*Disclaimer: This post is going to make a lot of tenuous connections and cultural, societal, and political assumptions, and is probably too influenced by last year’s award-winning mini-series*
“Donald Trump is the natural product of the Kardashian Era. He’s the Reality Show candidate!”
So said Newt Gingrich when I saw him speak at the Nixon Library, back in September 2015, before the first primary ballot had been cast.
The rest, as they say, is history. Donald Trump would go on to win the Republican nomination with more votes than any GOP primary candidate in history, won the General Election on November 9th, 2017 (to much shock and polarized reactions), and after being inaugurated on January 20th, is currently serving as the 45th President of the United States of America.
But what did Newt mean “The Kardashian Era”? Why was Donald Trump “The Reality Show Candidate”? How did we get here?
Well you were hooked in during 2016, weren’t you? You saw the endless media coverage, the talking heads, the mean Tweets, the memes, the unfriending Facebook updates, the “fake news”, the boycotts, the protests, the celebrity hysterics, the muck-slinging, the accusations, the October surprises, the vitriol, the over-analysis of every single thought, word, and gesture of every candidate. We were a nation addicted, in the chronic insatiable junkie-sense, to politics as never before in the history of the electorate. Only it wasn’t politics. It was entertainment. The civic equivalent of junk food. Call me cynical, but in all that chatter about racist frog memes and “locker room talk”, were the American people really concerned about serious policy discussions? What else can you say about a cycle where the right’s most celebrated commentator was more in the vein of Milo Yiannopoulus than George F. Will?
And the real sick part? It entertained us. We were both enchanted and repelled by this circus, this parade of horribles. Sure, there were passionate Sandistas and MAGA Hatters, but when it came down to the general in the general, how many people do you know who were genuinely enthusiastic about either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump? I don’t mean the “Lesser of Two Evils, Hold Your Nose Then Take a Drink” vote. I’m talking about dutiful citizens who actually, in all seriousness, respected either of these candidates and sincerely believe they were the best choice to lead our nation?
A lot, I don’t doubt. A plurality, probably, and I’d love to believe it’s more than that. But what I’m addressing is that great vocal (majority? plurality? minority?) who were mutually mortified with both parties candidates. The damned-either-way, the Harambe/Bone campaigners, the affected absurdists, fervent meme-stars, and the heavy drinkers. My premise, my suspicion, is that a great deal of these, myself very much included, were not taking to the streets to promote a third candidate. That for all our re-tweeting of the Sweet Meteor of Death, we weren’t really despairing. Not in any serious or meaningful way.
We were laughing. We were shaking our heads, clucking our tongues, and judging our neighbors. “Look what a mess this is!” we say. “Just when you think it can’t get any worse!” But we lived our lives, watched humorous clips of Marty McFly reacting to Donald Tannen’s election, and talked among ourselves about how 2016 is “TEH WORST YEAR EVR!”
Nobody really thought the Republic was coming to an end. But we liked to joke so, because it was interesting. And more than that it was fun. Watching Hillary collapse and make “cringeworthy” attempts to connect with the youngins (“How upset are you with student loans? Tell us in 140 emoticons or less”!) and Trump bluster and bloviate (Who is he going to offend next?!) was that oh so familiar of modern curiosities, “The Guilty Pleasure”. We ate it up, like trashy reality television, because that’s what it was. We weren’t revolutionaries, activists, or politicos. We were the audience. Truth had become stranger than fiction, and our dark secret was we liked it that way.
We had become desensitized. And it started long before this cycle.
So when? Where? How? Why?
What is Reality Television?
The 90s were an interesting period, with the fall of the Soviet Union, the dawn of the World Wide Web, and the greatest superhero cartoons of all time.
This was also Jerry Springer’s zenith. The former mayor of Cincinnati (seriously) rose to notoriety for his daytime talk show featuring trailer trash family feuds, bizarre sexual entanglements, and other guilty pleasures.
It was also the dawn of the 24 hour news cycle, and very much a part of this was The Trial of The Century.
The Juice was the most famous American ever put on trial for murder, and America drank it up. Once a celebrated NFL running back and movie star,
Were his motives pure? Were they political? Was he a scheming attorney making a shameless bid for public sympathy? Was this a compassionate man genuinely concerned for his friend? Either way, he defended Simpson, and though most would say his contributions were minimal, especially compared to Johnny Cochran, he was indeed part of “The Dream Team”, to give the devil his due. And however little he actually did in court, he was one of the most visible reading The Juice’s possible suicide letter on live TV in parallel with the infamous Bronco chase. A man might be planning to kill himself, and it’s all on cable.
As distasteful as that may be, the Kardashian family name did not suffer as a result. In fact, his daughters became celebrated socialites. Living a life of glamour and decadence, they even befriended…
Paris was of course born with a silver hotel key in her mouth, heiress to the Hilton family. Yet though we’d all love to write her off as simply a frivolous playgirl, I will say that she has made her own name, for better or worse. Paris Hilton is an actress, a singer, an author, and an entrepreneur. You can say she’s terrible at all those things (though the latter might not be subjective, depending on how objectively successful her perfumes and whatnot have sold), but it is true. She’s also a model, and in fact started modeling when she was a teenager, represented by, wait for it, Trump Model Management. So she was doing alright. She was even in Zoolander.
What REALLY thrust her into the spotlight, however, was her sex tape. “1 Night in Paris” led to a decade of Paris, a shadow cast over pop culture, for better or worse. And it was no Simple Life of an heiress just wasting her family’s money. Like I said, she did her own things. You may resent her for getting paid just to show up and party, but why is that the case. Does her sister Nicky Hilton so rewarded for public appearances? Or must you admit that Paris has actually done some work, did something with her fame?
And while I’m here, I’ll defend President Trump on the same grounds, the accusation that he deserves no credit for his accomplishments just because his father was rich. True, Paris and Donald did inherit obscene amounts of money. But they’ve done things with it. Paris’s perfume products have grossed billions. And President Trump? Come on. Say what you will about the man, his persona, and his politics, but don’t tell me he’s never done anything, that he’s squandered his family’s fortune. Trump Tower is a New York landmark. He’s built a real estate empire of hotels, apartments, golf courses. Some of his business ventures have failed, but many others have succeeded. He’s written numerous best-sellers and created one of the most popular reality shows of all time. Oh, and he is PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES.
At rate, for whatever reason, Paris Hilton was The “It Girl” of the 2000s, and her fame, or infamy, spread to those around her wise and wicked enough to learn from her example.
How did Kim, the most famous Kardashian, come to make her own name? Well, like her fellow celebutante and bestie Paris Hilton, Kim comes from a famous family, and said friendship did put her in
And then, of course, the sex tape. “Leaked” (she claims without her knowledge and tried to sue) in February 2007 (by the way, I’m looking all this up- I didn’t have all this knowledge off-hand), once again, the amateur porno thrust a socialite into the spotlight. The reality show Keeping Up with the Kardashians premiered in October of that year, starring Kim and the rest of her family, including…
Bruce Jenner had already risen to fame under his own steam for something far more reputable and admirable. Winning Olympic Gold for the decathlon, Bruce was considered an unironic American Hero, celebrated, not reviled as his step-daughters would be.
I’m sure when Bruce married Kris Kardashian in 1991, he had no idea that her ex-husband would be affiliated with the most infamous murder trial in American history, or that her daughter would become a pop culture monster after the release of a sex tape.
Yet like said step-daughter overshadowing Paris, Jenner would arguably overshadow her, by becoming a her, and inarguably, the most famous transgender person in the world.
And what a small world it is. “Call me Cait and vote for Trump”. Anything this circle of celebs do makes headlines, but when Caitlyn endorsed Trump, people weren’t sure how to react. It’s sort of polarizing, isn’t it? Republicans aren’t on-board with transgender issues in general, and Democrats trying to process folks like Milo and Blaire White have trouble accepting that the LGBT community is not as politically monolithic as they may like.
Jenner did withdraw support for President Trump after the trans military ban, but that’ was after the election.
Kanye West was already one of the most famous musicians of the 21st Century and a political firebrand even before her married Kim Kardashian. He made headlines when he said President George Bush doesn’t care about black people in response to Hurricane Katrina. And now he’s talking about running for president in 2020. Unthinkable? Impossible? Not a chance? Well look at who he’s pictured with above.
