When it comes to the convergence of popular culture and politics, there is no need to look further than the previous few years. America believed that an unqualified real estate mogul and reality television star was fit to be the President of the United States. That decision was based upon the sea of red hats with small, white block text, slogans, outbursts and high drama that played off of the emotions of his intended audience. The pageantry was able to blind people to what many have perceived as the sad reality; which would be that Donald Trump is a guy who inherited money and power, meaning that he is and always will be out-of-touch with the people that he pandered to. Yet, he appealed to their baser instincts, sold the con to them and here we are, in an age of uncertainty while his followers continue to spout off catchphrases and formulate theories about his opposition.
Somewhere along the line I made the fateful decision that I would watch American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson on Netflix. I’m not entirely certain why, but it was simply one of those knee jerk decisions one tends to make while mindlessly browsing on Netflix for some background noise. While I remember a lot about the OJ fiasco, including the trial, the pop culture fallout and OJ’s subsequent legal problems and jailing, but I never found much of a reason to revisit it, even this FX series that many have heaped praise on. Still, I turned it on, expecting it to be campy, ridiculous and something I’d turn off before the credits rolled on the first episode.
Instead I’ve found myself reliving the trial and the fanfare, all while aghast at the shocking parallels to our modern predicament that I was finding. The loose threads began to intertwine and form a tapestry that was impossible for me to not marvel at with each passing episode; The OJ Simpson trial and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign were hilariously similar.
Before you say it, yes, there are very, very obvious differences. The defense was able to weave a tale around a racist detective with a serious history of abuses, outbursts and violence against black people, this all happening after the LA riots over the Rodney King beating by the LAPD. To say that LA was a powderkeg in the 90’s would be an understatement, in fact, many were concerned about racial tensions reaching a head with the OJ case. But stick with me here.
The OJ Simpson trial was in 1995 and we haven’t learned a goddamned thing about the allure of celebrity or how hucksters can appeal to our raw, emotional sides to get us to react strongly to their narratives. OJ Simpson’s “Dream Team” was able to construct narratives of conspiracy, racial bias and everything else all without refuting or disproving the mountain of evidence that was collected to prove that OJ Simpson killed Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman.
The prosecutors had assembled what was a logical case against Simpsons; one that felt like a “slam dunk” only for it to fall apart due to their “side” having a few bad apples involved all while the opposition spinning yarns to set doubt into the minds of the jury and the public, enough so that what was most likely a murderer walked free.
Does any of this sound familiar yet? Because it should. All of this because of the public’s distrust and frustration with a system that they found to be unfair while someone was able to take advantage of these emotions by painting their opposition as corrupt, uncaring and incapable of being fair or objective. This is exactly what the Trump campaign did to win the election, that’s why it should feel familiar.
Let’s look at the similarities.
The blinding allure of celebrity.
While no one can be certain if good ole’ Bob Kardashian really was the reluctant good guy like he was portrayed in the FX series, or if he somehow actually had the prescience to lecture his children on the perils of celebrity without virtue or that his family name would live on in part thanks to a rapper named Ray J’s junk is up for debate, but the rather ham-fisted attempt to look at the concept of celebrity makes an interesting point here. OJ’s main argument for his innocence was that he was OJ and that people loved him. He was OJ, he couldn’t have done that, right? It didn’t matter how much evidence there was, he was rich, powerful, well-known and beloved.
Donald Trump’s name alone speaks to people. Trump has his real estate ventures (even the ones that he simply licenses his name to), his steaks, his goofy hair, his lines of clothing or products only found in SkyMall and yes, his time on “The Apprentice,” catchphrase and all. This is a man who had been in millions of American homes for years, hammering in his gauche sense of class into the working class’s collective minds. I mean, this was the Miss USA pageant guy, this guy knew how to make investments, am I right?
Most of us look to Trump and see a lot of bluster and not much substance, but we also weren’t his target audience, either. His target audience knows his name, knows his brand and have stayed in his hotels, they bought his dumb hats, they repeat his catchphrases and consider him to be a successful businessman, even if he wasn’t. He’s said that he’s helped people, so of course he has, right? It’s a face that you can trust, just like OJ’s. OJ was in Lethal Weapon, he wasn’t a bad guy. Trump was at Wrestlemania, he can’t be a bad sport.
The champion of a disenfranchised people.
The show went out of its way early on to point out that OJ was a hero in the black community, but perhaps not as much before the trial as he was after, even if that was brief. OJ made a name for himself and left everyone behind, not looking back because he had made it on his own merits, everyone else would need to drag themselves up like he did. The defense was able to make him a more sympathetic figure all around, endearing him to the black communities that didn’t hold him up as a hero as one of their champions.
Much in the same vein, Donald Trump has never been the hero to the working class. Literally a man who spent his life in a gilded tower looking down upon everyone else, stories of his stingy interactions with the common people plagued him throughout his campaign. Still, he persisted to push that he was for them, even if history told a different story. Trump went from a New York elite billionaire to the hero of the disenfranchised white person almost overnight thanks, in part, to his campaign targeting these people and playing off of their very real fears and insecurities when it comes to job opportunities, healthcare costs and boogeymen ruining their lives.
So while the media found it offensive that he’d retweet white supremacists and not disavow support from David Duke, the disenfranchised white voters began to see someone who wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty with these people, even if he claimed not to agree with them 100%.
An emotional plea.
