Those seeking to put the Trump phenomenon in a broader context will usually point out that his rhetoric and actions typically stay within the margins of 21st century Republican thought, especially as it concerns taxes, regulation, healthcare insurance, women’s health issues and white supremacy. Sometimes Trump has extended those margins with more outrageous versions of standard Republican fare. Others label Trumpism as the American version of the movement throughout the West to embrace ultranationalist, anti-immigration autocrats.
As insightful as these analyses are, they miss Trump’s cultural significance. Not only does Trump represent the bitterly racist and classist endgame of Ronald Reagan’s “politics of selfishness,” he also is the apotheosis of our cultural decline into celebrity-fueled consumerism. Remember that in the real world, Trump was a terrible and unethical businessperson who drove companies into bankruptcy six times; had at least a dozen failed business ventures based on his most valuable asset, his brand name; lost money for virtually all his investors; often lied to banks and governmental agencies; and has been sued by literally thousands of people for nonpayment or breach of contract.
But while Trumpty-Dumpty was engaging in a one-man business wrecking crew he managed to get his name in the newspaper for his conspicuous consumption, his attendance at celebrity parties and his various marriage and romances. His television show was a hit, which reaped him even more publicity. But make no mistake about it, before he started his run for political office by promoting the vicious, racially tinged lie that Obama hails from Kenya, the public recognized Trump primarily for the attributes he shared with the British royal family, the Kardashians, Gosselins, Robertsons, the housewives of New Jersey, Atlanta, South Beach and elsewhere, Duane Chapman, Betheny Frankel, Paris Hilton and the rest of the self-centered lot of rich and famous folk known only for being rich and famous and spending obnoxious sums of money.
Trump’s celebrity status always hinted at his master-of-the-universe skills in business and “The Apprentice” never missed an opportunity to reinforce that false myth. Thus, whereas the business world recognized Donald Trump as the ultimate loser, celebrity culture glorified him as one of the greatest business geniuses in human history. It was this public perception of Trump—completely opposite of reality—that gave him the street cred he needed to attract unsophisticated voters. Trump is completely a creation of celebrity culture.
When we consider the general intellectual, moral and cultural climate of an era—the Zeitgeist, which in German means the “spirit of the age”—we often focus on defining events such as presidential assassinations, Woodstock, the moon landing, 9/11, the election of the first non-white president. But a Zeitgeist comprises thousands upon thousands of specific events, trends and personal choices.
Which brings us—finally—to the subject of this article, AARP the Magazine, the semi-monthly slick magazine of the American Association of Retired People (AARP). The magazine usually uses celebrities and celebrity culture to give tips on personal finances, health, careers, relationships, retirement and lifestyle to its members, people over the age of 50. Because AARP membership rolls is so enormous, I have no doubt that AARP is one of the four or five most well-read periodicals in the United States.
Now AARP the organization must have many qualms about Trump and Trumpism. Trump has already rolled back consumer protections that prevent seniors from being taken advantage of by both big businesses and small-time con artists. Trump is vowing to dedicate his second term to cutting Social Security and Medicare, two programs of utmost importance to the well-being of AARP’s members. The leadership of AARP certainly understands that Trump’s cruelly aggressive effort to end immigration from non-European countries is the main cause for the growing shortages of the home care workers so vital to many if not most people in their final years. They must also realize that a tariff war affects people on fixed incomes the most.
What AARP leaders—of the organization and magazine—show no signs of understanding is that they played a role in creating the monster. The focus of AARP the Magazine and the other AARP member publication on promoting celebrity culture helped to create the playing field that Trump dominates—that shadow land of aspirations for attention and materialism in which all emotional values reduce to buying and consumption and our heroes have either done nothing to deserve their renown or have worked in the mass entertainment industries of TV, movies, sports and pop music.
As an example of how celebrity culture permeates and controls the aspirational messages of AARP the Magazine, let’s turn to the feature on the last page of every issue, something called “Big5-Oh”: Big5-Oh always has a paragraph story with photos of a famous person who is turning 50 sometime during the two months covered by the issue. The bottom third of the page consists of one-sentence vignettes with head-and-shoulder photos of famous people turning 50, 60, 70 and 80. The copy typically describes something the famous person is doing that demonstrates she or he is continuing to thrive and do great things despite advancing age.
