That a failed developer turned reality TV star and brand marketer could win enough votes in Republican primaries to become the presumptive GOP nominee confirms the essential contradiction of a consumerist capitalist society organized as a representative democracy. Democracy requires well-informed, well-read, well-adjusted and well-educated citizens, whereas consumer capitalism demands consumers who are dumb and uninquisitive, with a short attention span, a high degree of gullibility and a constant undefined dissatisfaction, assuaged only by purchasing some thing or service.
The pinnacle of consumer capitalism is celebrity culture. Consumer capitalism glorifies the celebrity, because the celebrity has been detached from accomplishment or merit and merely represents what one does with the riches, which in America is to spend large sums of money on garish luxury items and experiences. Celebrity culture created Donald Trump, the language he uses and the cultural ideals he embodies.
We remember Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays for playing ball, and not for spending the money they made—although Mantle did get some bad publicity for witnessing a few night club fights. But Kim Kardashian is famous only for being famous. When we think of her, we think of what she does as a consumer, not as a productive member of society. What we see her do always involves spending large sums of money. The celebrity sets the standard for consumption in a consumeristic society. It doesn’t matter whether the society has done nothing like Kardashian or has failed, like the failed real estate developer Donald Trump.
Instead of judging Trump by his many failed businesses and multiple bankruptcies, the average American—trained by the mass media to accept anecdote overs statistics—evaluates what they see on a show that they only vaguely understand is scripted. Trump’s qualifications twist an old joke, “I’m not a successful businessman, but I play one on TV.” For many Americans, especially those without the benefit of a college education, Trump really is a successful businessman, as qualified to run for president as Wendell Willkie was.
Celebrity culture not only produced Donald Trump, it also warped mass media coverage of elections to the point that the rhetoric of a reality star resonated with major parts of the electorate. It wasn’t his odious comments that many followers have found most appealing, but the means with which he delivered his poisonous messages: Direct, without caveats or conditions. Conversational. In blunt language. Vulgar insults of others. Trump centers every issue and statement on himself, which TV viewers learn from reality TV is the central trait of all great people. He uses the rhetoric of celebrity culture, something that prior performers such as Ronald Reagan, Sonny Bono and Al Franken never did. Quite the contrary, former performers and celebrities turned politicians assiduously used the rhetoric of politics to convince us they belonged. But that was before the mass media infused election coverage completely with celebrity concerns such as who made a verbal error, who insulted whom, who is ahead in the polls, who is raising more money, who is more likeable and other issues of celebrity, not government.
Then there is the issue of aspirations. Trump is not a true conservative, but he appeals to groups tutored by conservatives for the past thirty years to distrust liberals and blame their problems on the “other”—minorities and immigrants—and big government. The angry, disenfranchised-feeling white males relate not just to Trump’s vile, racist opinions, but also identify with his Laddie Boy Rat Pack lifestyle, which reality TV and three generations of beer and car commercials have held up as the traditional right of the white male, a right being lost along with good paying jobs to the multi-cultural and feminist agendas.
The increasing dominance of the mass media by celebrity news and programming glorifying celebrity culture created most of the conditions for the emergence of a failed businessman with fascist leanings and a possibly pathological narcissism as a major party candidate. But it was an important decision of the Reagan Administration 30 years ago that created a key element of the Trump phenomenon: the train of Big Lies, one after another, often generated on the spot and kept alive long after being disproven. In Reagan’s second term his Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ended the Fairness Doctrine, which required the holders of television or radio broadcast licenses to present controversial issues of public importance in a manner the FCC deemed honest, equitable, and balanced. By ending the Fairness Doctrine, Reagan enabled radio and television stations to broadcast partisan ideologues such as Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity without having to air opposing views. Right-wing billionaires bought up stations, created networks and created the many voices who made and still make the same false statements about unions being bad, taxes being too high, crime being up and the nation being overrun by immoral and unreligious outsiders (recently to include the President himself!). The Republicans supported, and benefitted from, the many lies of the right-wing news media. They deserve what they have in Donald Trump.
Those who look at American popular culture and its emphasis on turning all human interactions into opportunities for commercial transaction and conspicuous consumption may conclude that America, too, deserves Donald Trump.