Yesterday morning, a large group of prominent American writers released an eloquent statement explaining the many reasons that “we, the undersigned, as a matter of conscience, oppose, unequivocally, the candidacy of Donald J. Trump for the Presidency of the United States.” I agree with the list of propositions these authors have articulated, and their vision of American democracy. But as someone who writes both about Donald Trump as a cultural phenomenon and the cultural responses to him, it’s hard not to feel pessimistic about the prospect of their petition turning the tide.
It’s not so much that I don’t think writers are powerful, because it’s obvious that writers can exert great influence.
The Nerdfighters, a fan subculture with ties to the author John Green and his brother, have raised significant amounts of money for charity. The novelist Jonathan Franzen, whether you like him or not, is a significant voice in debates over Internet culture and the environment. Dave Eggers, one of the signatories to the “Writers On Trump” petition, has made substantial investments in writing education and tutoring through the network of 826 centers. And none of this is to mention the ways in which writers change the world simply by writing; encouraging empathy through fiction, and allowing readers to consider different worlds, is in and of itself a political act, though not a partisan one.
More to the point, I’ve come to see the 2016 presidential election as a potentially irreconcilable clash between different cultural paradigms.
I’ve long thought it was a mistake to date Donald Trump’s cultural brand to the debut of his reality show, “The Apprentice,” and its spinoff. But I think it’s undeniably true that one of Trump’s accomplishments as a candidate — and I mean accomplishment only in that it has produced electoral victories — is that he has managed to make the race function a great deal like some reality television competitions.* As Jen Chaney wrote recently here at The Washington Post, Trump has run his campaign in the format of the reality television villain, deploying “his mix of insult comedy and unrestrained id” to huge press attention and big crowds.
But while Chaney tries to reassure us that reality villains rarely win the competition series that make them famous, I think she’s omitting an idea that’s highly relevant to the current presidential election. Even if these villains don’t often take home the top prize, conventional tactics don’t necessarily work to neutralize them. A call for civility and consistency is useless if a villain’s fans value crudeness and erratic behavior. Emphasizing the value of skill won’t get anywhere if someone’s fans are tuning in for entertainment, rather than displays of prowess.
I agree with those who signed the “Writers On Trump” petition that the principles they articulate ought to be the ideas that guide the choice of the next president of the United States. But articulating important ideas is not the same thing as persuading everyone to accept the rules that ought to govern our politics. I hope that voters will decide this fall that there is a difference between being entertained and being governed, but I don’t count on it.
It’s fashionable, and a bit shallow, to decry the rise of television in general and reality television in particular relative to literature as a sign of some sort of moral and intellectual downfall. But the challenges literature faces in trying to compete with popular entertainment have rarely felt so consequential.
*Reality television is a huge genre, and it’s deeply unfair to tar it all as insubstantial and catty, as has often been the tendency in this election.