I’ve seen Big5-Oh in every issue of AARP I have ever read, and I have perused each issue for about 18 years. And in every issue, the famous people mentioned are virtually all celebrities, by which I mean actors, pop musicians, sports stars and those known only for being known like the Kardashians and Snooki. Only quite rarely a film director, popular writer or scientist sneaks in.
The latest issue, covering August and September 2019 exemplifies the celebrity-driven approach that hammers home the idea that only celebrities matter (since it’s only their birthdays and ages that are seemed worth memorializing). The featured person turning 50 is Tyler Perry, an actor and writer-director. The smaller features include four actor, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jason Alexander, Richard Gere and Lilly Tomlin, plus the athlete Magic Johnson and the rock star Bruce Springsteen.
Not one scientist, not one historian or sociologist. Not one civic leader, politician, physician, novelist, poet or classical or jazz musician. No astronaut, architect or engineer. I did a little cursory research to come up with a reconceived Big5-Oh for August and September 2019: The big feature, always about someone turning 50, could be the chess player Ben Finegold, the best-selling but much scandalized popular writer James Frey or the filmmaker Noah Baumbach. That’s pretty much a wash with Tyler Perry. If I were editor of this feature, I would probably still pick Tyler Perry over this competition.
But when we get to people who turned 60 and 70 during these months, you realize how much celebrity culture guided the editor’s choice of subjects: ignored are the designer Michael Kors, the current governor of Virginia Ralph Northam, the distinguished Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar, the even more distinguished journalist James Fallows, the important literary novelists Jane Smiley, Martin Amis and Jonathan Franzen, the leader of the Irish Green Party, astronaut Scott Altman and Beverly Barnes, the first woman to captain a Boeing 747. All these people are non-celebrities and all have made more significant and lasting contributions to America than the people the column’s editor selected, with the possible exception of Magic Johnson and Bruce Springsteen.
What’s more significant, though, is including some of these people instead of all celebrities would make an important message about what we value in our society. It would say that we honor the intellectual contributions of our writers, scientists, knowledge professionals and civic leaders. The fact that AARP always selects celebrities for Big5-Oh and tends to build other stories and features around celebrities makes the opposite message about value—that all that matters is the gossip surrounding celebrities and the promotion of celebrity culture.
Now AARP shares the blame for our culture’s emphasis on shallow consumerism and superficial celebrities with many of our cultural organizations and educational institutions. For example, the political reporting of the mainstream media reduces all political discourse to celebrity terms—name-calling, who is feuding with whom, who’s winning in the polls, the skeleton-closet scandals of the candidates’ families, which celebrities love and hate them, zingers and misstatements, the candidates’ theme songs and other main themes of celebrity culture. Notice that Trump is as much a master in these endeavors as he is an inexperienced and ignorant buffoon in matters related to governance such as policy, history, the inner workings of the government and the scientific research informing governmental decisions. Note, too, that based on how much ink and space is given to endorsements by the media, in the hierarchy of value, celebrities rate above elected officials who rate above unions, business and scientific organizations and luminaries in fields other than entertainment.
AARP the Magazine is thus a small part of the giant propaganda machine that created the celebrity culture that created Donald Trump. It took from the first stirrings of consumer culture in the 1890’s until the 21st century for the focus on celebrity to pollute our marketplace of ideas enough for a toxic algae boom like Donald Trump to emerge (with apologies to algae blooms worldwide!). But unlike cleaning up the environment, saving our political discourse is conceptually easy—all the news media has to do is dedicate more of its feature coverage to those whose accomplishments can’t be measured by money made or spent, and cease to cover every issue like a reality show featuring celebrities. Not one big action, but a bunch of little actions are needed to stem the tide of celebrity culture. AARP could do its part by working into the mix a healthy share of scientists, historians, civic leaders, activists and literary figures into Big5-Oh and other parts of the magazine.