Has Trump transformed America or simply revealed it?

By Marc Fisher

Donald Trump has been a polarising figure during his presidential run. Photo / Washington Post
Donald Trump has been a polarising figure during his presidential run. Photo / Washington Post

Even if he loses, Donald Trump isn't going away. But the man and the political phenomenon he has unleashed over the past 16 months are already posing a difficult chicken-or-egg question: Has Trump transformed America, or simply revealed it?

Trump's slash-and-burn march to the Republican nomination and on into this autumn is perhaps the ultimate blending of entertainment and politics, a coarse yet mesmerising new show that appears to have changed political language and deepened divisions in an already polarised nation. But is this a singular moment, tied exclusively to Trump's larger-than-life personality and searing rhetoric, or has he loosed into the culture a new virus of confrontation and anger?


"Win or lose, the Trump effect will be felt long after the election," said David Nevins, president of Showtime, who has spent decades reflecting the nation's mood on TV shows such as "24," "Friday Night Lights" and "Homeland." "Trump and his followers are in many ways a rebuke to the elites who are perceived as controlling popular culture. The people who feel left out, passed over, now have a champion, even though he's actually one of the New York media power establishment."

Admire him or loathe him, many Americans are fascinated by Trump, and that fascination is feeding a wave of new work that will aim to entertain and challenge the public in the coming years. Trump's ability to embrace - or manipulate - average Americans' anxieties is inspiring more raw and rough rhetoric in politics, darker and more somber popular music, and in TV, movies and other arts, an edgier, more nervous set of characters and themes.

Social media exposes rifts

Has Trump granted Americans license to express overt racism or new levels of acrimony? "It seems like a plausible narrative, but I seem to recall all kinds of sketchy things said about races and genders and groups aired publicly on a weekly basis before, say, the summer of 2015," said John McWhorter, a Columbia University professor who studies public rhetoric. "He is distinct only in being someone of such prominence saying such things. I think the real change was Facebook and Twitter in 2009. Trump is just a symptom."

Even as offensive language and ethnic insults became routine at Trump rallies, McWhorter saw the real culprit as social media. Twitter and Facebook became the foundations of daily communication for many Americans between 2007 and 2009, "revolutionizing conversation about, well, everything," and pushing political chatter in a far meaner direction, McWhorter said.

In this view, the Trump effect is not unique to the man, but is a natural, almost inevitable result of economic and social forces unleashed by swift, powerful technological change that had, even before Trump's candidacy, made the country meaner, more confrontational and more divided.

The populism Trump represents and the social strains that made millions of Americans eager for someone like him appear regularly throughout American history. Previous bursts of populism have usually burned through in less than a generation, fading away as economic expansion, war or political reform eased people's sense of insecurity.

The frustration and resentments evident among Trump's supporters have roots, some historians say, as far back as Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot's third-party insurgencies in the 1990s. Others say Trump's success is the result of disorienting, displacing changes in the world beyond politics, in the technological revolution that has altered the way Americans relate to one another and in the arc of millions of work lives.

On college campuses, battles over clashing world views, identity politics and the definition of free speech have raged for years. Online, many Americans had already spent years swimming in a virtual ocean of pornography, foul language and sexual misbehavior - long before Trump's coarse language about women and the allegations about his inappropriate advances became campaign issues.

Although much of the country had moved toward acceptance of same-sex marriage, the issue continued to divide many people by faith, family tradition and cultural expectations. The tea party, the Occupy movement, and Barack Obama's 2008 campaign all demonstrated a popular hunger for thoroughgoing change and a realignment of the political parties.

"Trump didn't appear out of nowhere," said Chris Buskirk, a Trump supporter and talk radio host in Arizona who runs a conservative website called American Greatness. "He's amplified things that were already happening anyway. In two years, politicians are going to look at Trump and say, maybe I can be more revealing, more authentic."

Buskirk, 47, said Trump's blunt rhetoric and coarse language would have been startling decades ago but today only mirrors a society in which many people feel stifled by new limits on what can be said at work or school. "We'd all like a high level of public discourse," he said, "but a 3am tweetstorm isn't among my worries about the next generation." Buskirk views Trump as a breakthrough candidate who has spread optimism that "change is still possible when the American people act on their own behalf. Trump supporters see not his coarseness or vulgarity, but a sense that an ordinary person can rise up and make a difference."

Donald Trump, ordinary person? "Yeah, it doesn't compute in a certain way," Buskirk quickly conceded, "but even though he's a billionaire, he's a guy from Queens, not the Upper East Side, and he talks like average Americans talk."

