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America’s winners are spiritually sick

If Trump is rotten from the core, what the hell does that say about the popular culture we’ve all let flourish in the past few decades?

Some actors reach greatness via pure commitment – shedding pounds, adding them, living in character for months on end, all but transforming into the role they’ve decided to play. Marlon Brando, Christian Bale, Daniel Day-Lewis, and if I may hazard an addition (a somewhat non-traditional nominee), the United States of America.

Can we nominate a whole country for an Oscar? A Tony? Can we do that? Can someone check on that? That’d be beautiful. You know what I mean? Beautiful. The best. Beautiful people, beautiful acting. Wow. 

For approximately the past two years, my country, or the better part of it, at least, has stared into the mirror, and feigned astonishment, as if candidate-cum-President Donald J. Trump were some foreign creature, and how dare – how dare – such a being invade our most hallowed oval-shaped office?

My fellow Americans, let’s take a bow.

Our most recent thespian flourish – a good one – involves one Kanye O. West – beloved, reviled, mocked, feted, highly sought after rapper, virtuosic producer, fashion designer, inveterate loudmouth, and ultimately, an American hero. On April 25 of this year, Kanye tweeted: “You don’t have to agree with trump but the mob can’t make me not love him. We are both dragon energy. He is my brother. I love everyone. I don’t agree with everything anyone does. That’s what makes us individuals. And we have the right to independent thought.”

The internet, as it is wont to do, erupted in outrage. How could it, how could it be that the Louis Vuitton Don, Yeezus himselfhusband of Kim Kardashian (noted sex-tape debutante, entrepreneur, reality tv star and all around cultural pox) could ally himself with Donald J. Trump, that wicked vulgarian, chauvinist, bully? The denunciations are still ringing from every corner, including some corners that used to contain Kanye West’s personal friends.

End scene. 

The thing that gets the hackles up, I think, is not just that Kanye is black and Trump’s enemies believe him to be a crypto-klansman – not every black Trump supporter generates analogous outrage – but also that that Kanye belongs here, to us. We love him. We love Kanye like a brilliant, earnest, slightly unhinged relative, Kanye, the composer and rapper of these bars: “She said ‘Ye can we get married at the mall? / I said look you need to crawl ‘fore you ball /Come and meet me in the bathroom stall / And show me why you deserve to have it all”

We love him, we have loved him, we will continue to love him. We’ve awarded him 21 Grammys so far, and I’ll wager we’ll award him a good number more. He’s a talented, ambitious, charismatic lunatic, and I guess that’s fine enough – our love need not portend the fall of the republic. Kanye really is a phenomenal producer, and a sometimes funny, inventive, brazenly honest rapper. I eat candy sometimes. It doesn’t mean I’ll die a diabetic.

But here’s what makes the latest hysterics so phony: a country that embraces and elevates figures like Kanye and Kim, Paris and Pauly D, various real housewives, apprentices, bosses, bachelorettes and bachelors, skates on confusingly thin ice when it shrieks in horror at President Trump, and, say, his observation that “when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.” I don’t know the people he’s talking about, but I’m reliably informed that there are indeed people who will let the stars do, and say, whatever they want.

If Trump is rotten from the core, what the hell does that say about the popular culture we’ve all let flourish in the past few decades? And not just let flourish, no – the popular culture we’ve chosen to make popular, that we’ve invested our time, interest and money in at alarming rates? It says what all the bien pensants started saying the minute Trump began to look like a serious presidential contender – that there exists in our culture a particularly ugly strain of materialism, a nihilistic selfishness, a fragile narcissism, and it’s coming further and further into the light. The contagion has been spreading for a long time.

In January of this year, Eric Trump, defending his father from charges of racism, uttered a few short words that should put the rest of the Trump analysts all but out of business: “My father sees one colour: green. That’s all he cares about.” Now, young Eric meant to say that his father is chiefly concerned about economics, and has no time for petty things like racial animus. I think his filial analysis is basically sound. I think Donald Trump’s one religion, his tribal affiliation, his deep and shining desideratum, is success – triumphing over competitors, winning renown and approval. Winners are terrific! Fantastic ratings. Losers, of whatever skin tone, are sad! Money is, as Trump has averred, a tidy way to keep track of the winning and losing. If America will be great again, it means that America will be rich again, triumphant – better deals, bigger guns, better poll numbers than ever. Unbelievable. Record-setting crowds of admirers. Really fantastic. Dragon energy.

This world view is grossly impoverished; it is undeniably venal. It is also perfectly mainstream. Kanye and Trump aside for a moment, the third most popular song of 2017 was Bruno Mars’s “That’s What I Like,” which begins: “I got a condo in Manhattan/Baby girl, what’s happenin’? / You and your ass invited /So gon’ and get to clappin’ / Go pop it for a player, pop-pop it for me / Turn around and drop it for a player, drop-drop it for me” America is well accustomed to turning around, popping and dropping it for a player, provided he has some Manhattan real estate to dangle. If you like your metaphors of spiritual desolation a little more PG, you might recall the catchphrase of another reality star turned pop culture icon, young Ms. Honey Boo Boo, who proclaimed that “A dolla makes me holla.” Indeed it does, Ms. Boo Boo.

Honey and her family were undeniable recipients of what we call hate-watching. On some level, many of her viewers found them repulsive, and watched in order to bask in a feeling of superiority. The couple of times I saw the show I also enjoyed this feeling. So maybe this isn’t who we are, then, right? Back in 2011, the essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan wrote of an earlier iteration of reality television:

“People hate these shows, but their hatred smacks of denial. It’s all there, all the old American grotesques, the test-tube babies of Whitman and Poe, a great gauntlet of doubtless eyes, big mouths spewing fantastic catchphrase fountains of impenetrable self-justification, muttering dark prayers, calling on God to strike down those who would fuck with their money, their cash. There are simply too many of them – too many shows and too many people on the shows – for them not to be revealing something endemic.”

Endemic is right. What Trump, Kanye and the lion’s share of our society’s most prominent “winners” display is a spiritual sickness, a particularly American vision of excellence – heedless, defiant, cocksure, ostensibly self-made and indestructible. He who dies with the most toys wins. A hot-blooded boy’s vision of what a man can become.

This illness is particularly strong in America, and it’s spreading as quickly as our lightning-fast WiFi can carry it. But while the situation is grim, it’s not necessarily terminal; societies have ways of recovering in the nick of time. They all get sick, often they get somewhat better, and sometimes they don’t. We might; I hope we do, because this is my home and I love my people. But I’ll hazard a prediction: until we can look at Donald Trump’s arrogant face and admit that what we see is a reflection of our national countenance, we’ll be a long way from understanding our condition, and a longer way from getting better.

Ian Marcus Corbin is the owner of Matter & Light Fine Art in Boston, and a doctoral candidate in philosophy at Boston College.

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