The Eight Pieces of Pop Culture That Defined the Trump EraJanuary 2, 2021
Certain cultural figures loom so large that they eventually serve as shorthand for the spirit of their times. There’s Michael Jackson, the personification of the smiley-face maximalism of Reagan’s 1980s; Lucille Ball and the aspirational domesticity of the Eisenhower era; even Homer Simpson, a postmodern joke of a patriarch befitting the irony-soaked Clinton 1990s.
As America’s Trump years come to an end, there is only one pop culture figure who fits that era-defining mold: Donald Trump himself. But unlike those figures, Trump doesn’t represent any single, unifying truth about our character; rather, he’s a symbol of how fragmented it has become. That’s partially thanks to his waging a relentless, cable news-fueled culture war, but it’s also the result of long-developing trends in media.
For decades, cultural Jeremiahs have prophesied the death of the monoculture—a shared, unifying cultural experience that spans race, class and regional difference. With the decline of broadcasting, social platforms cannibalizing traditional news, and YouTube and personalized streaming services serving up an endless buffet of new content “based on your viewing history,” the long, slow death of that phenomenon accelerated wildly just as Trump rose to power.
There is no single story that the books, films and pop cultural miscellany of the Trump presidency can tell us about its character. So, instead of trying to impose a narrative on the cultural chaos of the past five years, we’ve decided to let it speak for itself.
These eight items represent the social upheaval, cries for justice, death-grip nostalgia, internet-abetted hustle and quietly driftless contemplation that have marked this era. They’ve come in forms both disruptively cutting edge and surprisingly old school. Individually, none can fully explain how we got from Trump’s 2015 escalator ride to this uncertain, transitional moment. But the ways in which they speak to their creators’ own perspectives—and, implicitly, to one another—tell us plenty about the character of a nation that will be seeking to fill the spotlight left empty when Trump finally exits the stage.
The Films of Jordan Peele
From the moment its viral trailer debuted amid the racial inflammation of the 2016 presidential campaign, the appeal of Get Out was obvious. It wasn’t only its novel approach to racial issues, but its singular, surreal horror aesthetic. The film’s narrative traces the arc of a weekend spent by a young Black man meeting his white girlfriend’s family at their home in rural-but-tony upstate New York, and his gradual realization that he has become prey for a very literal, personal version of the predation and co-option Black Americans have historically faced at the hands of whites.
In less dexterous hands, it could’ve been dismissed as a message movie or simplified its political themes — which include a pointed satirizing of the exact type of white liberal who would brag about engaging with a film like this. Instead, writer-director Jordan Peele went deeper and set a land speed record for achieving auteur-dom, and did so while delivering a film that was both a critical and box office sensation.
Peele’s 2019 follow-up effort, Us, was even more ambitious both thematically and narratively, positing a Morlock-like underworld full of oppressed doppelgangers who threaten to overtake their privileged opposite numbers, black and white alike. Its title serves as a not-so-subtle triple-entendre, referring to those doppelgangers within the narrative, the racial identity of the Black family at the center of the story and the good old “U.S.” of A itself—all tied up, in Peele’s telling, in the subtly gradated hierarchy in which we all play our various parts.
The racial division of the past four years has made cultural commentary like Peele’s resonate even more powerfully with viewers. His films are also of this time because of their genre-busting audacity. They are weird. Wonderfully so. In no other version of America would a two-hourlong conceptual opus about privilege and identity that features a brutal, tragicomic murder scene set to “Good Vibrations” make a quarter-billion dollars at the box office. In no other version of America would Peele have been given $20 million to make it.
Over the past decade, diversity of perspective in media has been emphasized more than at any other point in American history. Films like Get Out and Us are the rewards.
If there were ever a case for “cancel culture,” Roseanne Barr provided it. Two decades after its original run ended, Barr’s eponymous sitcom “Roseanne” returned to television in mid-2018 with great fanfare and a string of new episodes that explored white working-class culture and folkways in a smart, empathetic and evenhanded fashion. Her character was a vocal Trump supporter, a rarity on broadcast television—and a mindset that navel-gazing liberal studio executives were eager to explore in the wake of the 2016 election.
Just as the show found its stride, the real-life Barr—a notorious political crank—let loose with a heinously racist Twitter rant about Valerie Jarrett, a former aide to President Barack Obama. The show was, promptly, canceled.
And then it wasn’t. Just five months later, “Roseanne” returned without Roseanne, Barr’s character written off as dying, true to topical form, of an off-screen opioid overdose.
