If you’re one of those cultural Luddites who still yearns for dignity in American politics, the Trump era has been a nightmare. Our 45th president ran and won as a lewd demagogue with an out-of-control inferiority complex, and his tenure as chief executive continues to lower the bar for public discourse, week after painful week.
I’ve got bad news though — Trump is just the beginning. It’s going to get worse.
There used to be a difference between how we consume entertainment and how we participate in politics. We might have been fine watching a movie with sex and violence and goofy comedians doing foolish things, but when we went to the voting booth, we expected a much higher degree of integrity and seriousness. Our politicians, after all, control things like the police, the fire department, nuclear weapons, the space shuttle, and other fairly serious institutions.
But the election of Donald Trump changed this. It proved, at last, that the American entertainment complex can be successfully leveraged to attain political power.
Our desire to be entertained overtook our cultural instinct for self-preservation.
Pop-culture figures entering the political arena is nothing new. People like Ronald Reagan, Sonny Bono, Al Franken, even Gopher from The Love Boat made successful transitions into government. The difference, though, is that these entertainers became politicians as a second act in their careers. They sobered up, shed their vaudeville acts, and became serious participants in the political process.
Trump’s election shows that the sobering up and serious parts are no longer necessary. American voters will elect a clown right in the middle of his circus.
This is a huge shift in our society. And if the cultural difference between Barack Obama and Trump is a mile, the difference between Trump and Kim Kardashian is a millimeter.
We’re on the verge of having Nielsen ratings matter more to our elections than polling numbers.
There’s a particularly frightening example of this happening right now in Michigan. Robert James Ritchie, a rapper known better as Kid Rock, has been openly considering a run for the United States Senate. An outspoken Trump supporter, Kid Rock’s foray into politics has been cheered on by prominent Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s former Chief of Staff Stephen Law and National Republican Senatorial Committee Executive Director Chris Hansen.
(In case you’re unfamiliar with Kid Rock, a glimpse into his oeuvre may help draw the picture. Here’s a short selection of his song titles: “Wax the Booty,” “Pimp of the Nation,” “Early Mornin’ Stoned Pimp,” “[Expletive] That,” “[Expletive] Me,” “[Expletive] Off,” “[Expletive] in Your Mouth,” “[Expletive] U Blind,” and many more along those same lines.)
Mr. Rock laid out his political agenda in the middle of a concert in Grand Rapids, Michigan. With thousands of fans cheering him on, Rock stood at a podium between two scantily-clad women and brought an earthy twist to some traditional Republican policy points.
“I don’t believe you should save, sacrifice, do things by the book and then have to take care of some dead beat, milking-the-system lazy-[expletive] mother [expletive],” he explained. “Now the issue of struggling single parents is close to my heart. But read my lips — we should not reward these women who can’t even take care of themselves but keep having kid after [expletive] kid.”
It’s not surprising that a foul-mouthed reprobate would make asinine remarks on stage. What’s noteworthy is that he is being encouraged to run to become a member of the world’s greatest deliberative body by actual establishment Republicans.
As they did with Trump, Kid Rock’s GOP fans are overlooking the vulgarity and misogyny and instead focusing on his popularity: Kid Rock has sold more than 25 million albums in his career.
To political power-seekers, this is like money in the bank.
But to our society, this is a horrible development. It means we no longer take our own safety and well-being seriously. We have devolved into a morbid pop-gluttony, and would rather have our angsts tickled by human caricatures like Donald Trump or Kid Rock than have our nation responsibly stewarded by our best and brightest.
At this point, I don’t think the genie can be put back in the bottle. It would be remarkable to watch America remind itself of its sacred traditions of self-governance and start taking the process seriously again. But I honestly can’t see that happening anytime soon.
Maybe our best hope is to preserve our dignity in the small corners where it still remains. Maine has long been a bulwark against the total devolution of American politics, offering figures like Margaret Chase Smith, George Mitchell, Bill Cohen, Susan Collins, and Angus King to serve as examples to the rest of the nation.
Perhaps electing people like that to office right here in Maine is the best way to guard against a Kim Kardashian presidency. We may not be able to stop the downward trajectory of our political system entirely, but at least we’ll be able to preserve our own self-respect in the process.