Well… Donald Trump has been elected president of the United States. A 70 year-old game show host with no political experience will be sworn into office in January 2017. Much has been made about how Donald Trump ran an “anti-establishment” campaign that balked at the Republican elite and appealed to so much of the base that voted for him. I have quite a bit to say about this term “anti-establishment”…
So what does that term mean? According to Google, it’s very simple; “against the establishment or established authority”. This term has been used to describe a lot of various people and things over the decades.
Something very important to keep in mind is that in this capitalist society that we live in, anything and everything is marketable. Any concept or sentiment, no matter how sacrosanct, can get its very core diluted in order to sell to the most people possible in the society we live in. It’s also important to keep in mind that whatever the goal the concept or sentiment being monetized had in the beginning never supersedes making profit. As long as there is profit, it doesn’t matter if the message of the original concept actually gets across.
And considering that things like religion and social justice have been successfully watered down in order to sell to mass audiences, anti-establishment sentiment is too easy and is sold back to us over and over again.
Getting back to Donald Trump, can somebody tell me how in God’s name a billionaire from Manhattan, born into wealth, who has rubbed elbows with economic elite for decades, and had a prime-time television series for more than a decade be credibly viewed as anti-establishment?! I think this video from Jackson Katz has some insight on that.
This isn’t a new concept for Republican presidential candidates to market themselves on, but Trump was able to have more success in attracting the majority of the white working class to vote for him through his “outsider” status from the party elite and his blunt, plain-spoken language that directly addressed their economic concerns and played into their worst instincts. As Katz stated in the video, when the employment and economic prospects of blue collar men diminished further and further, they feel that their identities as men (a very narrowly defined version of it that also defined by whiteness and heterosexuality) has been threatened since they tie so much of their manhood to their work and providing for their family. So they clutch onto whatever vestiges of manhood they still have. And Trump played into that throughout his campaign, albeit in the most divisive and reactionary way possible. This narrow definition of manhood has been a part of Trump’s campaign from the beginning, whether it’s his emasculation of his opponents like Jeb Bush in the primaries, scapegoating Mexicans and Muslim immigrants, speaking derisively about women, being zealously pro-2nd Amendment, advocating simplistic violent solutions to dealing with ISIS, being “law and order”, and writing off any criticisms to any of that as “political correctness”. I’ve said before that I saw little evidence of Trump being an aberration within the Republican Party, but despite my own feelings, the marketing worked.
As I said before, the number one goal of marketing anything to consumers is profit above all. Trump got what he wanted; he got elected president. And it took him less than two days after being elected for him to betray the working class base who elected him to alleviate their economic woes. He is now surrounding himself with the same Republican elites who have been entrenched in the same establishment Trump was supposed to be an outsider to since both of the Bush years and the Reagan years. They are going to push for the same economic policies that will continue to keep those areas that much of Trump’s voter base lives in in destitution. Trump and his cabinet will push for these policies because it will continue to make them more money.
I’ve been only talking about Trump, so what does this has to do with cartoons?
South Park is a cartoon that has always been marketed as an “anti-establishment” cartoon. It sparked controversy from the onset due to its stars being little kids who reveled in their vulgarity and its crude and gory imagery. Reading this show’s content as against the establishment is a superficial reading of it. South Park balks at good taste, which should not be mistaken for balking at the establishment. Its legacy of crass jokes, graphic imagery, and Holden Caulfield-esque political outlook is only a reinforcement of establishment viewpoints. South Park has engaged in racist jokes throughout its run and played a big role in normalizing words like “gay” and “fag” as general insults. Homophobia is standard operation in the establishment. Mass portrayals of, for example, Asians that resemble the Mr. Lu Kim character are standard operation in the establishment too. Marketing reduces being against the establishment to saying or doing something your parents, teachers, or pastor may not like. I don’t say that to be condescending either; “anti-establishment” media like South Park are most often marketed to teen and young adult males (typically white heterosexual teen/young adult males). They are crafted to capitalize on the emotions of their fanbase in the most base-level way possible because that attracts the largest audience. Other examples of this include comedians like Andrew Dice Clay, Sam Kinison, or Bill Hicks since his death, the radio host Howard Stern, what MTV used to be when it was more relevant, the Grand Theft Auto video game franchise, or Eminem at the peak of his career in the early ’00s.
I admit that most of the examples that I’ve named so far skew politically conservative. Liberals are just as susceptible to “anti-establishment” marketing too.
VICE magazine is an online publication that has marketed itself to a mostly college-age crowd, capitalizing on their general distrust of mainstream news publications and their search for some sort of coherent identity and outlook now that many are living away from their parents for the first time in their lives. VICE leans decidedly left, but it nonetheless captures the emotions from its target audience in the most base level way possible. The magazine’s edgy liberalism actually stands for little more than an individualistic embrace and glamorization of decadent drug and alcohol use and promiscuous sex. There is no more depth in the political outlook VICE expresses to its readers than the old Benetton ads that used to show black women breastfeeding white babies just for the sake of being controversial. BuzzFeed is another online site very similar to VICE in the way that it dilutes concepts of social justice in a way that makes it the simplest to market to the widest audience, except with an approach that also capitalizes on childhood nostalgia instead of the veneer of edginess VICE carries. This also goes for any product or publication that markets itself as “empowering” or a term with “-positive” as a suffix.