Since then, the show, reinvented as “The Conners,” has been a consistent ratings success for ABC, proving the resilience of the multi-camera sitcom format and of a media property now more than three decades old. Aided by stellar performances from John Goodman and Sara Gilbert—among the returning principals from the show’s original run in the 1980s and ’90s—the series has stayed grounded in its past while artful enough to update itself for the present. The enduring popularity of programs like “The Conners,” “Two and a Half Men” creator Chuck Lorre’s mini-empire of similar sitcoms, and melodramas like those of Dick Wolf’s “Chicago” franchise is a cultural trend that perpetually flies beneath the radar of America’s critics.
“The Conners” is the best of this populist programming, speaking to a broad audience about thorny cultural issues without condescension or moralizing. Liberal media executives clearly hope to reach the 70 million-plus Americans who voted for Donald Trump without condescending or pandering to them, but that’s easier said than done; the team of old-hand writers and producers behind “The Conners” does it well.
If you’re the kind of person who reads lengthy, chin-stroking pseudo-listicles about what culture “mattered” over some hazily defined political era, you might be inclined to miss it. Don’t. Its durability, even after its namesake’s social media-driven self-immolation, is proof that the valuable qualities in old media can endure while jettisoning their unneeded baggage.
Naomi Alderman’s “The Power”
Marvel Studios’ superhero films have taken in more than $22.5 billion worldwide since the studio’s launch in 2008. Three of the five highest-grossing films of all time in the U.S. (not adjusted for inflation) are Marvel films, and all three were released in the past three years. Not to belabor the point: America loves its superheroes.
Countless works this decade have attempted to deconstruct our obvious power fixation—some of them quite good, some even transcendent—but none of them are like the British writer Naomi Alderman’s 2016 science fiction novel, The Power. Part X-Men, part Margaret Atwood and part Stephen King, The Power tells the story of various women in an alternate universe where their gender collectively develop the ability to emit deadly lightning from their fingers.
In America over the past five years, women have publicly sought to remedy the violence done by men and hold them accountable for it as never before. In that way, the story’s appeal as wish fulfillment is palpable. But the salience of The Power isn’t simply its clever #MeToo-era premise or its crystalline sci-fi worldbuilding; it’s in its moral clarity, as bracing as the book’s titular energy. You thirst for revenge along with her abused protagonists. You thrill when they achieve it. You share in their recrimination and revulsion. But through its clever framing device, the book holds up a mirror to the readers’ righteous, vengeful glee, reminding them that a world built on vengeance and coercion is doomed to repeat the flaws of the one it’s replaced.
Through its apocalyptic conclusion, The Power is a humanist parable as well as a feminist one, seeing with fresh eyes a familiar theme in genre fiction: the world’s undoing by indiscriminate violence. It brings to mind a gender-swapped version of the Cold War’s atomic morality tales, visions of an apocalypse wrought by iron-jawed men behind mahogany tables with a big red button. Alderman’s genius is to show us not only the ugly violence of power, but its cleansing, cathartic possibilities—and then to pull the rug out, reminding us of the same bleak outcome at the end of each road.
Our pop culture is blanketed by juvenile power fantasies, with one to fit the needs of seemingly every point on the ideological spectrum. The Power is a rebuke to them, and an implicit reminder that power wielded judiciously is rarely so satisfying.
The “Renegade” dance/meme
If you’re over the age of 30, the words “mmmxneil,” “dubsmash” and “shiggy” probably mean nothing to you. Nearly everyone else will recognize them as points in the constellation of viral online music and dance trends that bubbled up to the mainstream through their popularity on TikTok, the China-based social media app that launched a thousand tech policy takes in the Trump administration’s waning days.
If you’re not familiar, the app is home to short (less than a minute) videos, usually featuring some kind of ephemeral joke, dance or meme reference, with about 100 million active users in the U.S. alone. It’s built for virality—you see someone’s dance or joke, you do your own iteration of it, your friends see your version and replicate it, and so on. Most emblematic as a cultural phenomenon is perhaps the platform’s most popular dance, at least for the fleeting moment in which such things burn brightly and flame out: the Renegade.
Seemingly everyone went viral with their version of the dance, from the Grammy-winning rapper Lizzo to various K-Pop stars to homegrown TikTok superstar Charli D’Amelio. One person who didn’t, however, was its creator: a 14-year-old dance student in the Atlanta suburbs named Jalaiah Harmon.
In late 2019, Harmon uploaded a simple homemade video of the dance to the internet and it went viral almost immediately, filtering all the way up to the aforementioned million-click-grabbing tastemakers. TikTok, almost by its very nature, would eventually divorce the work from its creator: Her video’s popularity in turn inspired other users to recreate the dance on their own without citation, on and on up the food chain until its embrace by mainstream celebrities. After becoming somewhat of a cause celébrè for those concerned with murky issues of authorship and credit on the internet, Harmon earned a New York Times profile and eventually made it to that great showcase of down-the-middle mainstream culture, “Ellen.”
