We All Created Donald Trump
Traveling through Japan last week, I was struck by how strongly Japanese culture prizes community welfare over individual achievement. One of the safest countries in the world with a robust education pipeline and healthcare system, highly efficient public transit, and one of the strongest economies in the world that more equitably distributes wealth than the U.S., Japan has many lessons to teach us, despite having its share of challenges.
But what has moved me most on my travels through Central and South America, Africa, Europe, South Asia and most recently Japan isn’t any particular numerical indicator. Instead, I’ve witnessed an abiding cultural fascination not with celebrity and owning the limelight, but with old-fashioned values like kindness, community, and service to others.
In America, we like to believe that these are values we share. Yet the facts tell a very different story — not only in our absymal rates of child poverty, gun violence, environmental pollution, educational and income inequality — but in our worsening obsession with cults of personality.
Even in our body politic, which in most developed countries is relatively boring and contained, Americans obsess over the buzz and entertainment value of presidential candidates ad nauseum, so that we’re far more concerned with how a politician Whip/Nae Naes than fights climate change effectively.
Living in Los Angeles, I have a front row seat to the personality circus that has now bled entirely into our national elections, fed by a multi-billion dollar industry that needs to tell us who’s best dressed at every self-congratulatory awards ceremony and update us on who’s sleeping with whom.
Like most of my fellow citizens, I’m a participant in this culture as much as a product of it. I, too, want to know what George Clooney said about Brangelina’s divorce and which tattoo Justin Bieber just got — or, even if I don’t care to know, I’m bound to find out anyway.
Reams have already been written about the pros and cons of our unyielding interest in entertainment and the lives of entertainers. But we seem less willing to acknowledge — at least until now — the ways in which entertainment has come to dominate our politics and policy, at the great detriment of both.
Donald Trump’s rise is a perfect case in point. A reality TV star, Trump is well-versed on how to leverage earned media attention for his personal and financial gain. Long-term poltical pundits are stunned at how Trump can lie most of the time and regularly commit traditional political faux-pas — like attack a Gold Star family, ridicule to a federal judge’s Mexican heritage, court the support of white supremacists, and so on — while still rising in the polls.
But what most pundits can’t seem to grasp is that Donald Trump is a direct outgrowth of our culture’s ceaseless fascination with celebrity. Americans exalt individuals who entertain us and keep our attention — even if they have a loose relationship with the truth. We thrive on perception, cults of personality, and the latest and flashiest thing — from iWatches and dresses to Donald Trump’s hair. Ironically, our short-term, ratings-based fixation on Trump is very much like the man himself.
Sadly, now that entertainers have become endemic in our politics, there’s far less time to talk seriously about the real issues that affect real people’s lives, like poverty, healthcare, income inequality, and the environment. In late August, for example, Hillary Clinton released a comprehensive agenda to tackle mental illness — a huge issue in our country — but we were too busy talking about the latest wild thing Trump did for it to matter.
In our Trumpian future, it’s not hard to imagine a country that values celebrity far more than public service. This means that a few individuals — i.e., celebrities — will thrive, while most Americans will not. The results are not particularly encouraging for the numerical indicators that make a country great — which, alas, do not include the number of cable news shows and awards ceremonies per capita.
The good news is that because we all created Donald Trump, we can find a way to destroy him — and begin to change a culture that helps people like him to succeed.
We may want to start by learning from countries like Japan, who without much international fanfare and sloganeering are outpacing us in the ways that truly matter.