Another liberal(ish) example is what has happened to the atheist movement in the last decade and a half. One of the most influential figures in the so-called New Atheist movement is the man above, the late Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens gained notoriety in the late 20th Century as an edgy, in-your-face, anti-establishment writer for Vanity Fair. Identifying as a socialist, he leveled brutal critiques of establishment figures like then-president Bill Clinton, Henry Kissinger, and Mother Theresa in his writing. He was also an unapologetic atheist and he expressed his atheist views the same way he approached writing and debates; acerbic and confrontational. But something changed with Hitchens after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Not long after that event, he denounced other leftist scholars he used to admire like Noam Chomsky and Edward Said. His criticisms towards religion (along with other influential New Atheists Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins) started to focus more on Islam and referred to it as a threat to Western civilization and ideas of the Enlightenment. Hitchens later went on to vocally support the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and got more cozy with establishment figures in the Bush Administration like Paul Wolfowitz. In addition to Western chauvinism, he, Harris, and Dawkins all seemed to be male chauvinists too, with Hitchens’ views captured in his op-ed, “Why Women Aren’t Funny”.
YouTube has been a haven for atheist commentary channels for almost a decade. Atheist YouTube personalities like the Amazing Atheist above critiqued religion in a way that attempted to emulate Christopher Hitchens’ acerbic, unapologetic style. But a gradual drift happened over time. Atheists on YouTube initially identified as politically liberal and most of their ire was aimed at the Christian right. But like Hitchens, Harris, and Dawkins, YouTube atheists soon directed most of their ire towards Islam, parroting their arguments that Islam is antithetical to concepts tied to the Enlightenment like logic and reason. YouTube atheists also grew increasingly anti-feminist, particularly after Elevatorgate (Dawkins himself had a very unbecoming response to the whole incident). YouTube atheists became less focused on attacking religion (outside of Islam) and more on attacking feminists, so-called “social justice warriors”, “political correctness”, and anyone they claimed threatened free speech or logic and reason. Their definitions of “political correctness” are no different than the old conservative politician’s definition of it. YouTube videos against feminists and “SJWs” later gave way to general opposition towards any views/movements seeking justice for women, people of color, and the LGBT+ community to the targets of ire being harassed online, given death threats, rape threats, and doxxed by their fans (there is a major overlap between the YouTube atheist crowd and the Gamergate crowd). At some point when the term “alt-right” (which promotes white nationalism) became more visible in the public lexicon, many YouTube atheists dropped the pretense and embraced it. There are still YouTube atheists that purport to be be liberal, but still echo the same views expressed by the so-called alt-right. Just like Hitchens, a lot of these atheists may have started left-of-center (or thought they were left-of-center) but steadily transitioned into ultra-conservative Trump supporters.
Some of these high-profile atheists have successfully capitalized nicely off of their audience’s fears and feelings of isolation and dissatisfaction, which aren’t terribly different from the anxieties Donald Trump capitalized on (so these guys supporting him for president isn’t a stretch). Sam Harris has a very dedicated and zealous following that has been financially beneficial to him. The YouTube user Sargon of Akkad is able to live off of the income of the donations he gets from his followers. Thunderf00t also gets a steady source of income from donations from his fans too.
And just like Trump’s abrupt betrayal of his economically disenfranchised voters, the record label selling Eminem’s music or Viacom selling South Park to its audience could care less about about whether or not the sense of disillusionment with authority an individual audience member gets a cathartic relief from their product as long as it makes money. Same with the CEOs and major shareholders (including Rupert “Fox News” Murdoch ironically) that own publications like VICE; their profits are more important than whether or not an individual audience member has a better grasp or the world around them or a better understanding of the society they live in. Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens are more interested in their own careers than providing a thorough and nuanced understanding of geopolitics.
Just so I’m clear, I don’t write any of this to disparage anyone that is a fan of any of the media I’ve mentioned (including Trump voters) nor disparage anyone who works for any of the media I’ve mentioned. This isn’t even to say that the examples I’ve mentioned here have no value to anyone whatsoever. I’ve mentioned many times before that I’m a fan of South Park (and I’ve found the current season airing very interesting so far). I’m also a fan of Bill Hicks’ and Sam Kinison’s comedy and I used to watch MTV as a kid (especially Daria).
I write this in hopes that whoever taking the time to read it always keeps a skeptical and critical eye towards media being targeted to them. Especially anything that is marketed as “anti-establishment” because that is such an old marketing ploy. I think this video below (NSFW) of that commodified anti-establishment sentiment is at its core.