SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
I hate to ever mention the name Donald Trump. But I feel obliged to do so now, following his recent near-descent upon Tampa, Florida, and the Republican National Convention.
Like Hurricane Isaac, Trump passed perilously close to Tampa Bay before veering off to parts elsewhere, loosening days of sickly warm, noxious expectorations and ponderous thunderclouds upon us in his passing. In the area to accept some phony award as “Statesman of the Year,” he seized the opportunity to flog his secondhand fixation upon President Obama’s birth records—an obsession that most of the working press realizes is another advertisement for himself, but gladly indulges anyway.
It is this indulgence that is the story, of course, not Trump himself, who has not been a real story since the early Eighties, when he “made” his first millions developing major publicly owned properties the Ed Koch administration mindlessly handed over to him. I can still remember businessmen from the time—with that medieval sense of magic and reality that has come to characterize American capitalism—crowding in to touch his garments, hoping some of the Trumpian luck would rub off.
Like so many of the “job creators”—including the Republican nominee himself—Trump’s real trick was not magic, of course, but having a rich father. This was Fred Christ Trump, the beautifully named progenitor who at least managed to build some useful middle-class housing in his time. He also bought up Steeplechase Park, the very first true amusement park in the world, still turning a profit out at Coney Island after sixty-seven years in existence.
Fred Christ had notions of replacing this iconic park with another apartment house. But the funding wasn’t quite in place yet, and this was back in 1964, those locust days when another irreplaceable New York landmark, the old Pennsylvania Station, had just been chop-shopped and carted over to a New Jersey landfill. The worry was that the newly galvanized preservation movement might just reach out to preserve Steeplechase.
So, Trump père had a grand farewell party, to which he invited various friends and celebrities and a bevy of hired chorines to pass out bricks. At the climactic moment of the evening, Trump and his guests hurled the bricks through the fabled painted-glass trellis of the venerable park, apparently because Chartres Cathedral wasn’t available that night for drunken demolishment.
The apartment building never did get built. After thirty years as a rubble-strewn lot, another witless New York mayor, Rudy Giuliani, handed it to the New York Mets, with a $30-million, taxpayer-funded, minor-league ballpark parked considerately on top.
Fred Christ’s clan has been with us ever since, in one increasingly noxious iteration or another—through Donald, and Ivana and Ivanka, and assorted sordid trophy wives, and all the various Trump disasters: the failed airline, the failing Atlantic City casino, the unwatchable TV show, the awful midtown towers, that bland excrescence on the Upper West Side. So is a once unique and soul-stirring city reduced, piece-by-piece, to another pointless American urban space.
Yet it’s impossible to truly blame Trump for this, any more than it is to blame Madonna for her thirty-year presence in entertainment news despite her demonstrated, continuing inability to sing, write a song, act, or dance above the level of particularly strenuous calisthenics.
I mean, isn’t anybody else bored yet? And yet, the Long March of American Cultural Vacuity meanders on and on, to the point where one wishes that Andy Warhol’s weary maxim about fame could be converted into an inviolable curfew.
It’s hard to believe this is same nation that, in the course of thirty years or so invented, in quick succession, bebop, rock ’n’ roll, heavy metal, punk, and hip-hop—among many other digressionary branches. This is the cultural equivalent of going from zero to eighty in about a second. But what happened over the next thirty years? We became, somehow, the nation of golden-oldie radio stations that are themselves forty years old, playing sixty-year-old music. The nation of Trump. The nation of Madonna.
Those artistic media that have not stagnated or been converted into global-economy—“globcult”—cash cows have largely sunk from view. Theatre is considered a curious, affected thing, with most people under the age of thirty—or fifty—finding it bizarre that actors are pretending there is no audience before them. Painting, sculpture, opera, dance—these are arts now restricted to the cognoscenti, the academic, or the cold-eyed appraiser. The rest of us aren’t even supposed to pay attention, our input decidedly unwanted.
We are a country that now specializes in songs that are not sung, reality television shows that have nothing to do with reality, movies that are actually extended music montages. This is not to mention our new preoccupations of writing and talking about our every movement as it happens. If the unobserved life is not worth living, the constantly observed life is unbearable to live next to.
Somehow, somewhere along the way it’s as if the record got stuck on American culture, turning our gorgeous grooves into an ever more static-y repetition. A decidedly aged metaphor in its own right, I realize—and of course there are exceptions to all of the above, talented, dedicated people turning out art of real quality and beauty.
Yet more than ever before, we are living in an imposed culture, one in which the vital pipeline between grassroots and mass-produced culture has been ruptured, replaced by a top-down diktat of what we may and may not pay attention to. It’s exactly the sort of culture that “new media” was supposed to subvert—but instead everything new is old again, reduced to an echo chamber riffing monotonously on what we are spoon-fed, favoring always the trivial and the trite over the profound.
It is, as well, an increasingly hermetic culture, one that reaches into every corner of our existence. The Republican National Convention in Florida—like all modern American political conventions, everywhere—was a rigorously stage-directed media event, an endlessly repeated loop of talking points and delusional neo-fascist nostalgia, held in the midst of a sterile urban downtown and cut off even from this desolate public plaza by ring after ring of metal barriers and heavily armed security forces in literal brownshirts.
The only thing it lacked was Donald Trump.
More from Kevin Baker:
Appreciation — June 26, 2014, 8:00 am
From Johnny Cash to “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”
New York Revisited — June 19, 2014, 8:00 am
And how it foretold the 2008 financial crisis
Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!