No Pop Culture Walls in the Trump Era

Our politician-in-chief is obsessed with television—and our entertainers are expected to make profound political statements or else.


Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

Borders have defined the Trump era. Before his election, Trump promised to enforce our nation’s physical boundaries with a wall on the border between the U.S. and Mexico. After his inauguration, Trump hastily signed into law the not-ban Muslim ban he’d promised for months. America is us. Others are them. And never the twain shall meet.

But the Muslim ban was blocked in court. The wall is just an earmark. When it comes to the immediate erection of barriers between the “us” and the “them,” Trump has broken more promises than ground.

While we wait for our brick and mortar wall, we’re losing others, divisions that at one time felt necessary in the way seatbelts felt necessary.

Picture a plate of Thanksgiving dinner. Turkey, potatoes, stuffing, cranberries, yams, beans occupying their own respective real estate, each crowding and bleeding into the adjacent, but not overlapping. For many blessedly separate aspects of American life and culture, Trump’s election took that plate, scraped it into a blender, and poured it into a glass topped with a MAGA straw.

Recall, for a moment, the year 2003, a strange time by most standards if you exclude the last 18 months or so. The tragedy of the 9/11 attacks was still a raw wound, and America’s instinct was to fight back like an animal caught in a trap, artlessly thrashing. We invaded Iraq based on information that proved not to be true, against the will of much of the developed world.

In that moment of chaos, the Dixie Chicks played a concert in London. During that concert, they expressed a political opinion, which a newspaper later printed. Once people found out that the Chicks had said they were ashamed that the president of the United States was from Texas, blowback was swift. Radio stations stateside made quite a show of destroying their CD’s. Angry fans of country, aghast their cultural safe space had been assailed by left-wing opinions, instructed the trio to “Shut up and sing,” two activities that are pretty difficult to do simultaneously, when you think about it. Things got so bad for the Chicks that they starred in a documentary about the incident.

Before Trump’s rise, rare entertainers like Jesse Ventura and Ronald Reagan traveled through the pop culture barrier to the politics side, but they were the exception that proved the rule. Actors who spent too much time harping on greenhouse gases were widely considered obnoxious. Politicians who spent too much time sucking up to stars were widely considered pathetic.

No more.

Art and politics have always interacted, but until now, their meeting points seemed voluntary on the part of the artist or politician who wished to breach the boundary between them. Rick Perry on Dancing With The Stars, perhaps, or Sir Patrick Stewart grand-marshalling a gay pride parade years before Obergefell v. Hodges. A fun novelty. But now, any line that once existed between politics and pop culture—even if that line was always an illusory one—is gone. Shut up and sing seems not only ill-conceived, but quaint.

Pre-Super Bowl Halftime Show speculation this year wasn’t about what songs headliner Lady Gaga would sing, or what she would wear, or whether or not she’d suffer a wardrobe malfunction. It was about what kind of political statement she’d make and when. There was no if. But the performance didn’t wind up being Gaga wrapping herself in an American flag, self-immolating, and flying away as a butterfly with wings emblazoned with the face of Rosa Luxemburg. Viral right-wing pundit Tomi Lahren expressed gratitude that Gaga didn’t use the performance to express her left-wing political opinion. Lefty sex columnist and equal-rights advocate Dan Savage, meanwhile, praised Gaga for expressing an opinion subliminally. Some pop culture critics were mad that she didn’t do whatever it was she was supposed to do hard enough. There was no winning.

The spectre of Trump hovered over the Grammys, and the Golden Globes. It’ll cast its fat orange shadow on Oscar Sunday. Leaving politics to the politicians used to be for stars who wanted to play it safe. No longer. In the era of Trump, a pop culture figure expressing a political opinion is risky, but so is not expressing a political opinion.

Then there’s the president’s media consumption habits. In the past, a person appearing on a news or late-night comedy show could safely assume that the president was busy attending a security briefing, or laying the groundwork for an illegal invasion of a Middle Eastern country, or reading a book. But Trump doesn’t do any of those things. He watches television. And when an entertainer who is always watching TV is in the White House, as long as the eye of camera is trained on you, he may be watching you, too.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

News shows have become self-aware. Morning Joe, which used to be a show for wonks who wake up early, is now an elaborate series of sales pitches designed to sway Trump in the hosts’ ideological direction, down to White House staffing. This week, the hosts were out for Kellyanne Conway and Stephen Miller’s blood. The other week, it was Sean Spicer. Next week, who knows? Maybe it’ll be Bannon, or the gold toilet in Trump Tower. A Fox News host taking a Shep Smith stand could be throwing themselves to the wolves, or shouting into nothing. A CNN intern tasked with composing chyrons may be whittling away their young years in a control room, or they may be responsible for the wording of a presidential tweet that could start World War III.

Saturday Night Live is now armed with a renewed sense of political purpose. Every week features a new presidential nose tweak. But, for as sharp as the show has been since November, watching now feels almost like watching a jester whose purpose is to annoy the king, while the king sits splay-legged in the throne growing angrier and angrier. Once the performance ends, they’ll switch places, and Trump will take his turn playing the fool in court and the jesters laughing. Switch, switch, switch. They’re laughing and angry and laughing and angry.

Then there’s Trump’s performance of the presidency itself. It’s not clear, a month in, if the leader of the free world understands that what he’s doing is actual reality rather than reality TV. Last week’s press conference could have stood alone as a piece of deadpan genius stand-up comedy if the man wasn’t always trailed by a human carrying a briefcase we call, sportingly, the “nuclear football.” He paraded the Japanese prime minister around his golf resort patio, waving classified documents around with abandon. He announced his Supreme Court pick like he was announcing the second runner up for Miss Delaware.

The day-to-day of the presidency is not enough for President Trump. He pines for drama like a teenage boy pines for a tube sock and a few pumps of hand lotion, and so the boundary between the banality of governing and the excitement of campaigning had to go, too. He scheduled a campaign rally in Florida this weekend for no other reason besides apparently wanting people to clap for him. He routinely brings up Hillary Clinton in press conferences, even though the campaign ended months ago, and Hillary’s probably wandered through the Chappaqua woods and all the way up to Canada by now.

When everything is culture and everything is politics, nothing is free of either. When governing is campaigning is governing, no governing or campaigning gets done. When audience is performer, neither can settle into either role. Being and experiencing everything at all times feels a lot like nothing.