Perhaps the most effective parts of OJ’s defense were the emotional pleas and grandstands that his legal team, headed up by Johnnie Cochran and Robert Shapiro, were able to make. Playing off of his appeal to the disenfranchised and taking full advantage of his recognizable, heroic facade they were able to plant the seeds of doubt that a man as beloved as OJ Simpson could have committed a grisly murder. The signs were there, the evidence was there, but wouldn’t it make sense if a white cop who hated black folks wanted to see a prominent black man get taken down a notch?
The showmanship of the trial has been legendary, including the memorable moment where OJ Simpson was tasked with slipping on the famous bloody gloves only for him to put on a show, struggling with them and keeping his fingers spread out to act like the gloves didn’t fit him. “If it does not fit, you must acquit,” Cochran repeated in a refrain at the jury during his closing arguments. That moment has lived on far beyond the trial itself and will perhaps be studied for years to come as either ridiculous or brilliance (perhaps both) by legal scholars.
But they knew what they were doing. They appealed to a sympathetic audience that the LAPD was crooked and racist, that the system was rigged against black people and presented evidence that was at times compelling. Trump’s team, masterminded by white nationalist Steve Bannon and whatever the hell Reince Priebus is, made similar pleas to their audience. Telling people who perhaps didn’t fully believe in the concept of “white genocide” but hadn’t ruled it out yet that Mexicans coming over the border were rapists, job thieves and “bad hombres,” well, they were compelled to agree. Instead of being seen as a crazy, racist old man, they saw him rallying against the perception of “PC culture” that parts of the media had been hardening them against. You know the types, the ones who have been regaled with stories of participation trophies, Tinder and “safe spaces” running rampant (note: they aren’t) keeping them from having the America that THEY wanted. Those damned “social justice warriors” won’t let them call a spade a spade anymore, but Donald Trump, well, he was speaking his mind.
That apparently meant pushing nationalist agendas, painting entire swaths of Muslims and Mexicans as awful people who would look to undermine this great nation. If Johnnie’s refrain of “If it does not fit, you must acquit” won over the jury, Trump’s “Make America Great Again” spoke to people grieving over the loss of industry to nations paying pennies on the dollar to their workforce while corporate fatcats counted their profits while these people slipped further into opiate-dulled despair.
A white woman serving as “the man” while her sane counterpart falls to pieces.
It can also be noted that in both the OJ Simpson trial and the 2016 presidential election the opposition was a woman. While that may seem like a minor point, the realities that women face are still much different than that of a man. Marcia Clark’s personal life, wardrobe and hair choices became a matter of national attention, taking the LA prosecutor’s role and brushing it aside to judge her as a woman.
Much in the same vein, Hillary Clinton faced a lot of strange blowback because she was a woman. Perhaps Democratic Clinton die-hards pushed too hard against the disenfranchised Bernie supporters with concerns about her as misogynists (although, clearly, some were), but there was a lot of grief that went her way about everything from her pants suits to her “creepy grandma smile” became a matter of debate. Hillary represented the system that people didn’t trust in this election, much like Marcia Clark played the role of having to sidestep racist cop allegations (which were pretty much true in the case of Furhman) while the defense built an entire case around the LAPD being racist, with her as a stand-in for that organization.
As an aside, you could make the case of Christopher Darden playing the role of Bernie Sanders during this whole debacle; him being the loveable loser who sympathizes with the points of the other side, but still feels a moral obligation to see them thwarted.
A belief in the system turns a slam dunk into a failure.
A scene in the show during the jury selection procedure saw Marcia Clark talk about believing in justice, the system and the good of the people. Everyone within their department saw the mountains of evidence against OJ and saw the case as rather academic. Who wouldn’t? What they didn’t take into account was a team of lawyers and experts willing to do whatever it took to create narratives that would plant doubt into the minds of the jury to ensure that “reasonable doubt” was there when it came time for them to deliberate. The end result was jarring to most onlookers.
A Hillary Clinton victory seemed in-the-bag to most pundits and, well, the rest of the world. In fact, the lead-up to the election featured talk about how Trump wouldn’t concede to her victory and would fight the election results, not about what he’d do when he won. He whined and droned on about the system being rigged for weeks before that polls that all showed a certain Hillary Clinton victory were proven wrong. The thing is, polls don’t work if the people being polled are too ashamed to admit that they are voting for someone. So while SNL joked about just calling her “President Clinton” already and Trump’s chances looked slim, reality hit most of us pretty hard on election night when Trump broke away with the Electoral College and the numbers just kept coming in as in his favor.
They didn’t account for the emotional pleas, the theater and the catchphrases.
We’ve learned nothing.
To put it plainly; we, as a people, have learned absolutely nothing. Perhaps history will give Trump the same treatment that OJ has received, including him being sued for the wrongful deaths of Ron and Nicole later on and being sentenced to pay millions (which he never did), then OJ fleeing to Florida and laying low until he was arrested for a sports memorabilia assault and sentenced to 33 years in prison. So yeah, OJ probably did it and yeah, OJ wasn’t a good guy like he played on TV.
Will Donald Trump see the same just desserts, or will he somehow escape his four years without being impeached or found to be a criminal that many believe him to be? That remains to be seen.
What’s troubling, though, is that something from twenty years ago can feel this relevant and that people keep making the same mistakes when it comes to the idea of celebrity and trusting the man on television.