WASHINGTON — What pop culture moments of 2018 revealed deeper truths about political life in America?
After a year covering politics, President Donald Trump and Washington, we recently shared our takes with Patrick Healy, the Politics editor and a former deputy Culture editor.
Katie Rogers: As someone who is ensconced in the All-Trump-All-the-Time orbit as a White House reporter, I think 2018 was the “reality-is-stranger-than-fiction” year. Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation process — and the “SNL” bit that followed — and Kanye West’s visit to the Oval Office were two huge moments where I couldn’t tell where reality ended and a cultural dialogue began.
Matt Flegenheimer: The Matt Damon-as-Kavanaugh sketch — one of the few “SNL” bits to draw much blood in D.C. this year — speaks to the challenge of comedy in this moment, right? There was objectively very little that was funny about the Ford-Kavanaugh testimony. I was in the hearing room. It was wrenching / heartbreaking / generally miserable. But getting emotional about 36-year-old calendars, as Kavanaugh did, is a little funny.
Rogers: I thought there was a Roman Coliseum element to it. America is sitting there, rapt, watching a battle between two people whose lives as they knew them seemed over. And then three days later Matt Damon repeats it verbatim for laughs. It was a jarring cultural moment.
Flegenheimer: He liked beer, OK?
Astead Herndon: The Kavanaugh-Ford hearing had a “you’ll-remember-this-forever” feel. And something I remember is the time in between their testimony, when even Republicans were calling Ford “credible” in a way that, for a moment, felt like a real sea change.
Patrick Healy: Astead, this is where Damon’s sketch on “SNL” was revelatory to me. Damon reminded us how Kavanaugh’s aggressive, grievance-driven performance turned the tide for the Republicans against a credible woman, not unlike what Trump’s aggressive, grievance-driven performance did in 2016.
Rogers: Yes. I was texting people in the White House during Kavanaugh’s emotional testimony. When they told me that’s exactly how they’d expect him to act, that was a reminder of how different the rules can be for men and women.
Healy: The rules were very different that day.
Rogers: Speaking of performances, I was in the Oval Office during the Kanye West visit with Trump. Kellyanne Conway was posing for pictures with Kid Rock in the driveway, an errant Beach Boy was praising the president for trying to save Whitney Houston’s life, and in the middle of it all was President Trump and Kanye West.
Herndon: I think people actually glossed over what Kanye said in the Oval Office — that supporting Trump made him feel like a superhero. It spoke to that sense of male grievance we saw in the Kavanaugh hearing. Kanye actually mentioned the many women in his family, and said supporting Trump felt like it helped him reclaim masculinity, in so many words. And I found that pretty revealing, considering I had talked to Trump-supporting men throughout the year who said similar things
Flegenheimer: I wonder if part of it — for Kanye and other Trump fans who think like him, to Astead’s point — is just how subversive it can feel to support the guy. You’re not supposed to like Trump, they’re told.
Rogers: It makes people dig their heels in.
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Flegenheimer: And Trump and Kanye are two prolific diggers of heels.
Herndon: Another thing on Kanye, the theater of it all was just incredible. I’m from the Chicago area where Kanye was so revered for speaking up for social justice — the area that defended him when he interrupted Taylor Swift or whined about awards. People loved it. But many hometown people have disavowed him now — and it speaks to how people see Trump as a unique red line.
Healy: Katie, did you learn anything new about Trump and pop culture in 2018 on the White House beat?
Rogers: Trump played loud music on his campaign plane so I know he enjoys music. He clearly has a reverence for musicians of a certain era, like inviting a Beach Boy to the White House and playing Elvis during a medal ceremony. The idea that the president enjoys music and the degree to which musicians interact with him — even to distance themselves — is fascinating.
Flegenheimer: Trump’s rally playlist is amazing.
Rogers: Yes. Elton John is forever ruined for me. Trump loves, loves Elton.
Flegenheimer: Not a traditional Republican playlist.
Rogers: Someone added Rihanna’s “Don’t Stop the Music” to the list at some point this year. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a rally crowd try to dance to it.
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Healy: Astead, what struck you about pop culture and the 2018 elections?
Herndon: One of the big themes from the midterms was people who had previously stayed away from politics but were now getting involved. We saw that in pop culture, too. Voices who had typically stayed neutral spoke out. Venues that were once apolitical distractions became places for protest. Taylor Swift getting involved in the Tennessee Senate race comes to mind.
Flegenheimer: If you had told us then that 2018 would be the year for Kanye to support President Trump and Taylor to support … Tennessee Senate candidate Phil Bredesen.
