14 months ago, I would have never had any interest in listening to podcasts about an American political nightmare. Never so preoccupied debating American political life incessantly with friends and family. But recently I’ve caught myself in a complex conundrum, one where I’ve been asking myself why I am so preoccupied with Donald J. Trump. Why do I know more about American politics than I do about politics back home? Like me, millions of people around the world are glued to their televisions, radios and mobiles waiting and anticipating to see what crazy antic happens next. What insane tweet, press statement, diplomatic fallout, or bizarre situation will unfold.
Whilst the political pundit’s rage on trying to intellectualise such a failure of decency and decorum, Trump sits there lapping it up like a poodle playing in a pig pen. I’m reminded of the excellent 1998 movie The Truman Show, where the insulated world of Jim Carey is played out in a fishbowl. The outside world scrutinises his every move whilst we sit listening to the director of the show, Ed Harris, manipulating every scene for ratings. Or take Argo, the brilliant 2012 movie by Ben Affleck in which he asks John Goodman to create a fake movie to extricate several diplomatic hostages from Iran during the Ayatollah Khomeini crisis. America can get so surreal that it can make a movie about a fake movie funded by the CIA.
“Politics in the UK is frankly just not as exciting – even Brexit is lumpy & boring.”
As a whole, I realise that it’s the story of Trump that I love even though I personally detest him. Politics in the UK is frankly just not as exciting – even Brexit is lumpy & boring. Trump is right; politics as a whole needs an extra injection of “America, Fuck Yeah” (Team America, 2004). Look at the recent release of the book Fire & Fury by Michael Wolff, revelations that Trump knows nothing of the constitution, that he acts like a petulant child, that he is grooming Ivanka for President, all great scene stealers, all part of the pseudo-watergate shit show that he is directing. Cue, the sequel to All the Presidents Men (1976).
No director could have dreamt up a better cast of murky characters to surround Trump with: Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, Donnie Trump Jr., Sarah Huckabee, not to mention the whole entourage of shadowy figures that could have walked out of the movie Wag the Dog (1997), like Paul Mannafort and Roger Stone. Sometimes I think that an agency like CAA or William Morris is behind this whole debacle, going to such lengths to create the greatest and most controversial reality TV show that ever was.
If you have ever seen Idiocracy (2006), Back To The Future II (1989), or even Trading Places (1983) , you’ll soon realise two things, one scriptwriters are prophets of our time and two were living in what Adam Curtis calls ‘hypernormalised’ times. Surreal enough to make you think your hallucinating but real enough to carry on in your everyday life wondering what the fuck is going on. Yes, Trump has the lowest approval ratings in the history of any modern president, but if you were to mark how many people around the world know who Trump is, then you can forget his approval ratings. It’s the Nielsen ratings he cares about. That’s real success to America, as long as all eyes are watching the greatest show on Earth then they’re ok. As long as they’re being talked about then they’re ok.
The old stereotype that you can always spot an American because they are the ones talking the loudest is probably hitting its mark right now, their waning influence overseas that is much discussed by the liberal elites is probably also slightly amiss. Soft power is still as strong as ever it is just inverted. America has a hard time sitting silently at the bar just watching others take the limelight. “Shut the fuck up Donnie”, Walter would say in the fantastic 1998 film The Big Lebowski.
“Forget his approval ratings. It’s the Nielsen ratings he cares about.”
We have to see this president and his campaign, whether legitimate or not, (Russia are you out there listening?) through the eyes of America’s bizarre last 300 years as a social experiment. Last year Kurt Andersen released the book Fantasyland, in which he said, “Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation, small and large fantasies that console or thrill or terrify us. And most of us haven’t realized how far-reaching our strange new normal has become. ”
I think Andersen actually goes way too easy on America, giving equal blame to the left and right. I think there is a far simpler reasoning here. A country that fed its people on a diet of supersized Coca-Cola and McDonald’s, that effectively developed an industry around fake stories called movie & TV culture, they think they have a problem with fake news when they basically invented it. Industrializing PR culture, enabling people to carry weapons where and however they want, that has the worse Gini coefficient score in the world. The US has had two Hollywood stars run for office before Trump came along, but they are unable to look in the mirror and reflect collectively as a whole.
That set aside, Trump is the Frankenstein that has emerged from the very swamp he wanted to clear. He is the creation of all these indicators that have emerged. We cannot blame him; it was ok for the world to snack on American culture for the last 100 years, but now we don’t want it? Did it get too close to the bone for us? Now Harrison Ford from Air Force One (1997) doesn’t want to step in and save the world, at least Trump has “the biggest nuclear button in the world” to save us all. He might be the 45th American president of the U.S. but to me, he is the first true reflection of American culture up close, intimate, warts and all for the world to see.
“Stars in Hollywood are disgusted…Maybe they’re just wondering why their agent can’t get them a role in the White House saga.”
People talk about his potential neurological problems and the fact that he might be insane, but does it really matter when he has the world’s attention, essentially all he’s ever wanted? This is about an embarrassing and almost compulsive addiction to attention. Stars in Hollywood are disgusted, they gather in small circles at restaurants detesting his actions and pondering over why he acts like this. Maybe they’re just wondering why their agent can’t get them a role in the White House saga. When the #metoo blitz succeeded him in popularity, Trump probably sat in the West Wing pouting and chomping down on a McDonald’s burger made soggy from all his tears.
When he is booted out, whether he is impeached or finishes out his first term, he will be asked at a press conference if he can hold his attention that long; “So you failed on the economy, you failed on immigration, you failed on domestic policy and foreign policy etc. How would you respond to that?” I bet he would answer, “Well at least you tuned in.”
Written by Ari Stein, the founding editor of 52 Insights