Vanity Fair magazine has always indulged in the vanities as its mission: features on power players, Hollywood celebrities, money, greed, lust, murdered power players, excess of every sort by the wealthiest, but the magazine also had a certain gravitas lent to it by its former editor-in-chief Graydon Carter. His reign from 1992-2017 was a fairly long one in the increasingly volatile world in which print magazines moved into digital realms. Although Christopher Hitchens’ thought-provoking columns disappeared not long after his death in 2011, Carter’s brilliant, unapologetically erudite and acerbic editorials were the perfect antidote to the muck and willful ignorance brought to the national stage with Donald J. Trump’s ascent. Now, Vanity Fair offers not only fluff but has redefined relevance with such pieces as, “What will Hope Hicks do next?” in a series they call, “revealing conversations with the biggest newsmakers.” If your mouth is hanging open, it is understandable.
The problem of evaluating what is relevant in the age of Trumpism is not relegated to mild criticism of one glossy magazine. Even writing “the age of Trumpism” is nauseating but, nevertheless, accurate. Donald J. Trump has dominated the American cultural, societal, and political scene since announcing his run for President of the United States, after descending an escalator in his Trump Tower in New York City. It was a gaudy exhibition and shockingly effective.
From the moment he spoke to the American people about being “really rich,” Trump projected poverty of the spirit, education, wisdom, class, and decency. He did, however, project showmanship, arrogance, outsized grandiosity, and a mean and nasty streak that had popped up in the news from time to time even before his candidacy. But above all, news about Trump was considered, until his presidential run and election, fluff. Trump would prove that earlier analysis wrong simply by remaining in the headlines, day after day, month after month, now, year after year.
Regardless of his lack, Trump has been the main event in news media on the American scene for three years running, an almost impossible length of national relevancy. How long that dominance continues to last depends more on the character of the American people than Trump himself. While there has been an increasingly strong voice of dissent to Trump’s style and substance of leadership, there is also an unwillingness to look away by nearly everyone.
The run-up to the 2018 mid-term elections forecast a “blue wave” of Democratic victories following sustained resistance across the country, particularly by women. Women led unprecedented protest marches, and women led the resistance to Trump’s agenda. Although the national media initially downplayed the gains by Democrats in the 2018 mid-terms, closer examination following the outcome of the races at every level across the country proved that a “blue wave” did, in fact, take place. More than one-hundred women, overwhelmingly Democratic candidates, are now heading to the House of Representatives, thanks to engaged voters, turning out in record numbers. Historically, women have never had more than 84 seats in Congress, and this shift in the cultural tide is significant and newsworthy.
Yet, the “blue wave” of Democratic women elected to the House held the headlines for less than a day. President Trump immediately grabbed it back, by the “pussy,” as he has previously said, by firing his Attorney General Jeff Sessions and appointing Matthew Whitaker as Acting AG. Instantly creating controversy, Trump’s appointment drew sharp criticism from learned quarters, including attorney George Conway (yes, Kellyann’s husband) and professor Neal Katyal in a New York Times op-ed which claims Trump’s appointment is both unconstitutional and illegal. With one swift stroke, Trump had wrested the headlines back again. While he is no genius, as he has on multiple occasions proclaimed, Trump is a master showman. As to the substance of the show, that is another matter entirely.
Even as this editorial is in the process of being written, a headline reads, “Mueller ready to indict some folks.” It is possible that the age of Trumpism does have a life expectancy, after all, and it may be coming to a close. Yet, it is entirely possible that an illegitimate and likely illegal Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker, who has both criminal ties and holds dangerous views of the President’s Executive power, will remain to protect Trump. It is also possible that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s indictments will, indirectly, provide more fodder for the continuance of the Trump show.
Trump and his administration in all their chaotic, loud dominance are the matters at hand. Perhaps what the country needs is to turn away from such relevance, take our eyes off the headlines and spectacle of Trump. Yet this healthy look away is unlikely to happen any time soon; possibly because what fascinates human beings the most is destruction, particularly our self-destruction. Vehicles jam highways to stop and stare at fatal car accidents. We are glued to our computers and televisions watching the news of the latest weekly, brutal gun violence play out.
Donald J. Trump may be an unsavory, hollow man lacking in morals and ethics, but he instinctually understands this basic fact of the American character. We cannot and will not look away.
Nancy Avery Dafoe