In the entertainment industry, one of our core and usually unspoken beliefs is that art is a great communicator and even a mass leveler. Whether or not Hollywood is always producing “art” is, of course, up for spirited and constant debate. But it’s a given that we have to believe in entertainment’s power to communicate, unite, and produce joy, whether it’s through a punch line or a fade to black.
Today, that power seems rather diminished. Despite the entertainment industry’s almost unanimous repudiation of both the candidate’s character and his policies, Donald Trump is now president-elect of the United States. The news is shocking, not just because polls largely didn’t predict it or because Trump is such a divisive and controversial figure. Nearly everyone with a mouthpiece, from newspapers to late-night comedians, came out either against Trump’s politics or in support of Hillary Clinton’s. Shows like “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee” and “Last Week With John Oliver” practically revolved around excoriating Trump; on “Saturday Night Live,” “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” and even “The View,” Trump and his wife, Melania, were impersonated ruthlessly.
The casts of current shows like “Scandal” and long-gone shows like “Will & Grace” came together to endorse the Democratic nominee; stars like Jennifer Lopez did ad spots in battleground states; and celebrities used their Twitter accounts to vocally engage in a campaign against Trump. Even aging rock stars Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi came together to play a concert for Clinton, as did Beyoncé and Jay Z. Unless, as a voter, you were a Jon Voight superfan or a die-hard Scott Baio devotee, it is highly unlikely that anyone whose pop culture you appreciate endorsed, supported, or even tolerated Trump.
Because Trump was a reality television star — and because Trump manipulates the media, to this day, with the skills and logic of a reality television star — much has been made, in this election cycle, about how television paved the way for Trump’s rise to success and facilitated his ability to win so much without a significant organized ground game. There’s an interesting conversation to be had there, one that considers the standards and practices of cable news as traditional print media diminishes in power and the peculiar weaknesses of 24-hour news.
At the same time, though, if television had more power, we probably would be seeing a Clinton presidency. In addition to the outpouring of celebrity support for Hillary Clinton, Hollywood has been fascinated with the Clintons for decades — dissecting the political power couple in shows like “The Good Wife” and movies like “The American President,” while imagining a female president in shows like “Veep” and movies like “The Contender.” If Hillary Clinton is a stand-in for every aggrieved political wife with ambitions of her own, her popularity on television, with the inherent empathy of narrative serialization, is far greater than her popularity in the soundbites and vote counts of real life.
And yet here we are. It was a very close election, and Clinton won the popular vote, but an unprecedented amount of rural white turnout resulted in Trump clinching the Oval Office. It’s difficult to say who all of those people listen to on the radio, or watch on TV in the 11:30 p.m. hour. But even if they’re pop-culture junkies, the politics of entertainment did not filter through to them.
Well. Maybe they watch “The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon.”
This September, when I watched Fallon — the host of NBC’s storied late-night institution — reach over and muss Trump’s hair as one would do to a friendly sheepdog, I wrote: “If Trump becomes president, that image of Fallon ruffling Trump’s hair will be the moment when the tide turned,” adding that it was “a seal of mainstream approval.” I concluded the piece by wondering how Fallon could be seen as trustworthy, if he could not approach a candidate with a demonstrated indifference to rule of law and democracy with some restraint.
I was wrong, at least on the second count. While I don’t think that Fallon had any other nefarious purpose at heart besides making the best of his egotistical guest with delusions of grandeur, he did demonstrate something that the rest of us in the industry failed to see: Trump was and is liked by a lot of people, including “The Tonight Show’s” wide-ranging audience. “The Tonight Show” is stubbornly middle-ground, middlebrow, and apolitical, which at times makes it a frustratingly superficial hour of television. But it also consistently has the best ratings in its time slot; Fallon’s goofy, never-serious charm has lasting appeal.
If there was consensus on Trump, and there certainly seemed to be, it was trapped in the echo chamber of the chattering classes. Oliver and Bee were frequently said to have “eviscerated” Trump, or “demolished” his platform, but if they did, the reach was not far enough to sway public opinion. Comedy’s ability to level us all with the same self-deprecating punch line, or to reveal an awkward truth through joke construction, failed us when it came to Trump.
Perhaps this is just because on the more adventurous cable networks, only niche audiences are tuning in. And perhaps this is because Hollywood’s approach to politicizing the culture has alienated the very audience it is trying to convince. In September, after the Hair-Muss Heard ‘Round the World, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat penned a column called “Clinton’s Samantha Bee Problem” that at the time, seemed frustratingly naïve — and today, appears to have been alarmingly prescient. For those of us who agree with Bee and comedians like her, their routines were both a way of hearing truth spoken in an entertaining way and of calming ourselves during a particularly frazzling election season. But, as Douthat wrote, the liberal takeover of the cultural conversation was going to have consequences in the voting booth.
“Outside the liberal tent, the feeling of being suffocated by the left’s cultural dominance is turning voting Republican into an act of cultural rebellion — which may be one reason the Obama years, so good for liberalism in the culture, have seen sharp G.O.P. gains at every level of the country’s government.”
Douthat accidentally predicted exactly what happened on election night: A fully conservative government, even as the culture is the most progressive — diverse, queer, and activist — that it has ever been. To be sure, it should be. Entertainment is better when it’s aware and inclusive, as a quick glance at award shows indicates; and with the youth of this nation more diverse than ever, inclusion is the way of the future.
But in the meantime, there are surprising losses. The election results are a stunning reminder of the limitations of comedy and the circumscribed role of entertainment in people’s lives. And a call, perhaps, to find a better and more lasting way to speak to audiences. Perhaps it is time to leave aside “eviscerations” as our primary tool for expanding consciousness. They have their role, but in the end, empathy may well be the greatest tool in a storyteller’s repertoire.