When a nude picture of a potential First Lady of the United States is used in a presidential campaign, and when that news, with photo, makes the public airwaves as it did on the venerable PBS NewsHour, we know that pop culture has met head-on with the campaign process and captured it. And it's not a pretty picture.
By now most of news-tracking America knows that a photo of the wife of Republican front-runner Donald Trump, who in her past life as a "top model" posed nude for British GQ, was featured by an anti-Trump super-PAC in ads to promote support for Texas senator Ted Cruz, running in second place.
A media storm erupted (so many storms this campaign season!), this one over both the issue of women---both men defended their wives, Trump's misogyny and need for "arm candy" became more pathetically apparent---and over the validity of political action committees. Almost lost in all the noise is this astonishing fact: A potential First Lady posed nude for publication?
But then, pop culture has become distressingly crude and low. Nudity by now is old hat, as is profanity and violence (diplomacy is for wusses). Additionally, survey today's pop culture---movies, television, pop music---and note the snark and meanness of it; the crazy and dysfunctional of it; the cynicism; the grossness; the testosterone. It's a landscape grown, to no small degree, dystopian and hopeless.
All these characteristics fairly describe Election 2016, at least on the Republican side.
Once upon a time, popular culture provided sustenance to the masses. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, popular culture served as a lifebelt, to lighten spirits, assuage suffering, even inspire. There was the popular music of the big bands. There were the movies, taken in weekly as a double feature. Screwball comedies combined style with a human take on life, including hardship, and produced reasons to carry on. William Powell's hobo in My Man Godfrey reminds his hobo friend that "prosperity is just around the corner," to which the friend says, "I wish I knew which corner." You felt they'd keep looking for that corner, with good result, in solidarity.
And now? Pop culture is a crude joke, a poke in the eye, not really very entertaining or inspiring. And with this cycle, in 2016, it has entered presidential politics.
Of course, pop culture began to encroach on campaigns in earlier cycles, with celebrities throwing campaign fundraisers, rock music replacing Sousa marches at campaign rallies, candidates in debates citing lines from the popular lexicon ("Where's the beef?" and "Read my lips: no new taxes"). But by and large, prior to this cycle, the presidential campaign retained a properly presidential tone, if one can use the term "proper" anymore. After all, who could be said to be more ill at ease with pop culture than the GOP's last standard-bearer, Mitt Romney?
It's no accident that the chief importer of this crudeness into presidential politics is Trump himself. Apart from his business career, where he might have remained unknown to the general public forever, he achieved breakout fame with his "reality TV" show, The Apprentice, in which applicants for jobs got the verdict---"You're fired" "You're hired"---from The Boss himself. This show is such a cartoon of a real-world workplace, with its darkened interview room, dramatic tension, and Wizard of Oz-like atmosphere, that the term "reality show" should be, well, fired, let go.
Interestingly, this merging of pop culture and politics is occurring in a campaign cycle when populism, the vox populi, is exerting itself more forcefully against the establishments of both parties than at any other time in recent memory. In theory, pop culture's meet-up with populism might make a perfect marriage, but how differently it's playing out in practice.
On the Democratic side, populist Bernie Sanders is running a campaign right out of a Frank Capra movie, giving voice to the plight of the ordinary guy, railing against the wealthy elites about income inequality and money power in politics, things Sanders has been railing against for decades, thus earning his supporters trust, even love.
On the GOP side, Trump likewise evokes a powerful populism, one that has some causes in common with Sanders' base, like wage stagnation and jobs lost overseas. Not to deny the racism and xenophobia of Trump's base, but as Nicholas Confessore of The New York Times reports, this base has defensible reasons to oppose hurtful trade agreements and immigrants perceived as taking their jobs. Too bad this base's tribune is a joker, not serious, continually disrupting his own "program" with another verbal lulu (the latest, saying women should be "punished" for abortions).
In a way, with populism so prominently in the picture now, we are seeing the screwball comedies of the '30s playing out again. Often in those scenarios, the masses---in the form of an intrepid young man: Clark Gable, Cary Grant, William Powell---met the wealthy elite---in the form of a lovely and game young woman: Claudette Colbert, Katharine Hepburn, Carole Lombard---and, after the masses taught the wealthy elite a few necessary lessons, marriage ensued.
Is there a happy ending for us today? Can the masses, in this wild presidential campaign, teach the wealthy elite (and their politicians) the necessary lessons that will ensure the American project can proceed for all in the 21st century? If Bernie Sanders is elected, or Hillary Clinton now that Sanders has nudged her to the left, the odds of a positive outcome are good. But not so with the trickster Trump.
In the idiom of pop culture, Trump needs to be voted "off the island." In Trump's own idiom, this "loser" needs to hear "You're fired"---and dumped into the dustbin of history.
Carla Seaquist's latest book, "Can America Save Itself from Decline?: Politics, Culture, Morality," is now out. An earlier book is titled "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character." Also a playwright, she published "Two Plays of Life and Death" and is at work on a play titled "Prodigal."