Unlikely supporters make Donald Trump a magnet for all the vanities
Originally published in The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/sport/2016/mar/10/donald-trump-black-athletes-mystery
When Latrell Sprewell joined Twitter a month ago, few beyond the circle of the former NBA player’s closest fans noticed. Sprewell was a fixture in the NBA for much of the Clinton-Bush years; by the end of his career he’d been named an All-Star four times. But a succession of off-court incidents and practice session bust-ups, most notably when he choked and threatened to kill Golden State Warriors coach PJ Carlesimo in 1997, soon saw the shooting guard branded a liability. In 2004 he rejected a three-year, $21m contract extension offer from the Minnesota Timberwolves, famously claiming this would not be enough for him to feed his family; this outburst secured his ass hat legend, and he never played again. Sprewell’s post-playing life began in similarly controversial fashion — an assault allegation here, a yacht foreclosure there — but for much of the past decade he’s been a virtual recluse. His reemergence on Twitter came as a shock.
It quickly became clear why Sprewell had joined Twitter: his teenage son had asked him to, mainly, it seemed, so Sprewell could make introductions to famous former athletes. But in early February, among the pleading, slightly pathetic, and mostly ignored tweets at better-known celebrities, Sprewell dropped a small bomb: he came out in support of Donald Trump. Why would a black athlete support Donald Trump? Sure, the Republican frontrunner has never explicitly expressed negative or racist sentiments about the African American population; his mouth has been too busy training its fleshy rage on Muslims and Mexicans. But the rap sheet of his crimes against diversity hardly needs much of a recap: he’s a noted bigot; he’s acquiesced, however you paint recent disavowals, to the support of David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan; he’s stoked the passions of the mob to get a string of Black Lives Matter protesters kicked out of his rallies; the Confederate flag is a fixture at Trump events. On the face of it, Sprewell’s Trump-love is a mystery.
Sprewell is not alone among figures in the sports world, of course. Mike Ditka,John Daly, Tom Brady, Peter Pekar, Clay Buchholz, Chris Weidman, Dana White, and Matt Light have all declared their support for Trump, it’s true. But they’re all white, and besides, guys like Ditka, Daly and Brady are members of the meathead demographic you’d expect someone like Trump to speak to. On the other hand, plenty of prominent black sporting personalities, including Charles Barkley,Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Ryan Harris, have merrily slammed Trump in public. But out of that group has also emerged a small but noisy camp of Trumpvocates:Dennis Rodman, Mike Tyson, Shawne Merriman, Herschel Walker, Terrell Owens. And now Sprewell.
Why would members of a minority throw their lot in with a candidate for whom the ostracization of minorities is a key campaign promise? Is this the product of a political system that has failed the black population — a population for whom voting rights remain contested political territory, even a half-century after the advances of the civil rights era? Are we witnessing, here, a celebrity microcosm among black athletes of the post-Eric Garner rejection of American business as usual? Or is it nothing to do with race at all? Is it simply that celebrities are weird? Could this outbreak of Trump-love reflect a country divided by tax brackets, the identification of the wealthy with themselves?
It could be all these things; it could be none of them. But listen to what the celebrity Trumpvocates are saying and a different explanation suggests itself: Trump’s popularity reflects little more than the narcissism of the endorsers themselves. This holds for all groups of the celebrity spectrum equally: black athlete, non-black athlete, black entertainer, non-black entertainer. Trump, as a candidate, is a magnet for all the vanities — and there are few greater than those of Celebrity America.
Plenty of work has been done to figure out the segments of the voting population from which Trump draws his base. Trump’s supporters, we’ve been told, skew male, white and poor; they’re not college-educated; they feel left out of the system; they live in areas of the country with racial resentment. Last Friday the Washington Post published a piece displaying the correlation between the Trump vote and white mortality rates, which is as close as a series of scatter plots have ever taken us to perfect poetry: as the demographics of the country shift, Trump’s rise mirrors the death of the white American male, making its animating rage less an advent than a valedictory party. Trump is the party at the end of white America.
