Every presidential campaign draws on familiar pop culture references to bring the candidates down to Earth. Critics use the references to illuminate the differences between voters of different generations.
We the people search for analogues in art, music, theater and even anthropology to find the telling insight that animates observations and interpretations of personality, if not policy. This is especially true in the lead-up to the first debate on Monday night, when voters will be confounded by the divergent styles of two unpopular candidates offering a clash of polarizing sensibilities.
Having thrown away all pretense of even-handedness, the organs of the big media will play out the candidates' different styles, as the highbrow vs. the lowbrow, the insider vs. the outsider, the university-educated elitist vs. the vulgar business genius. Their followers are the rich vs. the working stiffs. Add to these cultural divisions demographic distinctions ranging from feminists to lunch-bucket working men, from old folks to millennials. They live in the same country, but in different worlds.
You choose your favorite caricatures from where you sit. Donald Trump is the punk rocker who grooves on smashing things, a male chauvinist raging against the ladies; or he's the liberated businessman who hires competent women to run his enterprises. He even married a beautiful model who has her own career. He's the reality performer who delights in the close-up and is at ease with showbiz spontaneity.
He's certainly not everybody's taste. Anthropologist Jane Goodall likens him to a male chimpanzee slapping the ground and throwing rocks to win dominance. She'll be thinking of a chimp named Mike, she tells James Fallows in The Atlantic magazine, when she watches the debate. Mike gleefully created confusion and noise that "made his rivals flee and cower.'"
Hillary Clinton, staid and prim, is the policy wonk, the strident first wife, the overbearing mother-in-law. She's sometimes even the mother whose shrill voice a person hears when he thinks he might have done something wrong, even when he hasn't. She usually means well but lacks tact and warmth, and never learned the valuable lesson that you can sometimes be wrong by being right.
Pop images collect, coalesce and harden. He's the crude joker; she's the uptight schoolmarm. He's outrageous; she's buttoned up, all the way to her chin. He's a banana split with a cherry on top; she's a double serving of spinach with nothing on top.
It's impossible to balance the pop references and the cliched distinctions. Music and television, always looking for something to entertain the masses, play up strife and division, and now they're joined by the ubiquitous internet and social media, with their chaos of opinion (usually half-baked). While nearly everyone is exposed to the latest sensation, whether a trend or breaking news, what's new quickly becomes old. What was avant-garde and revolutionary only yesterday is now ancient history.
The reason that Clinton's celebrated breakthrough as the first woman presidential candidate of a major party hasn't caught on in a positive and useful way is that her kind of feminism is, in the jargon of today, "so yesterday." It's as unhip as her pantsuits. The product called Hillary Clinton is overexposed and stale, a soda that's lost the fizzle, a hamburger with no sizzle, a label that's yellowed for being so long on the shelf.
If this campaign were vaudeville (instead of sometimes just resembling vaudeville), she would be the straight man looking in vain for his comedic partner; she is an elitist ordering a vintage wine when those in the know among her rich and sophisticated friends choose the latest craft beer.
She may be running against who culture critic James Parker describes as "the worst stand-up comedian in the world," but even when the Donald crashes and burns, he supplies a reality more in touch with the angry times than the woman who's afraid to say she's got pneumonia for fear that failing will finally do her in politically, if not physically.
Donald Trump may, as one critic put it, look like "a bust that will one day be toppled in a city square," but he's admired and applauded by huge crowds for sticking it to the elites, the arrogant arbiters of taste who, like Hillary Clinton, deplore the "deplorables." In The New York Sun, Conrad Black observes, "This was Empress Hillary emptying the contents of her chamber pot out the palace window onto the heads of those described in the phrase 'We the people.'" The first debate, expected to draw an audience of 100 million, will probably be decisive. The winner will ride to November in the catbird seat. The loser will get the chamber pot, and all that's in it.