WHO CREATED Donald Trump?
Now that Donald Trump, the candidate, has become both widely popular and deeply loathsome, we’re seeing a cataract of editorials and commentary aimed at explaining how it happened and who’s to blame. The predictable suspects are trotted out: the Republican Party, which had been too opportunistic and fearful to stand up to its own candidate, Fox News, which inflamed the jingoes, and white working-class voters, unhinged by class envy and racial resentment.
The predictable bewilderment and outrage are professed. But absent from all these ashen-faced accounts is any examination of the people who put Trump in a position to run for president in the first place. The man didn’t emerge, all at once and fully formed, from some hidden and benighted hollow in the American psyche. He’s been kicking around for 30 years or more, and he was promoted and schooled, made famous and made wealthy, by the same culture and economy that now reviles him, and finds his success so vexing.
After all, it wasn’t some Klan newsletter that first brought Trump to our attention: It was Time and Esquire and Spy. The Westboro Baptist Church didn’t give him his own TV show: NBC did. And his boasts and lies weren’t posted on Breitbart, they were published by Random House. He was created by people who learned from Andy Warhol, not Jerry Falwell, who knew him from galas at the Met, not fundraisers at Karl Rove’s house, and his original audience was presented to him by Condé Nast, not Guns & Ammo. He owes his celebrity, his money, his arrogance, and his skill at drawing attention to those coastal cultural gatekeepers — presumably mostly liberal — who first elevated him out of general obscurity, making him famous and rewarding him (and, not at all incidentally, themselves) for his idiocies.
Sure, he was a nasty man and a blowhard even then, a rich clown playing the media for publicity, a quintessential type: the eternal hustler, too nasty and vulgar to be entirely respectable, but too successful to be ignored. We’ve seen thousands like him and we’ll see thousands more. But he’d built a bunch of buildings, and real estate is to Manhattan what oil is to Texas: a toxic and destabilizing commodity, and a universal excuse for almost any bad behavior. So he wasn’t a liberal man, but he’d spent his life surrounded by them. How bad could he be?
If you think that sounds stupid and smug, imagine how it sounds to people out in the rest of the country. Liberals were sure the devil would come slouching out of Alabama or Texas, beating a bible and shouting about sodomy and sin. They didn’t expect him to be a businessman who lives on Fifth Avenue and 57th Street. Rick Santorum was a threat, but your run-of-the-mill New York tycoon just couldn’t be, not in the same way — because even if the latter was unlikable, he was known, he was covered, he fell within a spectrum that the morning shows and entertainment press are comfortable with, much more so, anyway, than they are with what the slow learners among liberals still blithely call “rednecks.” When, a few years ago, Trump started going on about Obama’s birth certificate, no one said, “Hey, maybe we don’t want to associate with this guy anymore.” Instead, the Washington Post invited him to be its guest at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Its editors wouldn’t have extended the same backslapping generosity to David Duke or Alex Jones or any of the other rustic zealots with whom Trump is now, unquestionably, on all fours.
The culture that first made Trump wasn’t the one that goes hunting on weekends, or the one that’s been reborn in Christ. It was the culture of celebrity for its own sake, of kidding-but-not-kidding-but-maybe-really-kidding, a culture of materialism and greed, too forgiving of fame and too prone to taking nauseating crassness as just another act; a culture with delusions of its own moral faultlessness and its ability to control whatever conversation it’s begun, ever-tempted by the idea that absolutely everybody must see irony where we see it, that it’s all politics as usual, and whatever happens, Vanity Fair will cover it all with the same, slightly distanced knowingness, in between the ads for expensive watches and luxury cars.
Before you object, let me be clear about what I’m not saying: I’m not saying America’s newest love affair with fascism is a sign of some systematic decadence, foisted upon us by Jews and homosexuals who’ve been too busy gawping at some 21st-century Sally Bowles to notice the rest of the country out stocking up on brown shirts. That’s a miserable, false, and dangerous argument; and left-wing puritanism is as joyless and life-denying as its right-wing counterpart. I love Warhol and the games he and people like him taught us to play. Sometimes those games get out of hand, and then it’s not fun anymore, but pleasure is not the problem, and dourness is not the remedy.
Nor am I suggesting that we should excuse the GOP or the bigoted thugs who have now made this man the imminent threat that he is. Not for a second do they get a pass. But there’s plenty of blame to go around for Trump, so before we turn to the usual denouncements, let’s take a moment to remember who helped create this monster. It wasn’t them.