The black athletes who support Trump fit few of these generalizations, of course. Chief among their disqualifying characteristics is a lack of whiteness. What, then, is behind their support for the mouth of Manhattan? A few weeks ago Rand Corporation surveyed 3,000 voters and concluded that the most reliable predictor of whether someone will vote for Trump is a feeling of voicelessness and powerlessness: for those without a voice, he offers an excess of voice. But up there, in the thinner air of celebrity Twitter, things operate differently, and there’s less work needed to understand the unique and counter-intuitive appeal of Trumpism to black athletes; you just need to look at the tweets.
During a Golden State practice session in 1995, Sprewell fought with a teammate, stormed out, then returned carrying a two-by-four. In a sense it’s not hard to see why a candidate whose pitch to the electorate is built on the double promise of violence (“I would hit Isis so hard, like they’ve never been hit before”) and measurement (1,000-mile border wall, tremendous business success, regular-sized hands) might appeal to an aggressive 6ft 5in hothead with a love of dimensional lumber. But dig into Sprewell’s tweets and you’ll see the real reason he loves Trump: the Donald “tells the truth.” This is a common theme amongcelebrity Trumpvocates, regardless of race, but black athletes have made the case with particular force: Merriman, for example, likes the way Trump “is a little bit more honest than others.” Tyson argues that since “anybody that was ever President of the United States offended some group of people,” Trump “deserves a chance.” And Herschel Walker has said that “Donald is saying what people want to hear. We have to stop being politically correct.”
Several black celebrities outside sport have come out in favor of Trump, but typically their explanations have offered more nuance. Azealia Banks, for example, fell back on a kind of hyper-rationalized nihilism to explain her Trump-love: “I think Donald Trump is evil like America is evil, and in order for America to keep up with itself it needs him.” The pitch from Sprewell, Merriman and others in the black-athletes-for-Donald column is far more straightforward: Trump tells it like it is. He’s a self-help hero who is not afraid to talk straight, keep it real, and be true to himself. Since Trump’s rise, in this view, has been built on a perfectly honest and transparent expression of his own personality, it represents a kind of victory for honesty and transparency in themselves, promising an America in which everyone can say and do whatever they want: no tricks, no lies, no consequences, no regrets.
This appeal cuts across race, of course; indeed it has nothing to do with race. Trump, for these athletes, is a Great Unifier because he’s a Great Bloviator — the iconoclastic truth-sayer the zero fucks given generation has been crying out for. Donald, quite literally, dgaf.
It’s easy to see why this message resonates with a certain type of celebrity damaged by historical contact with the public spotlight. Merriman, like Sprewell, has had his fair share of run-ins with authority: as a player he was regularly castigated for his “lights out” sack celebration. The trials of Rodman and Tyson, outsiders in most parts of the world that don’t have a large pigeon population or aren’t North Korea, are well known. This is the key to this surprising recent outburst of affection for Trump: these headstrong athletes, seeing themselves as mocked and mistreated by an undeserving public, find much to cheer in the unlikely rise of Donald Trump, a similarly headstrong, mocked and mistreated figure. The more Trump repels the mainstream, the more he gains strength from those who see themselves — rightly or not — as occupying the margins.
These themes extend beyond the small circle of black athletes for Trump, to the broader celebrity class — and if Bret Easton Ellis is to be believed, Trump’s support among that class is far larger than we might think. Tila Tequila, the reality TV star still probably best know for once being the most popular person on MySpace, has, like her former boyfriend Merriman, declared her love of Trump: she posted a video to YouTube in October last year outlining her support. The substance of the video manages to make the comments below it appear rational and sane — a rare and spectacular reversal of the natural order on YouTube, where intelligence usually deteriorates the further down the page you scroll. But it’s worth setting out the transcript of her opening in full.
