After sailing to victory in Nevada and South Carolina and leaving the political establishment gobsmacked, Donald Trump has predicted that he will not only nab the GOP presidential nomination, but deliver the largest voter turnout in history. Typical trumpery perhaps, but the blustery billionaire is now closer to the White House than many people would have imagined. With breathtaking speed, he has rewritten the rules of campaigning while holding up a middle finger to Fox News, Republican elders and even the pope. He says things nobody else dares say — from expressing support for fans who roughed up a Black Lives Matter protester to maligning Senator John McCain’s military record.
His reality is becoming America’s. Do we have the Kardashians, in part, to thank?
With their cartoonish appearances — Trump with his buoyant hair and Kim Kardashian with her outlandish curves — both seem characters from a storybook. They are the king and queen of an American Dreamland, all the more important now that the American Dream has become fantasy for so many people. In an era of growing inequality and foreclosed futures, people can’t get what they need, much less what they want.
In a better system, those who take advantage of a rigged set-up wouldn’t be seen as heroes. But when there seems no hope of transformation, watching celebrities who float free from any kind of social responsibility becomes hypnotically compelling. Not only can you be famous doing nothing of value for society, you can even be president! How awesome is that?
Trump and Kardashian have both acted as barometers for how far a person can go and how low a culture can sink. Trump was famous, of course, long before the Kardashians. He was the poster boy for 1980s excess, just as Kardashian became the emblem of same in the naughts. He started grabbing media attention during his ill-fated ownership of a football team, which he ran into the ground while seducing the press with his outlandish claims and boisterous personality. Trump learned then to present himself as the biggest and the best at everything — bankruptcies and business blunders be damned. He may have ridden to success on a train of tax breaks and government largesse, but he became adept at styling himself as the emblem of the free market.
The temporal bridge between Trump and Kardashian is the 1990s — the decade in which reality television exploded, making people with no special talents wildly famous. The shows were loudly denounced as signals of American cultural enfeeblement, but the more the critics sniffed, the more the ratings soared.
Trump and the Kardashians perfected the genre. The Apprentice, hosted by Trump from its inception in January 2004 until 2015, presented the mogul interviewing, and gleefully dismissing, job candidates and went on to become one of the most-watched programs on NBC. In 2007, Keeping Up with the Kardashians flooded American living rooms with what looked like fly-on-the-wall glimpses of the lives of the Kardashian-Jenner family, mainly the antics of daughters Khloe, Kourtney and Kim. That program became one of the longest-running reality shows in TV history, with the 11th season airing last fall.
Reality stars aren’t supposed to elevate us or educate us. They are there to entertain us. So Candidate Trump need not concern himself with the minute details of foreign policy or healthcare. He only has to say, “It’s going to be very big. It’s going to be very special,” to have the crowd cheer. Kim Kardashian never went to college, but she can make the news instantly whether she is demonstrating how to achieve maximum cleavage or tweeting semi-literate statements about the 1915 Armenian genocide.
Trump and Kardashian share the values of opportunism, image-obsession and materialism, but where they really rise above the celebrity pack is their knack for making oodles of money simply telling the world how awesome they are. And being rich. In 2015, Kardashian ranked 33rd on Forbes’ roster of the world’s highest paid celebrities. With $52.5 million in earnings, she beat out both Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Lawrence and former Beatle Paul McCartney. Trump placed 121st on the Forbes 400 list of the wealthiest people on Earth the same year, with a pile estimated at $4.5 billion.
Surely something magical happens in the rarefied air at that stratospheric level of wealth and fame. Inanity can magically transform into insight; solipsism into social concern; ridicule into reverence. The only skills required to keep the American public’s attention are self-promotion and conspicuous consumption. Peers of this realm get a certain immunity from criticism and a pass on gaffes. Exaggeration becomes truth, or, as Trump himself artfully puts it, “truthful hyperbole.”
Garish taste and questionable credentials become emblems of connection to ordinary people. Despite a dwelling that looks like the fevered dream of a French monarch, Trump has been called the “people’s billionaire” and is considered by many a populist. Celebrity watchers love to remind us that Kardashian is just a “regular girl.” She has a daughter! She hangs with her family! Her lack of talent — unless you consider taking photos of your rear end for Instagram a talent — dissolves in the public fascination for such mundane activities as taking endless selfies (we all take selfies!), even when she is shelling out $827,000 on gold-plated toilets.
Reality stars are special kinds of celebrities. Not only do they distract viewers from what’s missing in their lives as we follow their every move, their association with a genre that ostensibly documents unscripted situations lures viewers into imagining that they are more “real” than other celebrities. They suspend viewers’ disbelief more than professional actors, so when they fabricate reality out of whole cloth, the public might just buy it. They seem extra-intimate because they come to viewers apparently unfiltered.
Reality TV thrives on high drama, outsized personalities and loud-mouthed conflicts, so when we see a person linked to the form, we expect and accept these things as par for the course. That’s why Trump can get away with denigrating Fox News’ Megyn Kelly on the air during a debate. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush could not. The rules are different.
Kardashian and Trump appear to represent a kind of capitalist abundance and freedom. What they really signify, however, is the imprisonment of the self and a future of further restricted possibilities.
When our connections to each other fall away and our self-absorption intensifies, Americans’ chances to act collectively to redefine the terms of our lives diminishes. Trump’s loud talk of building walls and roughing up those who get in the way is really the whisper of an authoritarian future where the freedom and abundance are reserved for elites who will protect their privileges at any cost.
The real wall will be around us — to keep us in our place. And we will have helped build our new reality.