Have you ever wondered if celebrities charge each other for beefs? They’d have ample reason to. The careers of Jay Z and Nas both benefited from their exchange of diss tracks. The attention it garnered was so great that Nas could ten years later claim their beef “was a rebirth of hip-hop in a way.”
Taylor Swift re-re-instigated her public conflict with Kanye West after he brought it up again in his single, “Famous.” Many of us are familiar with the infamous snapchat (™) from Kim Kardashian (™), including the phone call, in which Kanye, almost suspiciously friendly, tells Taylor, “I don’t want to do rap that makes people feel bad.” He reads the lyric syllable by syllable like a lawyer:
To my southside niggas who know me best
I think me and Taylor might still have sex.
Why? I made that bitch famous.
According to Google Trends, Kanye’s search popularity was at 50% of its peak in the past five years when the “Famous” video dropped. It then falls into a valley and pops back up to 25% when Kim’s snapchat video drops. This induced a harmless but, depending on your newsfeed, impermeable cloud of fan tweets, posts and blog posts to the defense of all parties.
If this doesn’t remind you of the baser impulses of stereotypical eighth graders, it should. But it’s not Kanye’s fault this behavior translates to success our society. It’s no one’s and everyone’s fault. It’s America’s.
Recently Kanye West was relevant to political op-eds all across America, not just mine. Watch the video above of Kanye and Donald posing for photos after their meeting in Trump Tower. See how uncomfortable Donald gets when Kanye ignores the reporters’ questions, saying “I’m just here to take a picture.” Kanye later tweeted he was there to talk about issues like, “bullying, supporting teachers, modernizing curriculums, and violence in Chicago.” I’m not sure why he’s an expert on all these things, but I suppose it’s possible.
Regardless, the big thing both Donald and Kanye understand is that attention is a commodity, a resource. Like steel, oil, and currency, its value is determined by what it’s worth to us. As technology and new platforms surround us with media messaging, attention is now at a premium. When Kanye has this very reasonable talk with the paparazzi about the role they play in his career, what they mean to “Kim’s power,” you get a sense of the business end of his job.
Consider the scientifically-supported notion that often when we hear evidence that contradicts our most partisan beliefs, we dig our heels in the ground and believe our original positions more. Now, which candidate do you think benefited the most from liberal outrage following coverage of Trump’s many scandals? Remember the multiple occasions in the debates in which Trump brought up Clinton’s negative ads against him? At the time I simply read it as his usual antagonism: dump the criticisms of him onto her. He, after all, was in the midst of leading chants of “Lock her up!” on the campaign trail. But now I think he just wanted to people to go check them out. It was more face time, more scenes in the movie starring him we were all subjected to. Hillary!!! We only saw you through your private e-mails! Why couldn’t you have been in your own ads?!
Tim Wu, author of The Attention Merchants, saw in Trump an understanding steeped in reality television that the requirement is to be “watchable” not “likable.” He says in an interview on Innovation Hub:
The media itself was so desperate for ratings and had the best show going ever, that they covered each development with an instinct culled from reality television or from sports coverage. It penetrated our national consciousness at a level that hasn’t been seen before… except in totalitarian states where [the state] controls the media…
Twists and turns, new accusers kept a constant 24 hour stream of new drama was key to the demands, the hunger of a media that needs constant new stories… therefore getting these ideas deeper and deeper into everyone’s consciousness.
I think most of us who found him scary noticed this now and then, suggested, “Hey maybe we should just ignore him…? Like we do… most other politicians?” But he’s not a politician. He’s a media machine, which in our political culture is a campaigning machine. And to his more savvy, well-connected supporters he came hand in hand with governing machine, Mike Pence.
I’m known to get sucked into trash television… Jersey Shore, Breaking Amish, Wife Swap. He wanted the election to be about the nasty things he said, about the larger than life, reality show character he plays for the camera. Trumps approaches politics with the same sensitivity as the bros on Jersey Shore treat sex. We like watching people without inhibition, who don’t think before they talk, that’s why his supporters forgive him his 70% rate of telling falsehoods. He sounds like they sound when they’re drunk, of at least like their friend or dad or uncle and hey he’s a good guy.
Broadly, our dwindling attention spans is the fault of the sugar-milk media we’ve been fed for so long, including the titillating hide-yer-wife, bury-yer-gold coverage of Fox News and right-wing radio. In 1985, responding to the presidency of actor Ronald Reagan, cultural critic Neil Postman wrote a book called Amusing Ourselves to Death. He writes:
Under the governance of the printing press, discourse in America was different from what it is now—generally coherent, serious and rational; and then, under the governance of television, it has become shriveled and absurd.
That was television, and Reagan. Now we have Trump and Twitter. “Shriveled” is a good word. Perhaps the most nefarious thing Trump did was weaken everyone’s appetite for conversation. Effective soundbites were just a few syllables: “We don’t win anymore,” “Crooked Hillary,” “Wrong.”
Trump wanted the election to be about the nasty things he said, about the larger-than-life, reality show character he plays for the camera. That’s why he tweeted about how fat Alicia Machado got at 3:00 AM. That was in his court. Better we gasp at “Bad Hombre” than his demonstration of how little he knows (or admits to knowing) about the civil war in Syria. He made the competition about trash television skills instead of policy credentials. But now his campaign strategies turn into governance strategies. Consider that Don tweeted about his infamous Taiwan phone call and China appears to have responded with a very real show of force, by flying a long-range nuclear bomber.
There are two ways to win Hearts, the card game not the hearts of voters. One is to have the least number of spades. The other is to have every spade. That’s called shooting the moon. Trump shot the moon. It went like this:
Private e-mail server? Woof that’s a blow, especially when you have the FBI director and Russian hackers prodding their chubby fingers into the wound. Oh you “grab them by the pussy” you say? Well that will get diluted in your thousands of other edge-of-my-seat celebrity billionaire scandals.
This will be our last article about Trump’s campaign, his media strategies. Yes that’s why we have him, but the articles like this one dissecting it were part of the same thing. I may never be able to stop thinking of the ways Trump courted and abused the media at all levels, but to continue to write about it only plays into his hand.
What this column aims to do is lay out the dangers of his presidency, the issues demanding phone calls to representatives and grassroots action. I feel a chill across my spine thinking how many decisions of rippling consequence a president makes in a day, including the many that don’t fit the news cycle. Trump’s half-formed, expertly-branded ideas for our nation at home and abroad are no longer a matter of conjecture.