Perhaps a corollary might be made in the public reaction to the media coverage of the OJ Simpson case in 1994, and Decision 2016. But first, what happened in the years between? Rich young women having sex on camera and getting reality shows as a result, though sinful and lamentable, seems rather innocuous compared to spousal homicide and the possibility that someone dangerously unqualified may be in the White House.
The thing is, nobody actually admires Paris Hilton and The Kardashians. They just cluck their tongues and bemoan the sorry state of affairs, that we live in a society that idolizes the ideal rich and celebrates their superficial debauchery. But it doesn’t! These people are so popular BECAUSE they’re so hated! Don’t you people see how sick that is? You like to complain that the youth of today admire these egotistical insanely wealthy amateur porn stars, but how often do you honestly encounter that sentiment. Theirs is an ironic celebrity, and everyone is too busy patting themselves on the back for not drinking Kardashian Brand Kool-Aid to notice that the reason the people they despise are so famous because they’re so despised.
So it was with now President Trump? I mean, you look at the 2016 Election, and like the OJ Simpson Trial and Keeping Up with Paris and Kim, it’s the train wreck effect. Trump the entertainer was keeping the masses tuned into politics in a way like never before. Governor Mitt Romney and Vice President Al Gore may have been more qualified and appropriate for the highest office in the land, but they were snoozes compared to The Donald. With his charisma, ego, and endless barrage of controversial and offensive statements.
And it was a reflection of the reality show persona he helped create. Like Simon Cowell and Gordon Ramsay, Trump was the heavy on The Apprentice. The mean boss who always had a snarky and dismissive line. The judge you loved to hate became the candidate you loved to hate…
Like OJ Simpson and the famous-for-being-famous socialites, we couldn’t get enough. Sure it was judgmental and there was always the pretense that we were aloof and alone in our disdain, but it was fun…and look where we are now.
This article might be called more observation than incisive commentary, and it’s conclusion pat and unconvincing: that President Donald Trump, after a sort, was inevitable.
Some of my more judgmental friends might want to dismiss this all, shaking their heads at the shabby state of affairs, and denounce most of the figures in this article as the dredges of American culture. Yet like it or not, the zeitgeist is what it is, and Kanye and the Kardashian clan are among the most influential figures in American Culture today, and President Trump, love him or hate him, is President of the United States of America, Commander in Chief of the strongest military force on Earth, and leader of the free world.
Am I grasping at straws here? Trying to rationalize, find connections where there are none? Is the world so small? How do I feel about all this anyway? Well I never kept up with the Kardashians, but I have sinfully lusted after Kim as I did for Paris Hilton- who I have defended in the past, mostly out of contrarianism, but I think I made some good points too. I’m don’t follow music, so I can’t judge Kanye on his primary claim to fame, though I do find his ego a little annoying at times. I never ate Wheaties with Bruce Jenner on the box or watched the reality show he was on, but while I am not convinced of the science behind transgenderism, I did find it interesting how Caitlyn talked about a Christian minister’s help in such a decision.
President Trump? Yikes. I lost one of my best friends from college because he claimed I “said something positive about the inauguration”, whatever that means. I actually voted for CIA Operative/Mormon Missionary Evan McMullin. He was already mocked by deriders (including Trump) who called him “McMuffin”, but he still goes out and makes Mindy Finn his running mate. I respect that.
I won’t say much for the current President other than he’s at least ostensibly more pro-life than the previous. Although considering the last guy’s repeated rejection of the Infant Born Alive Protection Act and absolute refusal to stand up for the Right to Life at any stage (“Above my pay grade”), that’s not saying much. Pretty much anybody this side of Dr. Peter Singer is more pro-life than former President Obama.
And as for OJ? I was too young (not born) during the heyday of OJ’s football fame, but at a young age, I did enjoy his performance in the Naked Gun movies. And I’ll close by mentioning that out of all the people in this article, I have the closest, albeit tenuous connection to him, through his friend, former houseguest, and key witness, Kato Kaelin.
I once interviewed for a job connected to Kato. He was co-host of this sports talk show where he and the others were expected to swear a lot. My job would have been to watch the show live and press this *bleep* button every time they cussed. Yes, that’s a real thing.
And he liked one of my Tweets!
God Bless America, and God Help Us All.