For many Americans, 2016 is a strange and horrible year. Something extra darkly comic and uncanny haunts those of us born (like I was) in 1979. Most people who feel that special twinge when Smashing Pumpkins’ biggest hit comes on have not done the math — has anyone? — but it’s true: the assassination of John F. Kennedy was as many years in the past when we were born — fifteen — as 9/11 is now in the past today. (I’ll take a minute for that to sink in.)
We are as hung up, still, on September 11, just as people were stuck so long on the death of JFK. Fair enough! Both moments were, in hindsight, the same kind of terrible signal — that everything, more or less, was about to suck for a long time. It is up for debate whether the post-Kennedy malaise lasted into the Reagan years. It is not up for debate that the post-9/11 malaise is still going strong.
We need to see Donald Trump’s success through this lens. If we don’t, we’ll suffer a third wave of frustrated, debilitating confusion. Then America really won’t win anymore.
The Celebrity Bubble Comes and Goes
Let’s take a step back. September 11 came out of the blue in no generic sense. Come on, remember the context. Some time in the late 1990s, the culture began to shift — not in the insidious way culture warriors like to describe, but in a manner much more organic and wrenching. It is hard to describe to the uninitiated how it was to watch the number of celebrities leap from a relative handful in the early ‘90s to a glittering, shrieking cosmos some four years later. But it happened. And people began to imagine it could happen to them.
Instead, the celebrity bubble burst. As if some magic quota had been reached, the whole ecosystem exploded, and in its place arose a distributed network of lowbrow content. Part of this seems to have been the result of the Internet. I’m unsettled to say, however, that the Internet as we know it today seems in a deeper sense to have been a response to what had become of us by the late 1990s.
There was a toll exacted on late-90s celebrities, a veritable death toll, in some instances. Fiction was written about wholesale celebrity massacres — the pre-9/11 era’s equivalent of the disaster-porn movies we somehow summon forth every couple of months. For those who understood in their bones that an apocalyptic cultural switch was being flipped, it was possible to see the aftermath coming… and then to live it.
Bret Easton Ellis, who has gone out of his way in recent years to all but assassinate his reputation as an imperious celebrity novelist, followed up his novel about celebrities and massacres with a novel looking back on the ‘90s as “the beginning of a time when it was almost as if the novel itself didn’t matter anymore — publishing a shiny booklike object was simply an excuse for parties and glamor and good-looking authors reading finely honed minimalism to students who would listen rapt with slack-jawed admiration, thinking, I could do that, I could be one of them. But of course if you weren’t photogenic enough, the sad truth was”—trigger warning—“you couldn’t.”
As he already knew by then, however, the real tear-jerker was that the celebrity novel, the celebrity novelist, was dying. By the time an actual international terrorist slaughter came along, in 2001, nobody gave a shit about the star artist anymore. It was the stump waiting to be kicked over to unleash the swarm of ants.
Always On or Always Gone
The pattern was reproduced everywhere. It took David Bowie’s death to shake this sense into most people, but industry insider Bob Lefsetz has warned about it day in and day out for years: you can all but hear the howling rush of big stars hurtling into a useless and empty void, dead careers walking, their true genius and singularity soon to be irrelevant, forgotten, without respect. Who’s going to cry when Tom Petty dies? The culture has changed.
Ask Kanye West, ask Taylor Swift. Music is not enough, certainly not music toiled over and honed until it’s an experience that defines people, that they will memorize and obsess over for decades. Who’s going to give a shit about “The Life of Pablo” or “1989” in 15 years? That’s not what that music was made for. If you’re going to be a true star today, you must be absolutely dominant by winning the conversation every day. In the new ecosystem of celebrity, there is room at the top for fewer than ever — and room at the bottom for more than any one person can know.
Those of us deluded enough to believe that politics is exempt from these cultural forces will not have connected the dots between Bret and Bob. These two insiders, intimately aware of how the fame pyramid has changed its shape and content, both have no problem getting over the reality of Trump.
Bret tweets that dinner in West Hollywood reveals a table of closeted Trump voters. Bob writes that Kanye is like Trump, “he says the unthinkable, he boasts about his greatness, […] people need heroes and they ain’t gonna be Anna Wintour and the rest of the ice cold icons, but a guy like them, who came up from the deep.” And if you think Trump’s money means he’s not from the deep, you’re telling yourself what you want to hear.
Down the Black Hole of Soul-Searching
How is it that others, but not you, know Trump perfectly inhabits the form of leadership that naturally emerged from our cultural moment? Even deeper and broader than the issue of the GOP base becoming completely disenchanted in the established party leadership is the problem that so many Americans (who are not senior citizens) just have zero respect for old-style politicians.
Even a young guy who’s auditioning for the part of tomorrow’s old-style politician — Marco Rubio — just doesn’t pass the derisive laugh test among the most culturally consequential Americans, whatever their class. Trying to reduce this situation to class makes as much sense as trying to decide whether “Deadpool” is highbrow, lowbrow, or middlebrow.
There was a moment when expectations shifted about what it was to be a real human being in politics, too, and the only major figure to apparently intentionally catch that wave was Trump. He is the Deadpool of national politics. You can agonize over this fact or you can deal with it.
While a privileged few have no difficulty doing this — whatever their partisan view — others, many others, are throwing themselves into the same kind of epistemological or ontological crisis over the Trump phenomenon as people have imposed on themselves in the wake of 9/11 or the Kennedy assassination. Do we have the luxury of another 15 years of soul-searching, agonizing reappraisal, and self-abuse?
If you’re old enough or young enough, that might not be your problem. But for those of us who grew up in the eerie interregnum between generational traumas, we’ve already had enough. A third time for resentful bewilderment is not going to be the charm.