Jerks and Twerps: How Popular Culture Normalized Hatred for an Entire Generation
In the 11 months since Election Day, Hillary Clinton, 65.8 million Americans, and billions of people around the globe have been asking that exact question. How did the most powerful nation in the world elect a human tire fire with as much eloquence and grace as a steaming pile of manure? Since that infamous November day, a picture has emerged of how and why this happened. It was a perfect storm of a rogue FBI director, a failed media, a plethora of complicit third party and independent candidates, an apathetic electorate, and an open and hostile collusion with a foreign adversary. Yet, despite all this, the first woman candidate for a major political party still managed to get more popular votes than any White man in history.
But what about the nearly 63 million people who voted for Donald Trump?
The ones who supported a man who called Latinos rapists and thieves? The ones who supported a man who wanted to ban all Muslims? The ones who supported a man who mocked a disabled reporter? The ones who supported a man who openly ripped off students at his very own fraudulent university? The ones who supported a man who criticized a prisoner of war and a Gold Star military family? The ones who supported a man who bragged about sexually assaulting women after having previously committed adultery? The ones who supported a man who denigrated, degraded, and debased his opponents with childish nicknames and wild conspiracy theories? The ones who supported a man who (rightly) claimed he could commit murder and not lose any support? And the ones who supported a man who had a history of lying, cheating, and stealing and who was openly running the most dishonest campaign in American political history?
What is it about these voters that made none of those things a deal-breaker in voting for Donald Trump?
Of course, racism played a clear part in their vote. After experiencing eight years of a successful and scandal-free African-American president, there was a genuine fear that people of color would now be emboldened to go on to demand revolutionary things like equal rights. After all, Attorney General Eric Holder had the audacity to advocate for voting rights and criminal justice reform, which were clear indicators of some nefarious plot on his part. The Black Lives Matter Movement had the audacity to raise awareness of corrupt police practices and the murders of unarmed Black men and women. First Lady Michelle Obama even had the audacity to integrate herself into our public schools and encourage our youth to eat right and live active and healthy lifestyles. All of these fights for equal rights and equality clearly meant that poor, rural White people would somehow lose the rights that had been enshrined for them in the Constitution for the previous 240 years.
But this mindset did not percolate throughout all 63 million Americans. Some, certainly. But there was still a large portion who weren't afraid of the incoming Black apocalypse. The question for them becomes how and why Trump's actions and beliefs were not only not disavowed but also how they weren't deal breakers in casting their final vote.
In analyzing this issue, one cannot help but turn to popular culture. Specifically, how pop culture has portrayed someone with characteristics like Donald Trump over the past half-century. Because for the average Donald Trump voter, he or she had to have some point of reference in casting a vote. Donald Trump's actions were unparalleled in modern political history. Whereas only a decade earlier an ill-timed screech ruined an entire political campaign, Donald Trump provided 16 months of misogynistic, sexist, racist, and homophobic comments and rhetoric. The question becomes why did none of these become too unbearable for the typical Trump voter?
The answer to this question lies in our understanding of what is decent and what is not. In particular, the solution lies in how someone like Donald Trump has typically been portrayed in popular culture. The fact is, Donald Trump is a grouch. He is hot-headed. He has unpopular and inappropriate views. He's like the racist uncle nobody wants to discuss politics with around the Thanksgiving table. How someone like this is viewed by an audience can go a long way in telling us how that same audience would respond to someone like Donald Trump.
The first true pop culture figure who can be seen as a precursor to Donald Trump's eventual ascendancy was none other than television's Archie Bunker on the hit sitcom All In The Family. Bunker, played by Carroll O'Connor, was an open racist and misogynist who served as the show's protagonist and a foil to his progressive son-in-law, Michael Stivic. Despite presenting these unpopular views, All In The Family enjoyed tremendous success throughout the 1970s as it became one of the decade's highest-rated programs and earned critical accolades, especially for O'Connor's portrayal of the hard-headed and hateful Bunker. As a result of this, television had found one of its first antiheroes: a husband and father who lived his life regardless of political correctness and societal norms.
This type of antihero was later replicated less than a decade later when in 1987 the country was introduced to Al Bundy on the sitcom Married With Children, courtesy of the Fox Broadcasting Company. Bundy, played by Ed O'Neill, was a down-on-his-luck former football star who was depressed that he could no longer recapture his former glory. As a result, Bundy settled into an uninspiring life with a unrewarding marriage and an unfulfilling profession. To cope with these circumstances, Bundy would belittle his wife Peg and daughter Kelly and would frequently insult female customers at the shoe store where he worked, often objectifying them by making rude remarks about their physical appearance and weight. Despite Bundy's open chauvinism, audiences lapped it up and Married With Children endured a successful decade-long run as Fox's first primetime sitcom.
