Like everyone else, I’ve been trying to make sense of the rise of Donald Trump as a likely Republican nominee for U.S. president. How could this happen? What kind of America looks at a man as “openly debased and debauched” as Trump, a man who ridicules disabled people and routinely degrades women, a dangerous man with fascist tendencies, a vulgar man who says he doesn’t need God’s forgiveness, and sees a man they would like to have in the most powerful office in the world? I think it has something to do with the Oscars and O.J. Simpson.
A friend’s blog post on this year’s Oscar nominees as an explanatory lens for Trump first got me thinking about the Oscar-Trump connection. But I see it as less about the films themselves (though there is merit in that reading) as about the way the Oscars function as an amusement, an over-hyped “Oscar Race.” The discourse surrounding the Oscars has morphed into a discussion not really about the substantive merits of films as much as the “race” and the odds and the whole spectacle of awards-giving. There are entire websites devoted to tracking Oscar odds, and each step in the months-long awards season is so breathlessly covered by Hollywood press that consensus winners emerge fairly early in the process. Academy voters are invariably influenced by the endless tweets, articles and TV coverage describing “momentum,” favorites and forecasts, and thus they perpetuate the predictions by turning them into reality.
By the time the Oscars come around, it’s clear who will win in most major categories (i.e. this year: Brie Larson, Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant, etc.). Everyone knows that they will win even if they couldn’t articulate why. The Oscars, like the presidential election, have become a media phenomenon wherein the substantive merits of candidates/films are far overshadowed by the coverage of the race. It’s the drama of winning, losing, odds, unpredictability, injustice (#OscarsSoWhite) that compels America. Not the actual content of any of the potential winners.
The O.J. Simpson trial has been on my mind as I’ve been watching the FX miniseries, The People vs. O.J. Simpson. The series is massively compelling and does a good job situating the legacy of that infamous moment in American culture within our current media zeitgeist. The O.J. Simpson story of 1994-95, from the live-televised Bronco chase to the courtroom drama (also live televised) and associated media circus, can be looked back upon as the moment when infotainment crystallized as America’s preferred method of amusement. It was a moment that foreshadowed the rise of 24-hour cable news and the reality TV boom. What The People vs. O.J. Simpson so adeptly captures is how the facts and evidence (the substance, if you will) of the trial so quickly became co-opted by the surrounding discourse: the tabloid sideshows and media tell-all books, the Larry King interviews, the domestic abuse and race narratives, the Hollywood celebrity culture (including a Faye Resnick-Donald Trump connection!), etc.
The evidence in the case was slam-dunk, but the trial became something beyond evidence. Something beyond rationality. It was not about the substance of what happened that night to Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman. It became more about the back-and-forth struggle between the “Dream Team” defense and the Marcia Clark-led prosecution. Similar to Making a Murderer and other binge-worthy true crime amusements, the personalities of the trial characters involved (Marcia Clark’s hair! Rivalry between Bob Shapiro and Johnnie Cochran! Kardashians! Kato freakin Kaelin!) became more interesting than the pursuit of justice for the victims. The anger and racial tension of L.A. (just a few years after the riots) paved the way for O.J.’s acquittal more effectively than any exonerating evidence did (there wasn’t really any).
One thing that the Oscar example, the O.J. trial, and Trump’s unlikely popularity have in common is that they all reflect the short attention spans of American people. The Oscars are notorious for having little memory for films in any given year that are released before October. Great films from February or March are doomed to be long forgotten when it comes time for Academy members to cast their ballots.
It was so clear in June 1994 that O.J. had committed the murders (blood at Simpson’s house, bloody gloves, bloody socks, blood in his car, all matching blood from the crime scene). When O.J. was fleeing in the Ford Bronco with a gun to his head, having left a suicide note, it was clear this was a guilty man on the brink. But as the months went on and the trial circus commenced, much of this was forgotten as the twists and turns, bombshells and iconic one-liners (“if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit”) took center stage. Likewise with Donald Trump: His past is as riddled with scandal as any politician in recent memory, and every week there is a new horrible statement, lawsuit or offensive remark that would immediately disqualify other presidential candidates. But the short-term memory of our culture has never worked to a politician’s advantage as it does with Trump.
Not only do each of these examples (Trump, the Oscars, O.J.) show the short term attention span of our culture, but they also show how we are often compelled by the circus over the substance of issues, reacting emotionally to things rather than rationally. Maybe we’re too lazy or too apathetic to wrestle with the core issues themselves, preferring to amuse ourselves with peripheral issues while relying on pundits to form our opinions. Or maybe we’re just increasingly unable to form judgments because we lack the requisite moral vocabulary or critical thinking skills.
Either way, this puts us at the mercy of the rhetoric of “winning” and “momentum.” For if we are incapable (or unwilling) to evaluate something on its own merits, what else is there but its brute power and #winning success to sway us to its side? Whether it’s the momentum behind The Revenant or momentum going into Super Tuesday for Donald Trump, this sort of marker of “worthiness” is often completely divorced from any real assessment of merit. Yet it is a marker of worthiness that convinces far too many of us.
In any society where there is a void of meaning, where consensus and shared values have eroded and rational discussion gives way to gut reactions, display of strength becomes the only thing that matters. Policies, ethics, visions of the good life matter little because no one can agree on any of it, let alone speak about or understand such things. Meanwhile, the media landscape is such a contradictory glut of voices, attacking and defending every possible idea from every possible angle, that people become numb and nihilism reigns. When everyone is talking, no one is trusted and meaning is lost. We don't care about the nuances of foreign policy or tax plans or health care anymore because it's all just so untrustworthy and incomprehensible. Invariably in this environment, the one who yells the loudest and with the greatest appearance of strength succeeds.
Part of the genius of Trump’s campaign is that he recognizes this. He talks almost exclusively about winning: how he has been winning and will continue to win, and how he will make America win more. He talks more about polls than any candidate in history. He knows that no one actually pays attention to the substance of his plans, platforms and policies, so he doesn’t bother with having any. He knows that appearing to be and being a winner is all that matters. He knows that confidence and tell-it-like-it-is swagger is more compelling to 21st century America than are concrete ideas. And the media sadly perpetuates this. The vast majority of news coverage of political campaigns consists of reporting on polls (who's ahead or behind) and focusing on debate zingers and attack ads. There is no interest in reporting on education reform programs or the finer points of tax plans. No one cares! It’s about the battle for the White House. The Oscar race. The trial of the century!
In the end, the acquittal of O.J., like the awarding of best picture Oscars to films like Crash (2005), Argo (2012) or Birdman (2015), are things we regret. In retrospect we see that O.J. was clearly guilty, and we see that those films were clearly not the best films of their respective years. Likewise, if Donald Trump were elected president I think America would regret the decision quickly. But unlike regrets about undeserving best picture Oscar winners, or even falsely vindicated murderers, the regrets about electing a megalomaniacal despot like Trump come with serious global consequences. Can we afford the “buy now, regret later” approach when it comes to electing the leader of the free world? In allowing ourselves to be swept up in emotional catharsis at the expense of measured assessment of the facts, do we want to make an O.J. or Argo mistake with the U.S. presidency?