The Great Pop Culture War

Posted June 2, 2018 12:08 p.m. EDT

The last time I wrote about Samantha Bee it was the summer of 2016, Hillary Clinton seemed likely to be the next president of the United States, and liberals were very angry at Bee’s fellow late-night host, Jimmy Fallon, for normalizing Donald Trump with a relatively friendly interview.

In response, I suggested that Bee and her fellow late-night liberal shouters were actually doing more for the Republican nominee than was Fallon, because Trump’s appeal was in part a reaction to a pervasive late-Obama-era politicization of pop culture — which was encouraging Republican voting as a form of cultural protest, and Trump voting as an act of transgressive rebellion.

Many times since the 2016 election, but in the last few weeks especially, I feel like I’ve been cursed to live inside an exaggerated version of my own analysis. I thought I was just describing how trends in pop culture can shape politics, but the Trump presidency has demonstrated that when the unemployment rate is low enough and the ruling party’s policy cupboard bare enough, entertainment can simply become politics and vice versa. Forget about culture war; this is the age of pop culture war, a version of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” with all the Cold War substance taken out.

Kanye’s red-pilled, Kim’s with Trump,

D’Souza’s pardoned, Bee’s not dumped,

Roseanne’s tweets and football wars, I can’t take it any more ...

In part that’s because Trump himself is entirely a creature of the celebrity-entertainment complex; this is the game he’s always played and he has no interest in playing any other. Past Republican politicians exploited the gulf between Hollywood and Middle America in order to pursue specific policy agendas, or fought with celebrities over specific issues — Vietnam with Jane Fonda, out-of-wedlock births with “Murphy Brown.” But for Trump, fighting with late-night hosts and pro athletes is an end unto itself; people in his administration have substantive goals, but to the president ratings and faves and cancellations and boycotts are the real way that you keep score.

But it’s too simple to blame Trump when so many of his supporters clearly love this style. Having lost so many cultural battles, the right has developed a desperate attraction to celebrity ephemera, confusing an epiphenomenon of progressivism’s cultural advantage — the fact that most famous artists and actors are left-wing — with the institutional advantage itself.

So conservatives stupidly place hopes in a right-wing Kanye or a Trump-friendly Roseanne Barr. They convince themselves that celebrity provocateurs will make America’s campuses more conservative. They make a cynical, race-baiting, adulterous campaign-finance fraudster like Dinesh D’Souza a rich man after he abandons an intellectual career for a Michael Moore-imitating grift — and then cheer when Trump pardons D’Souza because it owns the libs.

All of this reflects a deep confusion about how liberal cultural power actually works. It’s the steady circulation of ideas and money and people through cultural institutions that really matter, not the famous faces popping off on Oscar telecasts.

But the same confusion is on display among liberal culture makers themselves, who have reacted to Trump’s defeat by leaning into their most self-defeating instincts. Cultural liberalism wins battles when its omnipresence just seems like the natural air we breathe. But direct political hectoring plays against that strength; instead of the subtle nudge of a sitcom’s implicit values it’s just a rich and famous person yelling at you, in a way designed to maximize ratings among progressives looking for catharsis.

And the fact that the business model runs on those ratings means that even if Samantha Bee wanted to preach to someone other than her choir, her imperatives as an entertainer require constant milder variations on calling Ivanka Trump the C-word ... because for her viewers that’s what makes it entertainment.

Which, for ratings purposes, is fine. (Although the economics work less well when you start insisting that lousy-but-woke movies are actually good because online right-wingers hate them ... sorry, I digress.) But all the entertainers “owning” Trump are playing the same game that carried him to power, and that might keep him there despite all the reasons he deserves to fall.

Interestingly the only celebrity in this week’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” verse who wasn’t obviously playing into this dynamic was La Kardashian herself. Her trip to the White House to pitch Trump on sentencing reform was widely mocked, but as stunts go it had a plausible logic. If you want this president to do something for the common good, why not try to convince him that it might help him notch a win on his celebrity scorecard? Quid pro quo: He gets to break the internet with a photo-op, you get his signature on a pardon or a piece of convict-friendly legislation.

Of course, the next day Trump didn’t pardon the woman Kim was championing; he pardoned D’Souza. Which suggests the limits of his own imagination. He’s like the late-night liberals, all base-pleasing tactics and no strategy, content to wage a pop culture war that’s stuck, for now, in stalemate.

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