Her odd saga—going from the near-universal experience of teens screwing around with their friends and making up silly dances, to national television and the center of a debate around cultural appropriation and credit—is a neat symbol of the emerging media landscape. A social media “creator” is more likely to be the 14-year-old next door, or your ambiguously employed cousin, or your math teacher, than the product of any slick entertainment enterprise.
The pop culture landscape isn’t just atomized, it’s open source. We’re no longer just members of niche cultural fiefdoms; we have the power to create fiefdoms unto ourselves—and, inevitably, watch them escape our control. Enjoy responsibly.
“Heroes of the Fourth Turning”
Will Arbery’s critical smash play from 2019 seems at first glance to be a straightforward slice of political commentary: Over the course of a pitch-black night in rural Wyoming, a group of classmates from a conservative Roman Catholic university reunite and share their anxieties, fears and ambitions about everything from the state of the nation to that of their eternal souls. Disturbed by what they see as a decadent secular world, they pace, jab, embrace and probe one another’s intellectual and emotional defenses, trying to discern their place in it. The merits of Barry Goldwater, Steve Bannon and Trump are all debated, including the latter’s function as a trigger for one character’s gag reflex.
Arbery is the son of Glenn Arbery, president of Wyoming Catholic College, the real-life analogue to the fictional characters’ alma mater. Near the climax of the play, the university’s incoming president appears and delivers a powerful monologue encouraging her charges to embrace “slowness, gridlock” and “the space between the cup and the lip.” It’s a pleasant, appealing message, dangling the potential of an oasis away from the madness of cable news and Twitter. But Kevin, the soured optimist of the group, sees through her gloss immediately, asking what that “slowness” could possibly have to do with a movement—and a faith—that embraces Trump. She doesn’t have a good answer, resorting to a lecture about the conservative movement’s past that clearly falls on skeptical ears.
But there’s something much more interesting afoot in Arbery’s play than an autopsy of the conservative soul in the Trump era (which is, nevertheless, masterfully executed). Each of the play’s four principal characters represents a specific version of restless semiyouth: the ardent, motor-mouthed ideologue, the pensive back-to-the-land survivalist, the overstimulated, too-online washout, and the gentle empath rattled by the world’s cruelty. The latter is given the play’s climactic moment, seeming to speak from the world beyond with a near-glossolalia that will make your hair stand up if you have a pulse. In doing so, and with the stunned silence that follows, she makes the central theme of “Heroes” all too clear: When others share their pain, no matter how foreign their experience to yours, ignore them at your own peril.
The lost souls featured in “Heroes” are united by their shared faith and politics, but are nearly as different in how they approach those beliefs as they are from those who reject them outright. In giving its audience a window into their alternating sincerity and hypocrisy, doubt and ardor, and conciliation and vengefulness, Arbery humanizes them with the skill of a master and invites us to do the same.
“Let’s just do it and be legends.”
The cri de coeur of the Fyre Festival, the fraudulent island party/music festival that was such a fiasco it launched its own cottage industry of streaming documentaries and insider accounts, is a perfect slogan for our era. Its source, according to Chloe Gordon’s account in New York Magazine: “a guy from the marketing team.” Who better to compose the epigram for a half-decade of smoke and mirrors; of projection and re-invention via social media, for an audience unprepared (or, more likely, unwilling) to sort fiction from reality?
The Fyre Festival that was promised was a decadent millennial paradise, a Dionysian retreat to the Bahamas jampacked with celebrity appearances and performances from high-profile artists like the rapper Pusha T and pop-punk legends Blink-182. But for Billy McFarland, the startup huckster who planned the festival along with turn-of-the-millennium rap superstar Ja Rule, the details were beside the point: The festival itself was the work, its attendees were both audience and participants. The presence of influencers like Kendall Jenner and Emily Ratajkowski would have been the key actors in McFarland’s orchestrated performance art, their inclusion proving to the world that he and his band of pirates were, in fact, “legends.” Never mind the local workers in the Bahamas he stiffed, the thousands of dollars attendees were charged for the pleasure of being crammed cheek-to-cheek in mud pits and plied with alcohol, or the iconic sad lunch served to the festival’s staff.
Cultural critics, lifestyle magazines, and their ilk have rushed to define the past several years as imbued with the spirit of the “scammer,” with Fyre as the ur-example of the social media-age grift. There’s another way to look at it: Although McFarland is literally a convicted fraudster, his scheme makes more sense not as a cynical Music Man-style con, but as a reflection of what happens when the easy-come worlds of social media and high finance grind up against the heavy, slow-moving gears of “planning” and “reality.”
Fyre, the fever dream of a naive and amoral 20-something, was meant to accrue him and his cohort more attention, more money, more clout. Instead, it provided an object lesson about the distance between image and real life. The gleeful backlash that followed was a cultural phenomenon in its own right, with “Fyre Festival” becoming metonymic for a particular type of wannabe influencer’s social media-fueled brand of, well, bullshit. In that sense, the “guy from the marketing team” may have accomplished his goal of becoming part of legend after all.
