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 to the question this year.
What has changed? Is he less funny? Is he more serious? Obviously, the stakes have changed. He’s a few swing states away from being president, something impossible to conceive of last year, and something impossible to countenance now.
He has moved from million-dollar, fate-of-Gary Busey-on-Celebrity Apprentice pop culture to trillion-dollar, fate-of-the-world political culture. It’s become very real.
The shift is cultural. Instead of asking about the uses of pop culture by Trump or Hillary Clinton, the question is whether the presidential campaign is pop culture.
The campaign for the US presidency definitely has a culture. Anything that goes for this 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.
To put it another way: Trump has used pop culture better than Clinton because he forced the campaign to become, almost wholly, pop culture. This is the domain of mass entertainment, such as cinema, social media and reality TV, consumed, distributed, and created according to the shifting and entrenched tastes of the public and producers that feed off each other.
It’s something, as Trump says about Twitter, we should be “not unproud of”.
And as cultural theorist Stuart Hall wrote, popular culture:
… is the arena of consent and resistance. It is partly where hegemony arises, and where it is secured.
For example, “building a wall” is the barest of an immigration policy. It is, however, a galvanising spectacle, a powerful cold open to an outrageous comedy act that catches on, spread by word of actual and virtual mouth.
Trump’s comedic chops are moss-backed and boorish: fat jokes (Rosie O’Donnell); sexist hyperbole (Megyn Kelly menstruating); impersonations of the disabled (New York Times reporter Serge F. Kovaleski ); screeds against women (Punish them!); ethnic barbs (Mexicans are rapists); racist stereotypes (African-American criminality); religious taunts (answering a question about Islamophobia in the latest debate by repeating “radical Islamic terrorists”); plus, uncharted territory, such as contempt for prisoners of war and the families of fallen soldiers.
Like old-school comedians, he takes control of the room by physically dominating the stage and shouting the audience into submission, which happens to be a worldwide audience.
The worldwide audience affects Trump and his performance insofar as it comprises his next adoring crowd. So, forget anyone outside the US, like NATO, unless they support him, like Brexiteer Nigel Farage.
Much like many male, establishment comedians in the wake of the furore around Daniel Tosh’s rape joke, his fellow performers, the Republican Party, have supported his right to say whatever he wants to get a laugh or vote, praising his outsider fearlessness in a politically correct, corrupt world.
The media report his act, and mildly hold it to account. But his supporters and proxies spin and bluster and obfuscate, 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 is reduced to an insistent heckler. Hecklers never look good. They ruin the performance. They bum everybody out.
Barack Obama, as comedian-in-chief at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, took down Trump and his birtherist lies, with a roasting worthy of Don Rickles or Jeff Ross.
But Obama had the microphone; he looked much better than Clinton, as a heckler, possibly can. He savaged Trump’s credentials (I stole my line about Gary Busey from Obama) and the banality of Trump’s public life. But, if anything, the roasting lit a fire under Trump, fuelling, like the media, the animus of his campaign.
Further, Clinton cannot “win” at pop culture. She admitted as much at her Democratic National Convention speech:
The truth is, through all these years of public service, the “service” part has always come easier to me than the “public” part. I get it that some people just don’t know what to make of me.
Her contrived attempts to reach young people (“More like Chillary, Am I right?”) are instantly lampooned for their inauthenticity.
All she has are her decades of experience, many accomplishments, unparalleled qualifications, and the support of the Democratic establishment and her highly sophisticated and well-financed campaign team.
Further, Clinton is a staple target of pop culture: a woman. Her length of time in public life notwithstanding, no male political candidate is given the scrutiny over dress, demeanour, health, intimate relations and age that Clinton receives.
The tape of Trump bragging about groping women and being “let” to do so because he is a celebrity reveal nothing new other than the existence of the tape. Everyone, including the people that voted for his nomination, and will vote for him to be president, knows that he is like this. Now, it is impossible to deny.
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 power, part of the culture. The continuing support and defence of Trump suggest that it’s aspirational.
What is in the process of changing is pop culture and, thus, presidential campaigning.
The waves of feminism since the 1970s, their influence on the law (remember when it was legal for a husband to rape his wife?) and their raising of consciousness, followed by the democratisation and decentralisation of cultural production, have made an increasingly noticed, listened to, and powerful section of perspectives, experiences, and realities impossible to ignore.
More than 1 million women tweeted accounts of being assaulted on the day after the Trump tapes were published.
The so-called “policing” of pop culture, where statements and actions are scrutinised for discrimination based on gender, race, ability, sexuality, any difference or variation that is used by one to disempower another, means that, despite his rise, Trump is butting up against a bar he himself brought into the campaign by turning it into pop culture.
It is set pretty low – xenophobia, utter inexperience, and lying fit below it. But, with the probable election of Clinton, it can only be raised.