As an icebreaker, I ask students taking my course on American comedy and humour, “Who is the funniest person in the United States?” In July last year, the droll first response was “Donald Trump.” He was not the answer in July this year.
What changed? Obviously, the stakes were different. He was a few swing states away from the US presidency, something impossible to conceive of last year, something impossible to countenance up until Election Day, and the reality for at least the next four years.
The polling and the predictions did not bear out. “When you realize,” wrote the cultural historian, Robert Darnton, in The Great Cat Massacre, “that you are not getting something—a joke, a proverb, a ceremony—that is particularly meaningful to the natives, you can see where to grasp a foreign system of meaning in order to unravel it.” Perhaps we must look beyond big data and a STEM-oriented production of knowledge to understand Trump’s win. A proposition: the US presidential campaign is pop culture.
It definitely has a culture. Anything that lasts for so long must, especially if so many are watching – even more so if those watching include a continuous news cycle that increasingly incorporates netizen journalism and social media.
Trump used this culture more successfully than Clinton because he forced the campaign to become, almost wholly, pop culture: that is, the domain of mass entertainment consumed, distributed, and created according to shifting and entrenched tastes.
Cultural theorist Stuart Hall wrote that popular culture “is the arena of consent and resistance. It is partly where hegemony arises, and where it is secured.” For example, “Build the Wall!” is the barest immigration policy. It is, however, when coupled with a demonization of out-groups (Mexicans, Muslims), a provocative cold open to an outrageous act that catches on, spread by word of actual and virtual mouth, a slogan that can stand for everything from hateful xenophobia to evidence of Washington’s failure to economic anxiety under global capitalism.
Like old-school comedians, Trump takes control of the room by physically dominating the stage and hectoring the audience into submission. Much like many male, establishment comedians in the wake of the furore around Daniel Tosh’s rape joke, supporters defended his right to say whatever he wants to get a laugh (that is, a vote), praising his outsider fearlessness in a politically correct and politically corrupt America. His chauvinistic and racist comments reek of many things—including the authenticity so prized, contemporarily, of tell-it-like-it-is comics (Jon Stewart, Amy Schumer, Louis CK).
The media reported Trump’s act, and mildly held it to account. But his supporters and proxies spun and blustered and obfuscated, so that the reports are just part of the scene, like drinks being served in a comedy club – they only fuel the response and spread the punchlines.
Clinton was reduced to an insistent heckler. Hecklers never look good. They ruin the act. They bum everybody out: “Sit down and shut up and let him get on with the show.”
Clinton cannot “win” at pop culture. She admitted as much at her Democratic National Convention speech: “I get it that some people just don’t know what to make of me.” Uncertainty is disturbing, and it allowed Trump and his supporters to make something of her for themselves.
Her contrived attempts to reach young people (“More like Chillary, Am I right?”) were instantly lampooned for their inauthenticity. According to a Gallup Poll tracking July 11-Sept 18, the words Americans mentioned hearing most in relation to Clinton were “email” followed by “lie,” “health,” “speech,” “scandal” and “foundation.” For Trump, “the top substantive words Americans use when reporting on Trump include ‘speech,’ ‘president,’ ‘immigration,’ ‘Mexico,’ ‘convention,’ ‘campaign’ and ‘Obama.’” These were Trump’s punchlines, and they prevailed.
Further, Clinton is a staple target of pop culture: a woman. Her length of time in public life notwithstanding, no male political candidate has been given the scrutiny over dress, demeanour, health, intimate relations, and age that Clinton receives.
And even when Trump received acute scrutiny, it worked for his outsiderness and authenticity. The tape of Trump bragging about groping women revealed nothing new other than the existence of the tape. Everyone, including the people that voted for him, knows that he is like this. Many men, both inside and outside locker rooms, are also like this, especially men in power (such as disgraced Fox News heavyweight and Trump adviser Roger Ailes). It’s part of the arena of consent and resistance of pop culture. It is power, and the election of Trump suggests that his performance of this kind of power is aspirational.