Trump and Political Celebrity

It was the ideal audience for Donald Trump. American Airlines center was packed with 20,000 enthralled Texans who seemed to hang on every word of boast, harangue, and self-aggrandizement that passed through Trump’s lips. They whooped and hollered through 90 minutes of Trump speech-making. In scattered and rather loose references to issues, Trump skillfully intermixed attributes of puerile boasting about his skills, mocking his opponents and their cluelessness, and lionizing his “oft-demonstrated” business skills.

The biggest winner was his condemnation of American immigration policy while characterizing all “illegals” as leaving a large swatch of murder, rape, and pillage in their wake. “I just never thought I’d see the day when someone in politics would say the things he’s saying,” Katherine Trevino said afterwards, who had wept for joy while Trump spoke.

The Trump phenomenon is the natural outgrowth of mixing celebrity and media hype in a political campaign before anger-wrought and hate-mongered voters. Ronald Reagan was perhaps one of the first actors successfully going politician, who bordered on celebrity when media wasn’t all-pervading and powerful.  Arnold Schwarzenegger emerged later in California when the celebrity culture was more ubiquitous, but Arnold did not have an innate intelligence that matched his celebrity gift of self-marketing.

Trump is another matter. He baked his celebrity into our media ovens over decades, showing his power and control with “you’re fired,” branding his braggadocio for jingoistic audiences, testing political mainstream four years ago with a Birther message that even today resonates with 44% of Republicans. Now he emerges into the 2016 maelstrom of GOP candidates, all sporting claptrap messages with no substance and negative thrust.

In 2015, the stage is set. Conservatives have stirred up about eight years of pent-up anger and daily frenzy, mixed with the contemporary fear of eroding white power, two terms of an illegitimate black president, the funding free-for-all brought by conservative judges who inhaled the fumes of a laissez-faire doctrine, all back-dropped with daily doses of imagined Obama administration tyranny and corruption on right-wing media shows. Constant screaming outrage has nearly exhausted angst and anger-ridden Fox and right-wing radio audiences, that is, until the grand entrance of Donald Trump.

Manufactured outrage coupled with the economic tailspin orchestrated by Wall Street moguls — all this frustration, anger, hate, fear, and division absorbed in the bone marrow of beleaguered Americans – left and right – just might be the right climate for a superficial, boastful, bullying, but bright billionaire to actually get the GOP nomination, and if the stars are aligned right, win the big prize.

Historians always try to explain the inexplicable – for example, the rise of Nazi Germany. The victors in World War I helped to create the right conditions by imposing harsh reparations on Germany as punishment for the war with unconditional surrender. Inflation, unemployment, rationing, and depression helped bring festering conditions to Germany that made the emergence of a tyrant possible.

America’s situation is, of course, different but when there is a struggle for power, division and polarization are always useful and ready tools for achieving your goals. Add to that an effective redistribution of wealth and income from the middle class and the poor to the rich, aided by a purchased government, and you have pre-conditions for drastic change. Then add the right – or wrong – leader.

In the annals of history, the famous were recorded for the ages in architecture, stone, and memorials.  Now celebrities rise on marketed images, are elevated and sold and then cast aside. Celebrity is carried with information hurled at us through ubiquitous sources of media. We can transform our mundane lives through the personalized electronic image of the celebrity.

Ideas, issues and abstractions are foreign to a media constantly stripped of such things for entertainment value. Thus Trump, a creature of celebrity, who has always lived for the now, for the attention it garners, has learned to strip reality from his image, replacing it with a carefully structured sur-reality that celebrity demands.

Progressives charge him with sophomoric banter drained of substance and mental challenge, but that is the appeal of celebrity. Celebrity is managed so that it’s not dispersed by demonstrated ignorance, not weakened with questions of challenge, or dissipated with points of debate. Interviewers know that they shouldn’t push for answers if stonewalled with non-answers, Trump seeming to disdain any critical thought.

The corporate media culture, including magazines, TV, newspapers, film production companies are owned by fewer than 20 major corporations.  Therefore, the news products of the media are one perspective, whatever their source. The collage of images, words, and sounds are rather interdependent, more and more shorn of real investigative reporting, and thus facile products of a formulaic event rendering, colored by prescriptions of entertainment and production. Agendas and talking points often come first and the news event follows.

For example, few journalists have acknowledged the presence of white militia and white supremacist groups at Trump rallies or the chanting of “white power” at some political gatherings. I would suspect that Trump doesn’t invite such gatherings but certainly his message does.

Perhaps the biggest threat that a Donald Trump poses is what his rise exemplifies. His manner, his approach, his message lack a serious thoughtfulness that he forfeits in a willful ignorance and an infantile attack of enemies.

His policies are sophomoric and emotional, perhaps more tirade: reckless spending for the military, kick ass for enemies, everybody loves me, and a mocking of environmental protection. We saw the beginning of this attitude in the George W. Bush administration when the president mocked intellectual achievement, lauded mediocrity, harangued curiosity and play-acted foreign policy with a Texas swagger.

Donald Trump seems to be in a Bush replay mode but his intellectual tools are more impressive. Perhaps he wouldn’t even need a dark force like Dick Cheney to orchestrate policy as Bush did in his first term.

James Hoover is a recently retired systems engineer. He has advanced degrees in Economics and English. Prior to his aerospace career, he taught high school, and he has also taught college courses. He recently published a science fiction novel called Extraordinary Visitors and writes political columns on several websites. Read other articles by James.