In a recent interview, Jerry Springer opined that the public’s dislike of Washington has been brewing for so long that it was inevitable that an outsider would be chosen to shake things up. Springer smartly observed that such a person would have to be famous, and the main ways of getting famous are through sports and through entertainment celebrity. So we were bound to one day have an athlete or another type of celebrity with zero political experience make a serious run for the White House. Springer has endorsed Hillary and is adamantly opposed to Trump’s candidacy.
Springer was asked of course about his violent and trashy tv show, and whether he had more in common with Trump than he was willing to admit. His defense was that on his show, everyone is a complete unknown. He said he would not involve famous people in his show because that would harm our society. It would harm our society because when famous people act badly, people pay attention and copy what famous people do. If famous people quickly resort to violence, then the rest of society will follow suit.
I think Springer is probably right on everything except in his belief that his hands are clean. (But who cares about him?) As much as we hate to admit the we are all influenced by others, especially our close circle of friends and family, and the famous people our close circle of friends and family talk about. Every time I see someone important in my life doing the right thing, I’m a little more motivated to do the right thing. Every time I see someone important in my life doing the wrong thing, I’m a little more inclined to do the wrong thing. Examples matter. The power of suggestion is real.
This isn’t to say that a famous person can do anything he or she wants and people will imitate him or her. The rules that we have internalized about right and wrong over the long course of our lives limit what we can be influenced to think, to feel, and to do. But this is where cultural institutions matter. Institutions are sets of rules that have acquired an air of authority. There are institutions shaping the family, shaping religion, shaping national pride. Parents should take care of their children, God is good and rewards the faithful, the American flag should not touch the ground. Why do we believe these things? Because we recognize them as authoritative, rooted in tradition and popular agreement. We often have little need to question them.
But institutions are on the decline in our culture. Everything is being challenged and re-thought. The traditional family, religion, national pride — these things are criticized by us more and more, not respected at all as authoritative. Why we challenge them is a complicated question we need not answer right away. What can be observed is that these sources of authority are what compete with the influence of famous people over our lives. It is no surprise, then, that famous people so often undermine the authority of these institutions. Once they are completely discredited, a new authority — the authority of their own popularity — can emerge.
The reason so many blue collar whites are supporting Trump may not be first of all their economic anxiety, but the slow erosion over time of their respect for the family, religion, the laws, and the Constitution. They may lack the internal rule set offered by these institutions to resist the external temptations of a flashy, brash-y, celebrity. They may be hungering for order, for purpose, for meaning, for trust, and for hope. And they may want to enjoy all of these things while they last, because the alternative they had just been experiencing is a vast internal emptiness.