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by Stephen Marche

The stench of rotting punditry drifted over the 2016 election. Nobody saw Donald Trump lasting anywhere near as long as he did. Almost nobody saw Bernie Sanders coming in the first place. The money, which has traditionally lined up perfectly behind a winner, chose Jeb (!). The entire class of political experts failed so completely to comprehend what went on in American electorate that its failure cannot be chalked up to usual election-season idiocy. Everyone was so wrong about the 2016 election because 2016 was different from any other election before it. 2016 was the year that pop culture swallowed politics, digested it, and shat out a new form of mass spectacle. It was the year pop politics squeezed into the world.

Obviously, politics has always had elements of entertainment. Entertainment has always had a political dimension. But the two have now blurred to the point where every political act must be understood as an act of entertainment and every act of entertainment must be understood as political. FDR made the presidency a radio phenomenon. The Kennedy-Nixon debate established it as televisual. And by the 1980s, Ronald Reagan had mastered the conversion of Hollywood glamour into Washington power. But there remained throughout a vital distinction between celebrity culture and the political establishment. That distinction's gone.

The difference between Ronald Reagan as a celebrity politician and the 2016 candidates is that it's unclear whether the 2016 guys are using politics to advance their celebrity or the other way around. Ted Cruz was caught buying copies of his own book, creating the false impression that he was a best-selling author -- a perfect symbol of the hermetic economy of influence. It makes sense to spend money on your own books to create the impression of success in order to raise money to spend on your own books. The most disturbing aspect of Trump's campaign is that it's hard to tell whether his aim lied in politics or celebrity. When Amy Schumer stood beside her cousin Senator Chuck Schumer at a press conference to call for gun control, which of the two had more power to change the world?

Politics has become pop culture just as pop culture has become politics. Kayne West -- "I am a pop artist, so my medium is public opinion and the world is my canvas" -- stood up at the VMAs and acknowledged, in an extended Castroesque monologue nobody had the courage to interrupt, that he was high and then announced his bid for the presidency in 2020. No one was entirely sure if he was kidding. Pop culture has never been so engaged in political questions, not even in the sixties. Explicit messaging, like Beyonce posing in front of an enormous onstage sign reading FEMINIST, is less prevalent than the various self-conscious refractions of cultural studies. Miley Cyrus sticks out her tongue to signify her participation in her own objectification. Taylor Swift's merchandise in China reads "1989." Taylor Swift, Tianamen Square. Maybe it's coincidence, maybe it isn't. Comedy is political now, all of it. "How racist is that?" and "How sexist is that?" have replaced "Did you ever notice this? Did you ever notice that?" as the go-to questions on stand-up stages.

The infiltration of celebrity culture into American politics has been the result of factors other than simple media saturation. American election campaigns have swollen from eleven months in 1960 to twenty-three months in 2008, the cost of winning a presidential campaign from a couple hundred million in 2000 to more than a billion in 2012. Gerrymandering and the advocacy industry have ratcheted up hyperpartisanship to levels not seen since the Civil War. The ground has been cleared for the preeminence of celebrity: Time on the campaign trail means that the personality of the candidate becomes dominant; the rise of money means that advertising -- the promotion of the brand -- becomes the thrust of the process; hyperpartisanship is just another name for fandom.

The political commentators were so wrong about their predictions in 2016 because they were living in the past -- a classic case of generals fighting the last war because it's what they know. As politics followed the dictates of pop culture, it obeyed totally new rules and adapted a different practice of community building completely separate from traditional ground operations, public policy, and even self-interest. Party conventions are like Comic-Con and Coachella and Burning Man. They offer the same bargain for their audiences: a sense of redeemed outsiderdom. Trump and Sanders both fed off their outsider status while being, respectively, a billionaire and a sitting U.S. senator. In just the same way, Comic-Con is for geeks, except that their supposedly marginal cultural position dominates franchises worth billions of dollars. Burning Man was a radical reevaluation of the social contract, except that it was an illicit holiday for rich techies. Pop culture and pop politics in 2016 allowed their acolytes the opportunity to be different in exactly the same way as everybody else: by selling change without discomfort.

Pop politics runs underneath factions and the government alike; it is neither Democrat nor Republican, neither progressive nor conservative. "Let me furnish the amusements of a nation and there well be need of very few laws," P.T. Barnum, the great impresario of the circus and in many ways the founder of American pop culture, declared in an interview with the New York Sun in 1880. He could not have predicted that the government by the people, of the people, and for the people would become the government by, of, and for the people swallowed by their entertainments.

The rise of pop politics has occurred because what politicians sell now is identical to what celebrities sell, a means of asserting an identity through an iconography. Politics and celebrity must both serve the new absolute master, the narcissism of the American people. Self-government takes on a new meaning: the government of each individual self. But the time for lament has passed. The time to wake up has arrived. The politics of shiny things is the politics of things as they are. Democracy has always been tacky, a political system defined by its vulgarity. The fusion of mass culture and government by the majority may well be the most democratic phenomenon in history. The seething, bubbling foam that froths and vanishes is perfectly representative. This is what we like, after all -- Donald Trump and Kayne West. They are us.
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