The Modern Hero: Donald Trump
When the first presidential hopeful announced his candidacy last year, the official race to become the next President of the United States of America began. However, as it was still far from the actual election year (2016), there was relatively minimal coverage on the issue. Following one candidate’s announcement, this all changed. Donald Trump. His initial presidential bid announcement caused a huge stir within all the major media outlets, with most analysts ridiculing the outrageousness of such a move. Trump, officially labelled by Wikipedia as “Television Personality” began his career in real estate. He rapidly rose to fame as he switched to focusing on high visibility construction projects with unique architectural designs. Many called Trump’s Presidential announcement “nothing more than a publicity stunt” (as “TV Personality” to “President” is hardly a conventional career change). Yet as the race began to heat up, Trump has proved himself as more than a worthy contender. So the questions lies in why exactly do we, as the general public, place such trust in a man that has absolutely no experience in politics? Perhaps Trump’s transition from celebrity to hero highlights the ever blurring line between the modern definition of “hero” and “celebrity”.
In the same way that this paper explores Donald Trump as a representation of a new wave of celebrity-hero hybrids, scholars Orin Klapp and Frank Furedi both explore the concept of the “celebrity” and the “hero” within the modern context. In Klapp’s piece, “The Creation of Popular Heroes”, originally published in the American Journal of Sociology, Klapp explores the conditions necessary to shape a regular individual into what we dub as a “hero”. On the other hand, in Furedi’s paper, Celebrity Culture, he questions the blind faith the general public seems to place within celebrities. Although he draws a clear line of distinction between “hero” and “celebrity” there are many ideas within Furedi’s paper that hint at the mixing of the two concepts within modern popular culture. Trump represents an individual that embodies the theories put forth by both Klapp and Furedi.
Just as Klapp’s paper suggests, in a perfectly logical world, Trump’s success in the business world shouldn’t give him credibility as a politician, and yet, Trump has leveraged his fame and established himself as an authority in the field. This all began when Donald Trump transitioned from real estate mogul to public figure. To many, his new larger than life television personality rivals that of the Kim Kardashian’s and borders on ridiculous. As a celebrity, Trump is one of the best. Trump remained constantly in the public eye. His outrageous comments about business competitors in real life and about contestants on his game show, The Apprentice, earned him more media coverage than almost any other real estate mogul in history. In this sense, Trump used his fame to establish himself as one of the foremost experts when it comes to money — despite having declared bankruptcy multiple times. Of course, this is still a long shot from being a political expert. However, Trump’s rise to fame coincides with a time of financial disaster with the United States. With the economy’s downturn and subsequently devastating effects on the lives Americans, a deep rooted sense of distrust for financial analyst grew exponentially within the public. As Furedi writes in his paper, “ The tendency to outsource authority to the celebrity represents an attempt to bypass the problem of legitimacy by politicians and other figures”. In a time when a power vacuum is created because the general public refuses to trust in the authority of the very people who had just let them down, household names such as “Donald Trump” offer a place of solace. Furedi further notes, “it is not necessarily the qualities of the celebrity that give him/her authority, rather it’s the lack of authority and belief in politicians and other figures”. As a billionaire, Trump seemed to possess all the financial expertise that American citizens desired to see. Because of the rising demand for political leader well-versed in business (but with no ties to Washington), Trump effortlessly leverages his immense platform to bring emphasis to his financial success as well as his apparent knowledge of politics — thus establishing himself as an authority figure in the field of politics.
Trump further utilizes his thorough awareness of the sociocultural context of today through rebranding himself as the savior of the country. Trump’s public image is quite intricate as it embodies a combination of two distinct heroic archetypes as defined by Klapp: the conquering hero and the martyr. Trump’s campaign focuses on magnifying his success in the business world and thus insinuating that he will experience similar results as a political leader. As Klapp writes, “the conquering hero as a type is created by roles which give the actuality or the illusion of superhuman power”. By this definition, Trump is a conquering hero in the business world. Despite the multiple bankruptcies, Trump continues with his blatant displays of wealth. This illogical behaviour makes it seem almost as though nothing can take him down. In this way, Trump establishes himself as the undefeatable businessman, projecting “the illusion of superhuman power”. On the other hand, Trump’s public image also represents that of a martyr. He acknowledges that he is not from Washington as many of his other political opponents are and he does not have a background in politics. He uses this to establish himself as an outsider, ready to make the ultimate sacrifice. Klapp defines the creation of a martyr as, “a theme of self-sacrifice woven into the story of any public figure”. For Trump, his story of self sacrifice is his entry into the presidential race of 2016, Trump projects the image of a desperate businessman entering an arena that he is unfamiliar with because he can no longer stand to see the people suffer. Klapp further elaborates on the creation of a martyr as he writes, “We may say that any crisis or conflict in which an important cause is involved provides an opportunity for some person to achieve the status of martyr”. Trump grasps the sociopolitical unrest across the nation to use as his crisis that will make him a hero to the people. Thus, he projects the image that he is metaphorically throwing himself upon the sword for the greater good of the country.