“I’m a huge Donald Trump supporter, and so should you,” Tequila begins. “When Donald Trump first came on the scene, I laughed at him just like everybody else; I saw him as a joke. I thought he was just another puppet. However, I looked within myself and realized, ‘Oh wow. Tila, you are judging him exactly how people are judging you.’ Because people judge me all the time, as opposed to listening to the message I put out there, my life story and how much it’s impacted me to become a better person. That’s when I realized I was a hypocrite.” From there, Tequila launches into the substance of Trump’s true message, as she sees it: “I’m very anti-vax and Donald Trump is anti-vax. They’ve proven that vaccines causes 240% of black boys to have autism …”
You are judging him exactly how people are judging you. Tequila’s self-realization is the epiphany of the narcissist: she sees in Donald Trump the dimensions of her own life’s agonies. And of course the words of Tila Tequila deserve far less critical scrutiny than I’m giving them here, but they’re emblematic: Trump draws her in because his success, in the face of mainstream repudiation, validates her own perceived refusal to march to the beat of consensus. As Trump rises, he’s making America’s narcissists, regardless of ethnicity, feel good about themselves, and this is precisely why he continues to gain support from the most unlikely corners of the celebrityverse, despite the repugnance of his views on race: race is irrelevant to the properly self-absorbed. There’s no substance to these celebrity endorsements; each one is purely superficial and gestural, the self-identification of one ego with another. If Trump’s electoral appeal among the low-income white males of the American hinterland is built on a feeling of voicelessness, his popularity with a certain segment of the sporting and entertainment elite — both black and white — proves that no one appreciates a delusional celebrity like another delusional celebrity.
And the connection goes further, since the qualities that make both Trump and these celebrities celebrities — their fame, their wealth, their eccentricity, the exceptionalism of their personalities, their very celebrity-ness — are qualities to which America’s tradition of individualism says it is desirable to aspire. Trump’s pitch to the American people is fundamentally imitative: be like me. I win, therefore America will win. I am great, therefore America will be great. The endorsements of the celebrity class in general reflect this strategy and bolster its underlying case. The voters who back Trump might feel left out of the system, but the example offered by the success of Trump and his famous endorsers offers a way back in. They represent the triumph of the jilted and the misunderstood. “Here be I,” Donald seems to say, beckoning the jaded throngs, “surrounded by celebrities. We were once written off. We were once laughed at. And look at us all now!”
This is what joins the support of Trump’s celebrities to the support of his dying white male masses: they are both driven by revenge, a desire to get back at a system that did — and still does — them wrong. “Be like me” makes sense to these boosters because Trump gives them the space to realize how they already are like him: they’re all outcasts, united in exclusion. Victory in the election will allow Trump the president to finally stick it to all his critics — and to Barack Obama, above all, for his legendary evisceration at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner. But it will also, just as importantly, allow Trump’s supporters, celebrity and non-celebrity alike, to vicariously enjoy a redemption of their own. The humiliations, he promises, will soon be at an end.
We’re now at the stage in the cycle of punditry where virtually everything has been assigned some measure of responsibility for the rise of Donald Trump. The GOP establishment, we’ve been told, gave us Donald Trump; Barack Obama gave us Donald Trump; George Bush gave us Donald Trump; the financial crisis gave us Donald Trump. The set of things that gave us Donald Trump now handily outweighs the set of those that didn’t. It’s a stretch to conclude that since celebrity narcissists are in bed with Trump, America’s culture of celebrity and narcissism itself is responsible for his rise. But this is where we are today: with Trump, the city on a hill in human form, a one-man tribute act to his own unique and inspirational mission in the world, marching to the GOP nomination, promising greatness through logorrhea, lighting the way, tweeting his feels, burnishing his brand and stealth-marketing his penis, hair blazing and defiant like Lady Liberty’s flame. Even as he builds his delegate count, he gains strength from the very groups he defiles. Welcome to the party at the end of white America, a place for everyone to be themselves and drop their truths, where the freak flag flies high and the dress code is dick. If you don’t like it here, you can gtfo.