With a proven track record of successful antiheroes in the mold of Bunker and Bundy, network executives then turned their attention to the emerging genre of reality TV. In particular, MTV would become the main culprit in bringing forth deplorable human beings for the sole purpose of antagonizing others. Starting with The Real World: San Francisco in 1994, MTV would frequently include one heinous contestant on its reality shows as a way to push the envelope and provoke conflict among the other contestants. These awful human beings demonstrated a number of character flaws from sexism, to misogyny, to homophobia, to xenophobia and everything in between. With its San Francisco season, MTV cast notorious homophobe Puck with fellow castmate Pedro, a gay man and AIDS activist. MTV saw how much tension this combination created and since the entire purpose of a show like The Real World was to find out "what happened when people stopped being polite and started getting real" these conflicts were a gold mine for both in-house drama and post-production editing to create the appearance of even more drama than was actually occurring.
But MTV wasn't done. In realizing its audience's desire to see these despicable individuals, MTV took the next logical step in creating a program where these individuals were present in everyday situations. This led the creation of the show Jackass in 2002 starring Johnny Knoxville. The entire premise of Jackass was to antagonize normal, decent human beings from the family and friends of the cast to good Samaritans out in public. The goal was to film the reactions of these unsuspecting individuals and for the audience to laugh at the pain and suffering of others. MTV was unapologetic with the show's content and would show anything from cast members assaulting their own family members to having Knoxville himself drive with an empty baby seat on top of his car only to have kind, good-hearted, concerned onlookers rush up to him in what many would consider a heroic act. Despite the show only having had a three-year run, it spawned three films and six spinoffs, demonstrating a wide audience that enjoyed witnessing the misfortunes of others.
Around this same time in the year 2000 came CBS' hit reality show, Survivor. In what many people would consider being the true birth of reality TV, the show sought to reward contestants for their cunning, their deceit, and their back-handedness in doing whatever it took to win the $1 million prize. CBS was unabashed in its role in creating this kind of culture. Not only would the network frequently cast lamentable individuals for the show but it also would recast these same contestants for future seasons as well. In fact, CBS even went so far as to bring back 10 contestants they deemed to be "villains" for the 20th installment of the show in 2012. These so-called villains were brought back because they were so hated and abhorred by previous contestants that CBS knew former viewers would again tune in simply to watch someone they hated with all their heart.
And it was this idea of "hate-watching" that reality TV programs began to capitalize on in the mid-2000s. Networks knew how viewers would watch a program simply because they knew there'd be a public humiliation of contestants. Prominent examples during this time would Simon Cowell on American Idol, chef Gordon Ramsey on Hell's Kitchen, and, yes, even Donald Trump on The Apprentice. These networks knew there now existed a market for these loathsome individuals and they knew that viewers would tune in simply to watch these assholes being assholes. Over the course of 40 years, network television had gone from a single antihero in Archie Bunker to multiple antiheroes who could be seen on different television programs on the same night. Long gone were the days of the of the noble sitcom family. Instead, we now had a culture of vile White men berating hard-working men and women simply for trying to do their job.
It should. Because it is this exact world that enabled the emergence and acceptance of Donald Trump. People were no longer turned off by a rude, sexist, misogynistic man because they had seen him before in popular culture. Donald Trump shares Archie Bunker's views of African-Americans. Donald Trump shares Al Bundy's views on women. Donald Trump shares Puck's views on homosexuality. Donald Trump shares Johnny Knoxville's penchant for promoting violence against innocent human beings. And yes, despite not winning a single Emmy, Donald Trump shares the belief that his own reality TV show was a hit and that everybody loved him for being true to himself.
In the end, 62.9 million Americans found Donald Trump acceptable, or at the very least, palatable. There were many reasons for this, but one that has not been discussed has been popular culture's gradual acceptance of people like him. Donald Trump's candidacy was not born in a vacuum; he is the culmination of a half-century of misogynistic, sexist, racist, homophobic, White men seen on network television. Over time, these men have become not only accepted but also popular. They are admired and revered for being dinosaurs of a foregone age. Their antiquated views are seen as being genuine rather than foolish. At a time when our country is moving forward, these White men are seen as authentic human beings, staying true to their own worldview despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. In short, these popular culture antiheroes have become actual heroes to tens of millions of American voters.
Yet the main reason they became heroes is that they never faced actual repercussions of their actions. Archie Bunker never uttered his racist rhetoric outside of the sanctuary of his own home. Al Bundy never lost his job for harassing customers. Puck was actually voted out of the Real World house but later had guest appearances on MTV programs and music videos. Johnny Knoxville continues to act in television and movies. Simon Cowell now hosts The X-Factor. Chef Gordon Ramsey has a net worth of $160 million. And Donald Trump's sexism and misogyny on The Apprentice hardly got more than an afternoon of coverage during the campaign.
For sitcoms to succeed, there needs to be drama, real or imagined. Over the past half-century nothing has created more drama than a bigoted White man with whom other characters are forced to interact. It hasn't mattered if this character was a family member, roommate, potential employer, or person on the street. What has mattered is people's fiery reactions to these individuals in what have become extremely combustible situations. Nothing causes more holiday drama than a racist uncle at Thanksgiving. Network executives figured this out and brought the racist uncle directly into America's living rooms. In doing this, they created sympathy for the uncle who very well should have been ostracized for his offensive and insulting views. As a result, we now have nearly 63 million Americans who simply think that the uncle is misunderstood.
And we have the rest of us who have to deal with this racist uncle in the White House each and every day.
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