After a remarkable election night that defied pollsters’ predictions, Donald Trump will be the next president of the United States.
The electorate repudiated the mass of commentators who had expressed disbelief that such a person was running so competitively for the office of president. With Hillary Clinton conceding to Trump by telephone, it appears to have been those “left-behind” voters who, despairing of a political system they feel has failed them, turned to “the Donald” as the saviour who “speaks their language”.
Both these stories have been told many times over. But one aspect of the Trump phenomenon remains a puzzle. This is not about who Trump is, or who his voters are: the questions is what he is.
Everyone seems to agree that Trump isn’t a politician in the true sense, either because he failed to meet the standards expected of a democratic representative or because he expressed no desire to be such a figure. But if (even after being elected) he really isn’t a politician in the truest sense, what is he? What role has he actually played in this bizarre American drama?
For those about to rock
Attempts to answer these questions came to dominate much of the coverage. No presidential election is really a straightforward exercise in political competition. As the writer George Saunders observed: “American presidential campaigns are not about ideas; they are about the selection of a hero to embody the prevailing national ethos.”
No-one seems any surer than they were just what sort of national hero he will be. Trump as rock or pop star was a persistent theme during the campaign: the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland described standing at the front of a Trump rally in “a kind of Trumpian moshpit”. In his book Trump and Me, Mark Singer twice quotes a Trump associate as saying: “Deep down, he [Trump] wants to be Madonna”. (Which of Madonna’s many incarnations he would choose to emulate is unclear.)
Author and music blogger Bob Lefsetz took the analogy one step further. Trump, to him, is a heavy metal band. “Donald Trump is a rock star,” Lefsetz wrote, “if you go back to what that once upon a time meant, someone who adhered to his own vision living a rich and famous lifestyle who cared not a whit what others said.”
The specific choice of musical genre is the key here. Metal, Lefsetz writes, is the music most despised and overlooked by the liberal elite, even though it is adored by its fans: “The reason metal triumphed was because it was the other, it channelled the audience’s anger, it was for all those closed out of the mainstream, and it turns out there’s plenty of them.”
The music writer Simon Reynolds also saw Trump as a rock star, but instead of Black Sabbath or Madonna, he drew parallels with David Bowie and T. Rex: “Trump surrounds himself with glitz. Trump and the glam rockers share an obsession with fame and a ruthless drive to conquer and devour the world’s attention.”
Rebooted for Netflix
But if Trump has a rock star persona, others said his pitch to the electorate was straight out of a TV show. As James Poniewozik of the New York Times wrote:
His tale has remained a kind of ‘80s prime-time soap of aspiration and ego … he cited his TV ratings the way another candidate might boast of balancing a state budget. Mr Trump’s primary win was like having a niche hit on cable … In programming terms, his campaign is nostalgia based content – that thing you used to like, I’m gonna bring it back again! He’s a classic TV show rebooted for Netflix: that old stuff from back in the day, but edgier and uncensored.
And, of course, Donald Trump is a reality television star. His role on The Apprentice is key to understanding his ability to play the role of presidential candidate. As David Von Drehle wrote in Time magazine, with reality TV stars: “Fans are encouraged to feel that they know these people, not as fictional characters but as flesh and blood”.
The idea that someone like this really could be elected to lead a major democracy was once the province of satire. But as I and my colleagues found in our research, many young people in the UK reportedly see people such as Alan Sugar and Simon Cowell as credible political leaders. They were seen as tough and decisive, attributes that were seen necessary to effective political leadership.
Treating Trump principally as a pop icon and his campaign and victory as an extended performance might sound flippant – but it’s crucial that we see this for what it is. Trump’s shocking ascent to the top job indicates that the role of the politician really has finally merged with the role of the rock star.