The morning of the election I had set my alarm for six a.m., blearily looked at my phone and saw that Trump had won. There in black and white. No comment – just cold facts. I wasn’t shocked. It felt like a surreal moment from dystopian fiction. My question was ‘how’? How could America trust him? How can the 156th richest person in the United States become leader of the free world? How could the star of The Apprentice, an archetypal brash businessman, be the leader of America?
People have drawn comparisons to Ronald Reagan, another Hollywood figure before being elected. But Trump’s celebrity status is unrivalled. Reagan had a political background: he was Governor of California before serving two terms as President. Trump, on the other hand, became President overnight. I was left wondering how Trump became a huge celebrity figure.
The answer is complex. Firstly, a presence in television, journalism, and film. Secondly, the American people who have been led to believe fame equals legitimacy. Thirdly, the very mechanism that is the American media – that faceless, nameless mechanism that serves only to heighten itself, resulting in unquestioned belief and a kind of meaningless hysteria, such as you asking yourself ‘Has Kylie Jenner broken up with Tyga?’ when you aren’t really sure why you crave the knowledge of these things. But you do, unwaveringly, and if you don’t personally then no need to worry as there are plenty who do. And last but not least, Trump’s egotistic desire for fame and money has a huge role to play in his rise to super-celeb status.
Trump’s appearance in television adverts, TV shows, talk shows, the news, and films has been a cumulative process. Trump’s persona is striking, intriguing, and disturbing. Why is he so famous? Yes, he’s rich, but there are many rich businessmen who are not in the oval office.
In America his fame is huge and probably hard for us in the UK to appreciate. He has had cameo roles in films such as Home Alone (1990). He has been satirized in the 1989 cult film Back to the Future Part 2 as the selfish antagonist Biff Tannen, which was confirmed by maker Bob Gale. As early as the mid-eighties Trump had gained attention for his real estate and casino businesses. He appeared on the front covers of People Magazine, Playboy, Newsweek, Spy, Time, Vanity Fair and more. By the year 2000 he was so famous that an episode of The Simpsons (Bart to the Future) depicted him as President before Lisa Simpson. Writer Dan Greaney told The Hollywood Reporter that he wanted to depict an ‘insane’ futuristic world. This was four years before The Apprentice, that would serve to further his fame. What I found strange is the existence of a television company called Trump productions LLC that has produced The Apprentice, Pageant Palace, Celebrity Apprentice and Donald J. Trump Presents the Ultimate Merger. This would explain how Trump also actively sought fame.
It is no coincidence that Oxford English Dictionary has announced their word of 2016 as ‘post-truth.’ ‘Post-truth’ is not a new concept, but this year it has had a 2,000% increase in usage. It is defined as an adjective and relates to ‘circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.’ The word was first used in a 1992 essay by Serbian-American playwright Steve Tesich, who said that: ‘we, as free people, have freely decided that we want to live in some post-truth world,’ he was writing about the Persian Gulf war and other political issues.
Tesich was not alone in his sentiment. The French philosopher, sociologist, and cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard has written extensively about ‘post-truth.’ It is interesting to look at Trump’s rise to power in the context of Baudrillard’s thoughts and theories. Baudrillard wrote about how reality is constructed, especially political reality. He wrote that modern media blurs the line between what is real and what is a sign of the real. He wrote that the media ‘fabricate non-communication.’ He argues the media does not communicate meaning, instead ‘it exhausts itself in the staging of meaning.’ In his most acclaimed work, Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard argues that America won the Persian Gulf war because they said they did, media outlets made it appear that way, and for something to be true in America it only needs to be represented as such. The same can be said of the legitimacy and authority of Trump.
Trump has been in the public consciousness of American society for so long that he has been mistaken for an authority figure, and his words and opinions mistaken as truths and facts. As shocking as Trump’s open denial of empirical evidence is, such as his denial of climate change, these should not be totally surprising to us. It is easy to get angry at Trump but he is part of a larger and more worrying trend. His words and promises are part of what Braudillard called the ‘hyperreality’ of the contemporary world, where the lines between what is truth and what is fiction have become so blurred that the ‘truth’ itself is redundant.
Photograph: Gage Skidmore via Flickr