The 2016 Election campaign mirrors a pop culture phenomenon: Kanye West’s music video for his song “Famous” released in June 2016. “Famous” depicts various celebrities and political figures in bed together naked. Some of the bodies are wax figures bearing uncanny resemblance to the real persons, and some are the real persons. The animate and inanimate persons lay still with limbs intertwined. Kanye himself is included in the scene, along with a wax figure of president-elect Donald Trump.
The figures are all sprawled on a bed scaled to the size of either man’s ego.
Instantaneously, the video was a source of Web hits, intrigue and drama. Then there was the Taylor Swift debacle. The pop-singer reported she hadn’t consented to derogatory lyrics in the song (“I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex…why? I made that bitch famous”) and threatened legal action.
The back-and-forth, he-said-she-said that followed between Swift and West resembles the combative dialogue that occurred between presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign. West actually likened himself to Trump at a concert in California recently, ranting to the crowd that if he had exercised his civic duty, he would’ve voted Trump.
Kanye is a visionary in his field. He’s an innovative artist, whether or not you agree with his behavior, political endorsements or even like his music. It’s possible, that Kanye is more perceptive than any one believed. Did he foresee an end result that many of us thought impossible? There was a lapse in imagination by many Americans and the mainstream media about how far Trump was willing to go to win, and just how pervasive his influence is in the United States.
The music video for “Famous” is indicative of the current political milieu.
Trump’s use of hateful jargon during his campaign exposes deep-seeded rifts and resentment in America. Trump has since softened some of his campaign blows, for example, denouncing racist actions by his supporters. But the damage has been done. Trump’s made his bed, now he has to lie in it.
Whether he believes the things he said, or whether he used them as a tool to bolster support remains to be seen. But many of his supporters do believe he meant the things he said, and they are now using that to justify hate crimes. The metaphorical cat is out of the bag.
This is not to say that all Trump supporters are racists, sexists, or otherwise motivated by hatred. These people do exist, however, and Trump’s campaign fueled their indignation. Their resentment, offset by an Establishment that appeared to support increasingly progressive views, had lain dormant for years. They likely viewed their beloved America as spiraling out of their control, but believed they were no longer the majority. Then, came Trump, and the unprecedented election of 2016. In their eyes, the soon-to-be leader of the “Free World” condoned their beliefs, and their enemies: the immigrants who stole their jobs, the sexually fluid youth who parade their inequities and the corrupt political leaders in Washington.
I recently attended an exchange between The Atlantic’s Steve Clemons and journalist/author Kati Marton about her new book, True Believer: Stalin’s Last American Spy, which tells the tragic and true tale of a young American man manipulated by a demagogue. The novel has historical and present significance. “Demagogues can dominate the air and take all the oxygen out, and that’s what we had happen” in this election, Marton told the crowd. When prompted to address the media taking pro-Castro stances after his death, Marton explained how “death whitewashes.” Sigmund Freud had a term for this phenomenon, called the death instinct. Through death, a person becomes fixed in our minds. Our memories, Marton clarified, are not historic. Clemons gave an editorial response, saying, “one is a monster but one is not a monster all the time.” This may be said of all, if not most, autocrats, Trump included.
Trump cannot be a monster all of the time. He wouldn’t have the support system he does if he was intolerable to everyone in his circle. He’s also undeniably charismatic. Trump empowered a largely forgotten, and vulnerable, demographic. Montana, for example, hadn’t received a Presidential candidate in years before Trump due to futile sway in the Electoral College, and he won the state by an overwhelming margin.
Trump, however, is ruthless when it comes to revenge. He perceives any and all criticism as an attack, and it puts him on the offensive. He then takes to Twitter to embolden his followers, telling them exactly who is to blame. The president elect picks and chooses his opponents, some of which include ISIS, journalists, and Rosie O’Donnell. This phenomenon is called othering, and it is a tool commonly used by persons in power to exert control.
The rise of populism worldwide, from Hungary to the United States, is a cry for simplification. Distinctions take a complex reality and make it digestible. It separates countries, people, and objects into categories that are easier to obey: self and other, us and them, patriot from terrorist, good from evil and so on. Sources of authority, be it the media, the Constitution or the President, often inform our reality. They provide the language we use to communicate with others in society and be understood.
Trump’s campaign is a radicalization campaign. Trump used simple, pointed rhetoric that hooked his supporters, and continues to tell them, often through Tweets, exactly what he wants and expects from them. He promises quick fixes, rampant progress and winning the fight against enemies. The problem is society doesn’t change that fast. His supporters, nonetheless, are true believers, like True Believer’s anti-hero Noel Field.
Trump may not be a monster all of the time, but as Marton contended, “if you’re a monster some of the time, you’re a monster.” Trump’s monstrosity inspired evil, which is something we cannot forget, no matter what happens during his presidency.
November 9, 2016: day one of Trump’s America. Two men from Babson College harass black students at Wellesley College. My best friend’s sorority sister at Penn State University awakens to a swastika spray-painted in black on her house. Civil rights group The Southern Poverty Law Center documents 867 hate crimes in the 10 days after Trump’s election, “more than 300 of which included direct references to the president-elect or his campaign rhetoric.”
When Trump declared, “Islam hates us,” he politicized a religion peaceful in doctrine, much to the delight of people who conflate Muslims and terrorist groups like ISIS. One of these supporters, an Uber driver in Queen, New York, was recorded on video after the election harassing a passenger. “Trump is president, asshole, so you can kiss your fuckin’ visa goodbye, scumbag,” the man in the SUV yells. “We’ll deport you soon, don’t worry, you fuckin’ terrorist.”
Leaders have different faces.
Clinton attested to as much when she said that public figures have a public and private persona. Although Trump said in a “60 Minutes” interview the news of religious and racially propagated crimes saddened him, declaring the perpetrators “stop it,” and claiming to be a leader for “every American,” Trump has already shown this other face to the world.
Hate is ideological matter. It can be created but not destroyed. If there’s a lesson to be learned from the 2016 election, it’s that hate breeds hate. Trump’s radicalization campaign will have unintended consequences, if the rise in hate crimes are any indicator. The 2016 campaign strengthened the divide between an increasingly arbitrary “us” and “them.”
Marton drew parallels between the 1930s and today, explaining how disillusionment often perpetuates a break with the system. There were, and there now are, “people who have given up on this country’s ability to do the right thing,” both on the Trump side prior to his campaign, and by others disenfranchised by the campaign and its result. A common theme in Marton’s novel is how disenfranchisement is a driving force for radicalization. During the Holocaust, America tightened its borders out of fear, refusing to let refugees in because they had been exposed to communism. “The Muslim of [their] time,” Clemons postulated in the discussion. This caused many immigrants, who previously had been idealistic about America, capitalism and the possibilities for immigrants, to search for a new ideology. They landed upon Communism.
The fact that Trump is president-elect may cause similar reverberations that can dangerously alter the course of history. It pushes people towards radicalization on both ends of the spectrum. The Not My President campaign, for example, although understandable through the lens of citizens disheartened by the opinion reflected in the popular vote, encroaches on democratic values. Values that have proven shallow, according to Marton, across the world. Democracy will be tested in the years to come.
Trump has made his bed, and not only does he have to lie in it, we’re right there with him. In the “Famous” video, West purposefully features controversial figures and people with relationships as tangled as their body parts, including former and current presidents, celebrity icons like his wife Kim Kardashian West and both West and Kardashian West’s ex-lovers. The demographic represented in the “Famous” video is as diverse and divided as America today.
We’re all tangled up, and we’ve got to figure out how to put our clothes back on, and get out of the damn bed so we can start picking up the mess on the floor.