Pop Goes the Election

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As pioneers of the analysis of popular culture, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno don't pull very much weight these days, especially among the followers of such writers as Dick Hebdige, Simon Frith, and Stuart Hall, who, one way or another, have embraced a "populist" approach to cultural studies, characterized by the conviction that, rather than being a top-down mode of social control, popular culture is actually a site for working-class "resistance" and "subversion."  But if certain contemporary events can be trusted, it appears that while the populists are right about the subversive potential of pop culture, that subversion can be startlingly reactionary rather than revolutionary.  Because in the curious march of Donald Trump towards the Republican nomination for the presidency, we can see how the uses of popular culture can lean to the right just as much as they can to the left.  Let me explain.

As I have been saying for many years in Signs of Life in the U.S.A., America today is an entertainment culture—that is, a society in which the old lines between high culture and low, work and play, the "serious" and the "non-serious," have been blurred, or even abolished.  In an entertainment culture, everything is expected to be entertaining, and while this has been the case for quite some time in American politics, the rise of Donald Trump signals its full coming of age.

One could say, of course, that Trump's RTV-style candidacy was anticipated by the cheerleader's campaign of Sarah Palin.  And before Palin there were Reagan and Schwarzenegger.  But the real foundation for the Trump campaign lies in the legacy of such call-in radio and television talk show hosts as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck.  A volatile synthesis of talk radio (there's an element of Howard Stern in the mix too) and shock-schlock TV (think Jerry Springer), Trump's candidacy has been expressing the frustrations and anger of working and lower-middle-class Americans who feel left out of the conversation.  Giving them a voice, Trump has created the apparently oxymoronic spectacle of a multi-billionaire carrying the banner of a populist revolt.

In such circumstances, I would hardly be surprised if the Donald—in an effort to shore up his support among evangelical Christians—were to choose Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty as his running mate.  And why not?  For when politics and pop culture have become one and the same, what should be surprising about a Donald/Duck administration?

About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.