Last week, America promoted Donald Trump from being the boss of a reality TV show to being the boss of the nation. This is a historic first. Ronald Reagan is the only other celebrity president but he cut his teeth as governor of California, the home state of celebrities. Sonny Bono and Al Franken jumped from celebrity to the house and senate, respectively—not to the presidency. Perhaps the next step is to let the producers of the new series 24: Legacy simply cast the next president and bypass the election process entirely.
Progressives are shocked that the president-elect uses racist and xenophobic slurs so casually and was caught making lewd comments about women during a ride on an Access Hollywood bus. But this is exactly what you should expect when you let pop culture elect the new president.
The entertainment industry is one of the most racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, and transphobic labor markets in the country. White people are repeatedly cast in non-white roles, leaving so few jobs for minority actors. Non-disabled actors eat up all of the roles for folks with disabilities. Actors with no personal connection to the transgender experience are performing in transgender roles despite the availability of excellent trans actors. Women are consistently and notoriously underpaid and then quickly dismissed when they are deemed too old to sell tickets. Non-American cultures show up in our popular culture only as sites of war and the training ground of terrorism. Successful leading straight men have the audacity to tell gay actors to stay in the closet for the sake of their careers.
This is Donald Trump’s world. He has found solace and success there since long before “The Apprentice” launched in 2004, making frequent appearances on talk shows and having cameos in “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” “Home Alone 2,” and several other films and TV shows. If you wonder what Donald Trump’s attitudes are about women and minorities, just take a look at how few of them have worked as producers, directors, and writers for “The Apprentice.”
To understand the election of Donald Trump, put the poll data aside and start asking questions about the entertainment industry that built the Trump celebrity. What stories does our entertainment industry tell us? More importantly, who gets to tell these stories and whose stories are silenced?
As a scholar who studies issues of identity in popular culture, I am often treated as a quirky outpost of academia, writing and teaching about something that does not matter. After this election, I promise you it matters a great deal. Pop culture is the new president and celebrity studies is the new political science.
Dustin Kidd teaches sociology at Temple University and is the author, most recently, of “Pop Culture Freaks: Identity, Mass Media, and Society” (Westview 2014).