The Eight Pieces of Pop Culture That Defined the Trump Era - POLITICO
Certain cultural figures loom so large that they eventually serve as shorthand for the spirit of their times. There’s Michael Jackson, the personification of the smiley-face maximalism of Reagan’s 1980s; Lucille Ball and the aspirational domesticity of the Eisenhower era; even Homer Simpson, a postmodern joke of a patriarch befitting the irony-soaked Clinton 1990s.
As America’s Trump years come to an end, there is only one pop culture figure who fits that era-defining mold: Donald Trump himself. But unlike those earlier figures, Trump doesn’t represent any single, unifying truth about our character; rather, he’s a symbol of how fragmented it has become. That’s partially thanks to his waging a relentless, cable news-fueled culture war, but it’s also the result of long-developing trends in media.
For decades, cultural Jeremiahs have prophesied the death of the monoculture—a shared, unifying cultural experience that spans race, class and regional difference. With the decline of broadcasting, social platforms cannibalizing traditional news, and YouTube and personalized streaming services serving up an endless buffet of new content “based on your viewing history,” the long, slow death of that phenomenon accelerated wildly just as Trump rose to power.
There is no single story that the books, films and pop cultural miscellany of the Trump presidency can tell us about its character. So, instead of trying to impose a narrative on the cultural chaos of the past five years, we’ve decided to let it speak for itself.
These eight items represent the social upheaval, cries for justice, death-grip nostalgia, internet-abetted hustle and quietly driftless contemplation that have marked this era. They’ve come in forms both disruptively cutting edge and surprisingly old school. Individually, none can fully explain how we got from Trump’s 2015 escalator ride to this uncertain, transitional moment. But the ways in which they speak to their creators’ own perspectives—and, implicitly, to one another—tell us plenty about the character of a nation that will be seeking to fill the spotlight left empty when Trump finally exits the stage.
The “Renegade” dance/meme
The joys and risks that come with the democratization of fame.
If you’re over the age of 30, the words “mmmxneil,” “dubsmash” and “shiggy” probably mean nothing to you. Nearly everyone else will recognize them as points in the constellation of viral online music and dance trends that bubbled up to the mainstream through their popularity on TikTok, the China-based social media app that launched a thousand tech policy takes in the Trump administration’s waning days.
If you’re not familiar, the app is home to short (less than a minute) videos, usually featuring some kind of ephemeral joke, dance or meme reference, with about 100 million active users in the U.S. alone. It’s built for virality—you see someone’s dance or joke, you do your own iteration of it, your friends see your version and replicate it, and so on. Most emblematic as a cultural phenomenon is perhaps the platform’s most popular dance, at least for the fleeting moment in which such things burn brightly and flame out: the Renegade.
Seemingly everyone went viral with their version of the dance, from the Grammy-winning rapper Lizzo to various K-Pop stars to homegrown TikTok superstar Charli D’Amelio. One person who didn’t, however, was its creator: a 14-year-old dance student in the Atlanta suburbs named Jalaiah Harmon.
In late 2019, Harmon uploaded a simple homemade video of the dance to the internet and it went viral almost immediately, filtering all the way up to the aforementioned million-click-grabbing tastemakers. TikTok, almost by its very nature, would eventually divorce the work from its creator: Her video’s popularity in turn inspired other users to recreate the dance on their own without citation, on and on up the food chain until its embrace by mainstream celebrities. After becoming somewhat of a cause celébrè for those concerned with murky issues of authorship and credit on the internet, Harmon earned a New York Times profile and eventually made it to that great showcase of down-the-middle mainstream culture, “Ellen.”
Her odd saga—going from the near-universal experience of teens screwing around with their friends and making up silly dances, to national television and the center of a debate around cultural appropriation and credit—is a neat symbol of the emerging media landscape. A social media “creator” is more likely to be the 14-year-old next door, or your ambiguously employed cousin, or your math teacher, than the product of any slick entertainment enterprise.
The pop culture landscape isn’t just atomized, it’s open source. We’re no longer just members of niche cultural fiefdoms; we have the power to create fiefdoms unto ourselves—and, inevitably, watch them escape our control. Enjoy responsibly.