'Trump supporters see not his coarseness or vulgarity, but a sense that an ordinary person can rise up and make a difference.' Photo / AP
'Trump supporters see not his coarseness or vulgarity, but a sense that an ordinary person can rise up and make a difference.' Photo / AP

Effect on pop culture

In TV, movies and the theater, programming decisions are starting to reflect Trump's impact. Showtime's "Billions," a drama pitting a crusading prosecutor against a morally shady hedge fund operator, "would never have caught on without Trump," Nevins said. "Two years earlier, I wouldn't have put it on. But with Trump the billionaire running against the billionaire class, we're confronting all these questions of when our aspiration and our worship of wealth and business comes in conflict with our anger at what the big guys are getting away with."

As the writers putting together the next season of the political thriller "Homeland" thought about "how to reflect the Trump era," Nevins said, they searched, as ever, for "the edge of what you can get away with on television. That's a line that's constantly moving, not so much sexually as what qualifies as subversive or dangerous." And Trump's campaign has pushed that line in a coarser, angrier direction.

R.J. Cutler, a documentary filmmaker who has focused on political culture in movies such as "The War Room" and "The World According to Dick Cheney," is developing a TV series set in small-town America, in post-election 2017, "when any bad thing seems possible, when we no longer know the ground rules about the weather, about democracy, about very basic things."

Trump didn't emerge from the blue, Cutler said. A figure like him - charismatic, media-savvy, offering "believe me" solutions and bountiful blame - was inevitable. "Trump arose out of the perfect storm - the power of television at its most pervasive, the maturation of social media, and the world's greatest huckster," Cutler said. "Trumpism isn't going away. Even if he only wins 37 percent of the vote, that's tens of millions of people, and in a way, it's even better for Trump if he loses because then his policies never have to be tested."

If Trump loses, he can say, as he has been for weeks now, that the system is rigged - the voting apparatus, the media, the parties' domination. That opens the door to Trump or a would-be successor to lead a movement of disaffected Americans against both major parties and the elites that support them.

But couldn't a post-Trump exhaustion set in, making it harder for a lasting movement to develop? No one interviewed for this article argued that Trump or his followers would simply vanish following a loss, but some wondered if many Americans might crave escapism over another round of battle.

The widespread unhappiness with this year's choices - Trump and Hillary Clinton are the least liked presidential candidates in modern times, polls consistently show - is part of a national spirit that's been growing grumpier for years. Pop music, which often reflects the mood of the country, has been trending slower and darker, following a period of much more energetic hits around the start of the economic recovery in 2009, said Sean Ross, who analyzes pop music and radio play for Edison Research.

"This was the summer of unhappy popular music," Ross said. "There's an almost complete dearth of up-tempo, major-chord happiness. There's no tempo right now in country, pop, R&B, anywhere."

In the summer hit, "Stressed Out," the indie group Twenty One Pilots sang, "I was told when I get older, all my fears would shrink, but now I'm insecure and I care what people think. Wish we could turn back time, to the good ol' days . . . but now we're stressed out . . ."

The Chainsmokers' hit, "Don't Let Me Down," tells a story of being "stranded, reaching out. . . . I think I'm losing my mind now."

The exception to the trend proved the rule, Ross said: Justin Timberlake's "Can't Stop the Feeling" was "the only up-tempo tune of the summer and it was immediately scooped up by an anxious audience." Ross said the current popularity of slow, low-energy songs is the most striking run of such music since the early 1980s - also a time of severe economic stress.

Since Trump became a mainstay of TV viewing, that soundtrack has accompanied notably harsher debate in politics and beyond. For generations, candidates could assume that voters wanted leaders who could achieve consensus. Trump capitalized on the ideological polarization of the past two decades and the more recent cultural shift toward the kind of hot takes that go viral on social media.

The result is a new pressure on politicians to be at once entertaining, provocative, and even outrageous. The shift is evident in the media, advertising, even sports. "There's no place in 2016 for considering the other guy's point of view, unless you want to be called a wishy-washy, namby-pamby flip-flopper," Sports Illustrated columnist Steve Rushin wrote last month. "There will never be a sports talk show called 'You May Be Right,' no TV roundtables called 'Point Well Taken.' "

The muzzles are off

Trump supporters say he has liberated them to speak out against political correctness, whether in opposition to same-sex marriage or in defense of police officers accused of racial animus. "Trump has given some people permission to say things they were afraid to say," said John Lott Jr., president of the Crime Prevention Research Center and an opponent of gun control who joined dozens of researchers and academics on a pro-Trump petition. "People are just tired of having their motives questioned, of being demonised. Trump's letting people give voice to that feeling."

Over the past year, Trump's blunt, provocative rhetoric has morphed from outrageous to virtually ordinary for many Americans, said Frank Luntz, the longtime Republican consultant who uses focus groups of voters to analyze not only what they believe but also how they express it.

"Early on, people were horrified by his offensive statements," Luntz said. "But as time went on, they came to enjoy it and absorb it. There's no filter anymore. I hear Trump's words over and over: 'We have to keep them out.' Trump has liberated their inner voice, and I'm shocked at what I hear now."

Luntz sees no indication that the rougher rhetoric is a passing fad. "The more coarse language gets, the more coarse it stays," he said. "We don't go back. We don't suddenly become civil and good to each other."

In Luntz's focus groups recently, the tone of disagreements has deteriorated into the kind of attacks that once would have silenced the room. " 'You're an idiot' has become relatively common," he said. "It's gotten to the point where I cannot stop people from yelling at each other."

Luntz has seen a sharp increase in parents telling him that their children are using Trump-inspired smears at school. "It's 'Lyin' Thomas' and 'Little David' in fifth or sixth grade," he said. "That's when you know you have a problem."

Teachers around the country report not only a disturbing rise in the number of kids who mimic Trump's insults, but also a burst of fear among immigrant children about the threat of deportation, even when their families are legal U.S. residents.

In the Roxbury section of Boston, Karene Hines, an eight-grade English teacher, was startled recently to see a boy shaking with fear. She asked what was wrong, and the boy, whose family immigrated legally from Colombia, said that a Trump campaign sign that the owner of the neighborhood laundromat had posted had freaked him out: "He thought it meant that the INS was going to sweep through and he'd be rounded up even though he is legal," Hines said.

"These kids are always asking, 'Why does he hate us? We haven't done anything,' " the teacher said. "These are kids who before Trump were interested in the latest sneakers, the Red Sox, the Patriots. Now they're hyperfocused on Trump. One boy brought me his cellphone to show me Trump's tweets. They know his insults by heart. They're scared."

Both of the nation's major teachers unions - which have endorsed Clinton - and the Southern Poverty Law Center have been collecting such reports as evidence of a Trump effect in which the candidate's comments about minorities and women show up in classrooms and schoolyards.

Fear has not been limited to children. Psychiatrists and counselors say people on both sides of the nation's ideological divide are losing sleep and expressing concerns likely to extend beyond Election Day.

When a patient recently complained that he's being kept awake by his fear that a President Trump might start a nuclear war, Washington psychiatrist Bernard Vittone added the man to a growing list of people "whose main anxiety is Trump anxiety." The doctor, who runs the National Center for the Treatment of Phobias, Anxiety and Depression, said that in three decades of practice, "I've never had people come in like this, about four a week, coming in scared, actually frightened, about a candidate winning an election. They may hate Clinton, but they're not scared of her. They may have hated Bush, they may have hated Obama, but they were never scared."

Vittone said he normally treats such patients with cognitive behavioral therapy, in which "you try to get people to look at things more realistically. But in this case, I can't really dispel their anxiety because they have facts and quotes from Trump that they spout back at me that totally nullify my attempts to ease their fear." The psychiatrist tends to treat Trump-fearing patients with anti-anxiety medication.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has struck a chord. Photo / AP
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has struck a chord. Photo / AP

A darker future?

Such frayed nerves reflect a loss of trust and community that predates Trump's political emergence. In a culture in which characters on reality-TV shows lash out at one another for sport, in a society in which bonds of trust have frayed as relationships become distanced from physical proximity, "along comes Donald Trump to give us permission to say out loud the things we've been saying anonymously online," said playwright Joshua Harmon, whose short play, "Ivanka: A Medea for Right Now," will be read at Washington's Studio Theatre next month as part of a flash festival of Trump-related plays at five D.C. theaters. "He's closer to how a lot of people are living than Hillary Clinton. A lot of men talk exactly like Trump online; he's just the first person to do that while running for president."

In most of popular culture, there's a long lag between social change and the art that bubbles up from the streets. Playwrights, novelists and songwriters say that when Trump-inspired works begin to appear, they will probably focus on the sense that, as Harmon said, "People are immersed in their own worlds now. We were already being horrible to each other on social media, so we were kind of ripe for someone to come along and further dehumanize us."

Many new works may be dark or tragic. "This doesn't feel like something that people will look back and chuckle about," Harmon said.

Very little in the culture points toward any 'what was that all about?' reckoning if Trump loses. More likely, Trumpism will continue to be the agitator that propels the nation's political machinery.

For many, Trump's lasting impact is directly tied to his domination of the news media this year. "The depressing and dangerous change that Trump brought is this: The media have surrendered their airtime to him," said Doug McGrath, a satirist and playwright whose show, "Beautiful," is running on Broadway. "There seems to be no calculation other than 'can we get him on and can we keep him on?' " Even before Trump came along, cable news had morphed from traditional reporting to "mainly people yelling at each other," as McGrath put it.

Now, Trump has taken that coarsening of the culture and exacerbated it. "In Trump, we have the candidate himself making jokes about his own penis size, or calling women terrible names," McGrath said. "He has obliterated the idea that tone matters, . . . that there is such a thing as going too far. For the next person who tries it, it will seem less shocking because this has been accepted by the media who report it in detail (mostly without shock or complaint) and by the rest of us who grumble but keep watching."

- Washington Post

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