Although Trump acknowledges that he is not a “politician from Washington”,m he by no means demonstrates a lack of self confidence. And despite what the media concludes, many of Trumps boastful comments are not hurting him; in fact, because they are reminiscent of a “hero” in the most traditional sense, they are actually contributing to his success. This sense of self promotion, although blatant and often times untactful, falls perfectly in line with the behavior of some of society’s most beloved heroes. There is an unmistakable parallel between the self-celebratory nature of Trump’s campaign and heroes from epic poetry. As the Jesuit polymath Father Walter states in his book, Orality and Literacy, “Bragging about one’s own prowess and/or verbal tongue lashings of an opponent figure appears regularly in encounters between characters in narrative: in the Illiad, in Beowulf, throughout medieval European romance, in The Mwindo Epic and countless other African stories…, in the Bible, as between David and Goliath.” This idea of declaring one’s inevitable victory before the fact is prevalent throughout history and especially typical among heroic figures in literature. It is precisely this characteristic that not only makes Trump’s ego is incredibly helpful to fostering his public image as a hero. In a time of uncertainty, Trump’s certainty brings contrast to the situation. Just as Trump focuses on the idiocy of his opponents, David announces to Goliath, “I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. This very day I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds and the wild animals”. Although in completely different contexts, the nature of both forms of behavior are very similar, and by proxy, they have yielded similar results. Trump has mastered the idea that we, as human beings, love certainty. We love to have our heroes tell us that they know exactly what they are doing, we love to have the protagonist of the story make the declaration that he/she is going to win, no matter what it takes, we love boastful heroes. Thus, humility — while socially desirable — is simply not a heroic trait. It is precisely Trump’s larger than life and court jester type self confidence that allows such a large portion of the general public to place their confidence in him.
In the same sense that the majority of the general public finds comfort in certainty, we also find comfort in simplicity — especially in a field of complexity. Politics have traditionally been a largely inaccessible field to the uninitiated. The jargon thrown around by politicians go over many people’s heads and puts countless more to sleep. More often than not, voters are voting for the politician and not the politician’s policies. Throughout the last several months, Trump has showed us that he has a deep understanding of this idea. As a man that embodies simplicity, he is by far the most accessible of the Republican candidates. Trump makes an effort to make his ideas easy to understand and often avoids technical details — even when explicitly asked (regardless of whether this is an intentional publicity tactic, it’s working). As he states in his “60 Minutes” interview with CBS in regards to immigration and deporting over 10 million Mexicans, “We’re rounding them up in a very humane way, a very nice way. They’re going to be happy because they want to be legalized.” To those well-versed in the subject matter, it is apparent that Trump offers no details as to how exactly he will execute his plan. But to all those who glance at this in the passing, this sounds reasonable. Trump is making it easy for the voters to relate to him and to understand him. In the same way rather than speaking about policy, he speaks about the effect his ideas will have on people. Trump’s policy suggestions and idiolect are often simplified to beyond “lay-man’s terms”, his public image is about as black and white as it could possibly be.
Trump recognizes and harnesses the power of simplicity — rather than selling himself, Trump sells a fairy tale starring himself. He begins by casting himself as no only the lead, but also the underdog. In a study published in the Oxford University Press, society has a tendency to side with the underdogs. Researchers Neeru Paharia, Anat Keinan, Jill Avery, and Juliet B. Schor attempt to explore the strength of the underdog effect in marketing and brand biography. Although the study focuses on the commercial world, it goes a long way to prove the prevalence of the underdog within our identity, one such example is the small side study the team conducted, “To test our assumption we ran a pilot study with 108 participants from a national online sample and found that, on average, people perceive themselves to be greater underdogs than they perceive their friends, members of their ethnic group, people in their social class, and people of their country of origin”. This further proves why exactly the underdog effect has such a profound effect on the way we behave. When figures such as Trump paint themselves as a force of good standing up against the overwhelming force of evil, we can’t help but identify with him. The study further defines the term underdog as those who “do not their disadvantaged position hold them back from competition”. In the same way, Trump is insisting on charging head first into battle against those more experienced than himself with no hesitation. In other words, Trump has shaped himself to fit perfectly into the “underdog” mold. This further connects to his image as the martyr. As the underdog, he is sure to lose, but because he is the savior of the people, he does not see the consequences for himself if he loses, rather he sees the consequences for the general public. He paints previous politicians, especially Obama, as the evil force that has taken over a land that was once great. Then he further suggests that everyone else is essentially on the dark side, expect for him. In his tale, Trump is the savior that will bring the light back to the land of darkness. In essence, this makes Trump the humble businessman taking on the massive institution in Washington in an attempt to save the nation. Trump has dubbed himself America’s knight in shining armor. The simplicity of this tale is echoed throughout almost all of our most beloved fairy tales and perhaps this is what gives it so much power. The story that Trump sells tugs on something so deeply ingrained in who we are that it is almost impossible to resist.
Thus, through combining all the different intricacies to Trump’s campaign and public persona, Trump’s image comes into focus. His widespread support and popularity has very little to do with any skill that he may or may not have — rather, it stems from the context that he is in and the way he has presented himself. In this way, Trump’s strategy for his transition from celebrity to hero reflects a number of human tendencies: Trump’s rise to heroic status highlights our innate desire for the simplistic “good guy versus the impossible odds” story, in which the hero sacrifices herself in order to save her community; we find comfort in the clarity of his public image and his fame; we love our traditional hero archetypes; and we can’t help but root for the underdog. These individual phenomena all point to a greater idea of the serious implications of the blurring line between what it means to be a celebrity — an individual that amuses the public — and a hero — an individual that leads the public. Perhaps this is an indication of the arrival of a new era of heroes for which the only criteria is fame.
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Illing, Sean. “Donald Trump Is the Glib Hero the Right Has Been Waiting For: What His “60 Minutes” Interview Revealed about His Terrifying Appeal.” Saloncom RSS. Salon, 28 Sept. 2015. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.
Klapp, Orrin E. “The Creation of Popular Heroes.” American Journal of Sociology 54.2 (1948): 135. JSTOR. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.
Paharia, Neeru, Anat Keinan, Jill Avery, and Juliet B. Schor. “The Underdog Effect: The Marketing of Disadvantage and Determination through Brand Biography.” J Consum Res Journal of Consumer Research 37.5 (2011): 775–90. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.