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Culture of Celebrity and the Trump Phenomenon

Social Media-Driven Culture Overrides Basic Societal Values

We live in a culture of celebrity that defines our societal values and ethical standards today and explains why Donald Trump is as popular as he is. Even though Trump did not win the Iowa caucus, he still performed at a level no one would have believed when he first entered the Republican race last June. We know his support comes largely from the disaffected, disillusioned, discontent, and those disassociated from the political process.

Celebrity culture is a symbiotic business relationship from which performers obtain wealth, honors, and social power in exchange for selling a sense of intimacy to audiences. The obsession with celebrities goes far beyond supermarket tabloids, gossip Web sites and reality TV. It obliterates old distinctions between high and low culture, serious and trivial endeavors, profit making and philanthropy, leading to the phenomenon of being famous for being famous.

Today, many people lead their lives vicariously through celebrities. If Trump can be a millionaire many times over, why not me? His superficial grasp of the issues adds up for those who aren’t familiar with them or don’t really follow issues as much as personalities.

Celebrity culture is an essentially modern phenomenon that emerged amid such twentieth-century trends as urbanization and the rapid development of consumer culture. It was profoundly shaped by new technologies that make easily possible the mechanical reproduction of images and the extremely quick dissemination of images and information/News through such media as radio, cinema, television, and the Internet.

Today through interviews and online postings, Americans are invited, especially through visual media, to believe they know celebrities intimately. We can follow them on Twitter and read all about their lives. It’s almost as if we are sharing our lives with them, and they with us. It’s a new kind of “friend”; one where a close personal relationship and face-to-face communication is unnecessary. The result is interpersonal interaction is no longer crucial to a successful friendship, and this can carry over to the workplace.

In a 2007 survey, 51 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds think they will be famous one day. But it starts even younger than that. When parents asked their children as young as 5 what they wanted to be when they grew up, 19 percent said they wanted to be famous.

The problem is that being famous is replacing traditional goals. When a poll of 16-year-olds finds that 54 percent of them want to be famous, but only 1 percent want to work in an office and 4 percent want to become teachers, you are setting a whole generation up for a lifetime of feeling like a failure. Working in a sea of cubicles is soul-destroying enough without your broken dreams hanging over you the whole time.

Even once we grow up and get jaded, 40 percent of us still want to be famous. And these days, thanks to social media, we can all feel a little bit famous every minute of the day. Even if you have only 50 Twitter followers, that is 50 people who seem to care about what you have to say, who might retweet a joke or like a photo. Instant fame can be ours with You Tube postings and on Instagram. But those micro-fame moments become addictive and can destroy our self-esteem, rather than improve it like intended. Millions of people who post selfies on Instagram are bothered when they don't get enough likes and will even take posts down if they don't garner enough attention.

After a while we start to feel like we can't go without the reassurance that a tiny amount of personal celebrity gives us. We need more followers, more "fans," because we have to get our daily dose of attention. We need our daily fix.

Tom Brokaw, the well respected former NBC television journalist and anchor of Meet the Press was interviewed last Sunday and explained the Trump phenomenon quite well. "I really think that a big piece of what Donald Trump has going for him is celebrity culture that we live in in America. And he is everywhere and comes in with that big airplane and people say I'd like to have a little piece of that. Here's a guy running strongly among evangelicals, married three times, he had affairs around the world with other people, he went broke a couple of times. They bore right through that. So we're playing in a different ballpark this year", Brokaw observed.

The undeniable conclusion of Trump’s celebrity and many others like him is the average American seems disconnected from the values that made our country strong. Years ago the driving force was not working to gain notoriety, fame or fortune. It was to find one’s place in a society that used to value those who contributed to the betterment of society. Those who worked hard and achieved more. Those who led their lives emphasizing underlying moral and societal values. It’s hard to say this still exists today in America – at least to the extent necessary to maintain and build on American exceptionalism.

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on February 2, 2016. Professor Mintz is on the faculty of the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: