This is the story of how “The Donald” (Trump, that is) fired George W. Bush and made the world safe for democracy. Of course, it is a fantasy-the kind of fantasy that sustains political activism in an era where the roles of fan, consumer, and citizen are intertwined.A friend recently e-mailed me, without comment, a short video, edited together out of footage from newscasts and Trump’s hit TV show, The Apprentice. As I watched it, my first impression was that it was a fan-made spoof of reality television. Then, I watched more. Framed as a mock preview for The Apprentice, the narrator explains, “George W. Bush is assigned the task of being president. He drives the economy into the ground, uses lies to justify war, spends way over budget, and almost gets away with it until the Donald finds out.” The video cuts to a boardroom, where Trump is demanding to know “who chose this stupid concept” and then telling George W. that he’s fired. Donald’s disapproving look is crosscut with Bush shaking his head in disbelief and then disappointment.
An announcer then intones: “Unfortunately, ‘The Donald’ can’t fire Bush for us. But we can do it ourselves. Join us at TrueMajority Action. We’ll fire Bush together, and have some fun along the way.” Just like those videos of that clumsy and overweight kid pretending to be a Jedi now making their way around the Web, or the “wassup” parodies that we all got a year or so ago, this is so funny you have to pass it on.
TrueMajority is a grassroots organization, founded by Ben Cohen (of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream). Its goals are to increase voter participation in the 2004 election and to rally support behind a progressive agenda. According to its website, the group has attracted more than 300,000 supporters, who receive regular alerts and participate in letter-writing campaigns.
And, oh yeah, the site also includes a game where you can spank Bush’s bare bottom with a raw fish, a video where Ben the “Ice Cream Man” reduces the federal budget to stacks of Oreo cookies and shows how shuffling just a few cookies can allow us to take care of a range of pressing problems, and other examples of what the group calls “serious fun.”
The right has been every bit as busy making fun of Democratic hopefuls. Rush Limbaugh is a master at manipulating political sound bytes for comic effect. One website links to more than 300 spoofs of Howard Dean’s self-destructive “I have a scream” speech, including images of him howling as he gropes Janet Jackson, shouting at a kitten, and simply exploding from too much pent-up passion. Using the latest tools for image manipulation, playful conservatives have morphed John Kerry’s picture so that he looks like Stan Laurel or Herman Munster.
All of this hit home the other week when I stumbled on two manipulations of the same portrait of the Three Stooges-one showing Dean, Kerry, and former candidate John Edwards; the other depicting Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. We are all drawing on the same image banks from popular culture to make our political points.
Call it Photoshop for democracy-where participatory culture becomes participatory government.
In his famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin argued that the ability to mass-produce and mass-circulate images was going to have a profoundly democratic impact on our culture. His most famous claim was that mechanical reproduction erodes the “aura” surrounding works of high art and dethrones reigning cultural authorities. He also argued that a new form of popular expertise would emerge that would empower people to speak out since they felt more authorized to offer judgment on sports teams or Hollywood movies than on the works that were cloistered in museums.
For many young people, the rhetoric and style of contemporary politics feels equally cloistered. Although politicians in recent years have adopted a more folksy or empathetic style, many young people still complain that most political leaders don’t speak, act, or dress like anyone they encounter in the world around them. These disenchanted citizens are responding by turning off television news in favor of comedy programming, skipping political rallies to spend more time on the Internet, and walking past newspaper boxes to pick up more lifestyle-oriented tabloids.
Does making politics into a kind of popular culture allow consumers to apply the kind of expertise they exercise as fans to more civic responsibilities? Can digital reproduction strip away the “aura” that surrounds national politicians?