The political cartoons of Ben Garrison
A Twitter search for “Ben Garrison” and “horny” yields many, many results. The conservative political cartoonist and eccentric 63-year-old Montanan has a penchant for, shall we say, oversexualizing his subjects, men and women alike: See a laughably chiseled Trump sporting a six-pack in the boxing ring against Joe Biden, or his aggressively crude depiction of a crop-topped Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tending bar. Beyond being just libidinal Mad-style caricatures, they’re the most obvious reflection of the uncontrollable, raging id underlying Garrison’s uber-right-wing ideology.
Garrison’s outlook is extreme. Sometimes it manifests in a manner that’s just cartoonishly unrealistic, like his depictions of a granite-jawed and resolute Trump-as-ubermensch. Sometimes it’s downright psychedelic, like his hallucinatory depiction of a sentient, “Swamp Thing”-like Deep State surrounded by an inscrutable assortment of monsterized conservative boogeymen. And sometimes it’s just plain racist, as in his grotesque comparison of Michelle Obama to Melania Trump. For his excess and extremism, Garrison earned a legion of fans on the so-called “alt-right,” although he’s attempted to disavow them.
In that light, Garrison’s cartoons might seem like offensive curios not worthy of inclusion on a list such as this one, given their status at the fringes of acceptable speech. The catch: There’s nothing fringe about their aesthetic.
Spend any amount of time on various popular far-right Facebook groups, and you’ll find photoshops 10 times as offensive as Garrison’s depiction of the Obamas, and memes so crudely drawn they make Garrison look like Herblock by comparison. The vitriol and contempt for all outside the far-right tent ferments on forums and comments sections, but eventually leaches through to the mainstream: See the “Trump that bitch” T-shirts popular at the outgoing president’s 2016 campaign rallies, or Donald Trump Jr.’s posting to Instagram a bizarre photoshop featuring his father as the Trump-era meme icon Pepe.
Garrison is the Matisse of the conservative fever swamps, refining ever so slightly the racial and psychosexual pathologies at the heart of far-right meme culture to make them resemble—if you squint—something like mainstream political art.
Kanye West’s 2020 campaign
It had to be Kanye. The rapper, producer and walking controversy has produced more than his share of iconic singles and albums—even as he gradually traded his auteur’s luster for a permanent place in the tabloids. But his pièce de résistance wasn’t anything he laid down in the studio over the past five years. It was his quixotic 2020 presidential campaign, as surely a work of art as anything released in his two decade career, and singularly revealing in the way only a true provocateur can pull off.
The concept of politician-as-brand goes all the way back to—at the very least—the Nixon era, as chronicled in Joe McGinniss’ The Selling of the President 1968. Kanye’s bid represented something very different: the brand-as-politician. From Kanye to Joe Rogan to Alec Baldwin, entertainers across the ideological spectrum have caught on to the power of attaching one’s cultural star to a political cause, no matter how inchoate.
In 2016, after a string of highly publicized financial and mental health issues, the troubled artiste re-invented himself as a hype-beast Tony Robbins, singing the praises of Trump’s “dragon energy” and spitting out vague motivational aphorisms on Twitter. Later, he added a spiritual twist, pivoting to a Hillsong-cum-Vetements lifestyle Christianity that earned him plaudits from Donald Trump Jr., that notorious arbiter of hip-hop cool.
It was only natural, then, to maximize the potential of his inchoate philosophy by turning it into that biggest of media events, non-Marvel Studios category: a presidential campaign. True to form, the campaign’s media rollout was more aesthetically cohesive than those of some of his career-politician rivals: a website done in his signature minimalist style, featuring cryptic, surreal-yet professional-seeming campaign ads and a full, if not particularly detailed, campaign platform. Of course, much like spiritual brother in arms Billy McFarland, his grand plans crashed on the rocky shore of reality: He made the ballot in only 12 states, and his campaign was dogged by accusations of co-option by Republicans eager for him to serve as a spoiler or stalking horse.
No matter: By launching his campaign and having it seem only slightly more far-fetched than that of, say, Marianne Williamson, Kanye proved how fungible our politics and pop culture truly are. The president is, after all, Trump. As I wrote in 2018, they’re not dissimilar in their attitudes, believing in the sheer power of … belief, as not only a justification for their iconoclasm, but a source of energy in itself—one that can earn them power through sheer charisma and media manipulation.
Trump may be heading for the exits, and Kanye may be too hampered by his own idiosyncrasies and cultural baggage to ever follow in his footsteps. But the seamlessness with which they traverse the worlds of culture and politics makes it exceedingly unlikely we’ve seen the last of their kind.