The day after Donald Trump won the presidency, I sulked reflectively in my office. I was working as a senior account executive at a boutique PR agency that fused celebrity culture with corporate brand narratives in an unholy (but oh so fun!) union. Once our strategic story was spun, we would systematically disseminate it in a mass media blitzkrieg. Drink this! Wear that! Go here! All the hot, rich people you worship are doing it; so should you!
The agency’s voguish offices in L.A. and NYC — typically abuzz with the giddy voices of smart, high-strung employees yakked-out on Hollywood hearsay, trivial “influencer” tips, and whatever-the-fuck was trending on Twitter — fell silent that day. On November 9, 2016, the only topic trending was Trump. Mortified and stupefied, my glamorous colleagues and I kept whispering the same question: “How did he win?!”
The reality hit me hard: he won because of us. For years, we toiled away from our coastal outposts to lionize personalities just like Trump’s. We seamlessly spliced them into the cultural conversation, celebrating their celebrity and conflating that with credibility to increase personal clout and corporate profits. You clicked it, you liked it, you shared it; and I got promoted!
Scandal, sex, and extravagant, godlike wealth sells. My colleagues and I harnessed the “aspirational” aspects of celebrity culture to herald our wannabe-cool private interests over news stories serving the public’s interest at large. As a society, we lazily licked it up, paying more attention to vacuous celebrity gossip than to serious socio-economic policy.
Celebrity influence has been a constant thread in the human tapestry since the birth of civilization. Innocuously woven into the fabric of our global society, it once inspired beliefs and behaviors that moved us collectively forward. The “old gods'' were worshipped for their exceptional skills or noble positions. They were political and religious leaders, artists, athletes, and philosophers. The good were exalted, their principles adopted. The bad were demonized, their ideals denounced.
The “new gods” are byproducts of a society festering in late-stage capitalism. Our society seeks to commodify our humanity, replacing it with inauthentic and self-serving brand personas that are seriously non grata. Except they are grata now. Excruciatingly so.
Our tactics were so pervasive that even politicians morphed into celebrity demigods. When the media chooses to cover the footwear fashions and pedicured personal lives of our public servants more extensively than their policies or track records, how can any of us be surprised when a shiny charlatan ascends to power? This is an American crisis on both sides of the aisle (cough, cough: Cuomosexuals).
With social media, we hatched a new algorithm of influence, whereby those with the most likes, clicks, and shares were anointed as rulers regardless of merit. Not only do they rule, but we aspire to be like them. The veneration of the famous for being famous. Who cares if they’re offensive and uncouth, they’re just entertainers. Qualifications are not only obsolete, they’re boring! We’re dumb, destitute, and dying out here — give us a show, goddamnit!
Today, those with the most social sway spin the truth to benefit their self-serving ways. New demigods can quickly become dangerous demagogues. Spitting out spurious claims and conspiracy theories to their millions of followers, they’ve mutated into a monstrous Hydra that our society must now together defeat. To do so, we must speak truth to power, armed with critical thinking.
Despite his best efforts to manipulate the truth, Trump has been defeated — for now. At this crucial moment in our history and beyond, we must remain vigilant. We cannot simply return to the practices that led us— especially us media mavens — to despair all those years ago. Remember: the Hydra has many heads, and new gods of our own making are waiting in the wings. We each have the power to create a more equitable and beautiful world by exalting and rewarding — with our likes, clicks, and shares — policies and principles that are honest and true.
J.P. Hazzard is an activist, humorist, writer, and recovering publicist living in Los Angeles.