Written for Acculturated
June 2nd, 2016
As a cure for the writer’s block I was experiencing the other day, I flipped on the TV and was soon fully ensconced in a rerun of one of my favorite shows, when I suddenly realized: Pierce Hawthorne is Donald Trump.
Let me back up. I was watching Community, the hit show (whose run ended last year) that follows the (mis)adventures of a ragtag group of misfits attending a community college. In the episode I was watching, “Intro to Political Science”, the college was holding student body presidential debates.
Eight candidates were on the debate stage. As soon as they started answering questions, it became clear that most of them shouldn’t have been there (almost as if producer Dan Harmon foresaw the 2016 GOP primary debates). One candidate thought he was in line for ice cream, another answered all of the questions with a Bronx cheer, a third dropped out of the race so he wouldn’t shine a negative light on his drug-dealing, and a fourth announced that she believed in aliens. (Whoops, that last one was actually Hillary Clinton.) But, out of all the candidates on the stage, one deserved to be there the least. He was hateful and spewed nothing but vitriol from behind his podium. That candidate was one of the show’s chief protagonists, Pierce Hawthorne.
As I listened to Pierce say that his platform would be high enough to push one competing candidate off of it to her death, I had my realization.
I couldn’t shake the idea throughout the rest of the episode. When Pierce told one of the other candidates she had a melon for a head and a ridiculous overbite, I could practically hear Donald Trump saying the same thing. The parallels kept coming to me. Superficially, there are similarities: Pierce is also an old, wealthy businessman. Beyond that, Pierce and The Donald have both shown themselves to be racist, both are sexist,both are egotistical, and generally mean. They’ve flip-flopped on issues depending on what benefited them personally. They’ve both found it necessary to publicly comment on the size of…certain body parts. Heck, Pierce has even impersonated Donald Trump.
The more I thought about it, however, I realized there was one key difference between Pierce Hawthorne and Donald Trump: Pierce’s behavior caused general annoyance and disgust among his listeners, as it should have. He was never taken seriously, and certainly would never have become a major political party’s nominee. In fact, Pierce quit the race, and was booed as he left the auditorium. Pierce’s actions were simply too awful for the community to endorse.
Yet, in the case of Donald Trump, this hasn’t happened. His actions and statements don’t seem to matter. He’s rude and crass, but a plurality of voters still supports him. So what made the fictional student body in Community react differently from the real-world voting populace?
It has something to do with television, in fact. Donald Trump has been a presence in American’s lives for years. He’s not just a businessman—he’s a public figure who’s appeared on magazine covers, in TV shows and movies, and for many seasons on his own reality TV show. Today more people probably know Donald Trump from The Apprentice than from any of his actual business deals (growing up, I first learned about Trump from his brief appearance in Home Alone 2, one of many cameos he’s made on TV and in movies over the years). He doesn’t just resemble a TV character; he is a TV character. And viewing him through that lens alters our perception of him.
Pierce Hawthorne says and does a lot of awful things in Community, but we as viewers love him anyway. His behavior might be bad, but at least it’s entertaining. The same rule applies to Donald Trump, Kim Kardashian, and Honey-Boo Boo. It doesn’t matter how egotistical, annoying, or out of touch with the average American their actions and lifestyles are. They’re TV characters! We judge them by different standards.
Trump does everything he can to encourage this; he lives the stereotype, in other words. He’s literally a multi-millionaire who serially dates and marries models. The entire time he’s been on the campaign trail his behavior has been utterly outlandish to the point that he just doesn’t seem real. We see Trump call reporters “sleazes” and think, “No candidate would actually do that!” We hear him insult a female candidate’s appearance and think, “Is he going to get away with treating her like an erstwhile Miss Universe candidate?” But you know what? He does. Just like Pierce Hawthorne and every other TV character that refuses to follow the norms of human interaction. Given that Americans watch nearly three hours of TV a day (in addition to the hours they spend online), and yet have questionable knowledge of current events, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a reality television star has a real chance of becoming our next President.