanced most eloquently by Aaron Sorkin in “The American President” and “The West Wing,” was more likely to produce a candidate like Trump than a liberal icon holds up extremely well.
In recent years, news sites have raked in traffic by posting clips from “The Daily Show,” “The Colbert Report” and “Last Week Tonight” and declaring that Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert or John Oliver had destroyed! or decimated! or shut down! some particular line of thinking, even as politics have continued on after these segments just the same as always. Trump, by contrast, spoke aloud sentiments that a certain segment of the American electorate whose views weren’t in line with these late-night liberals saw as equally devastating truths, and actually changed the course of the Republican race and perhaps the country.
Trump’s savvy isn’t simply in positioning himself as the anti-Colbert, or anti-Jed Bartlet. It was in knowing how to pick and win the kinds of cultural fights that have previously been largely confined to entertainment trade publications, or to cultural fandoms.
The calls to cut him out from the Miss Universe pageant and to cancel “The Apprentice” franchise that began after Trump’s comments about Mexican immigrants weren’t great for Trump as business propositions. But the unwinding of his involvement in both events allowed Trump to position himself as a truth-teller liberal Hollywood couldn’t abide, as opposed to a media entrepreneur whose flagship property was losing steam. Trump’s position or record aside, feuding with his old employers helped Trump position himself as conservative.
In a similar way, covering blowups in video gaming and science fiction and fantasy fandoms made it easier to recognize just how successful Trump’s aggrieved narratives, in which white men are getting pushed aside and asked to sacrifice for women and people of color, could be. The rise of Gamergate, a protean but durable movement of video game fans, or campaigns to promote conservative slates for for science fiction and fantasy writing awards, made it easy to see how deep certain resentments lie, how easily they could be activated and how figures who were willing to step beyond the normal boundaries that govern public discourse could become prominent against expectations.
Of course, seeing Donald Trump coming is only of limited use. I don’t know that mass culture has any answers about how to keep Trump from being elected, and it definitely doesn’t have policy solutions for the real material problems that have interacted with racial and class resentments to fuel Trump’s rise. But if nothing else, Trump’s rise is a reminder that culture — even culture less blunt than the oft-cited “Idiocracy” — can function as an early warning system.