Herndon: I think there’s a uniqueness to this cultural moment and we’ve seen politicians who recognize that be really successful. Beto and his Facebook lives. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Instagram. It’s a time for disrupters. And it kind of seems like politicians are behaving more on social media like influencers? Rather than typical elected officials.
Flegenheimer: And vice versa! It just speaks to how much politics and pop culture are merging, right? Beyoncé and LeBron going in for Beto, Taylor Swift getting off the sidelines for a local race when she wouldn’t do the same for Hillary Clinton … and a president who tweets a video from his Emmys appearance while signing a Farm Bill.
Rogers: Ocasio-Cortez’s use of Instagram to explain to her followers how the government works has been really interesting. And disruptive.
Herndon: It’s Trump-esque. The radical transparency that people find endearing and authentic?
Healy: Ocasio-Cortez has racked up 1.2 million followers on her Instagram account. She is connecting with a lot of voters in a very humanizing way. I’m not sure many of her Washington colleagues realize the power of what she’s doing. I couldn’t help but wonder: What are the cultural political moments of 2018 that absorbed huge numbers of Americans but Washington may have been clueless about?
Flegenheimer: “This Is America” from Childish Gambino! Who Trump definitely thinks is the youngest leader of a New York City crime family.
Rogers: It was crazy to me how few in people in Washington seemed to know who Kanye West was on the day of his visit. I actually heard someone ask “Is it Kan-YEE or Kan-YAY” in the White House driveway and I wanted to melt into the pavement.
Herndon: “Black Panther” was the movie event of the year, which is fairly incredible considering the themes of black nationalism are so front and center. You also had other performances that spoke to political ideas, like “This Is America” or Beyoncé’s HBCU-themed Coachella performance.
Rogers: This year pop culture really proved how bankable nonwhite story lines and heroes and love stories can be. Which is very at odds with a vocal, in-power conservative political culture obsessed with bringing America back to this idea of Christian, white predominance.
Herndon: There was also “Crazy Rich Asians” and “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.” We saw a real thirst for new, diverse stories, which actually mimics the calls for representation in the political world. I don’t think it’s an accident that, during a political moment that so centers white identity and white identity politics, we’re seeing popular art that lurches in an opposite direction.
Healy: I wonder if President Trump and Republican leaders watched “This Is America” or parts of Beyoncé’s Coachella performance, or understood what “Black Panther” and “Crazy Rich Asians” were saying about America in 2018. These moments were about nonwhite artists, characters and concerns rising as defining moments in the culture at a time when white identity politics is defining the presidency. And here is Trump, congratulating Roseanne Barr for supporting him on “Roseanne.”
Flegenheimer: What ever happened to that show?
Healy: Our colleague John Koblin nailed it. ABC wanted to cater to “white working-class” Trump supporters. I interviewed her in March about the changes in her character to make her a Trump supporter. She erupted at me and the ABC publicist tried to shut me down.
Rogers: Roseanne is performing in my Indiana hometown this spring. Suffice it to say conservative America is ready to forgive her.
Flegenheimer: It just speaks to Trump’s ability / insistence to nose into any moment. It seems like big cultural happenings are so often processed, in part, through a prism of: How will Trump involve himself — or, possibly, screw things up? Or the reality that he might, even if no one thinks there’s a way. Of course this is true for major moments that connect to him in some way — but even some that don’t. He managed to upset everyone after Aretha Franklin died by saying she “worked for him” because she had performed at his venues.
Rogers: Yes. The week following John McCain’s death, Washington drove itself mad when the president really didn’t say anything at all. And with the Roseanne drama, President Trump said nothing about the racist remarks she made about Valerie Jarrett, a former Obama aide. Instead, he was upset that ABC did not apologize to him for unspecified horrible treatment over the years.
Herndon: The inverse of the Trump screwing-things-up phenomenon is that it creates this weird low bar, where he’s praised by Washington for doing things that are pretty normal.
Rogers: Yes, like not causing a scene at a former president’s funeral.
Herndon: Or going like two days without tweeting about Dr. Ford.
Flegenheimer: Mike Huckabee defended Trump nearlyruining the illusion of Santa Claus for a 7-year-old by noting that he did not boil her rabbit.
Herndon: I’d say Washington’s deference to civility and decorum is putting it at increasing odds with the rest of the country, which is more partisan and enraged
Rogers: Oh, I think it’s safe to say Washington is also partisan and enraged. It’s just that people in Washington have the levers.
Flegenheimer: It can be hard to tell if Trump is a symptom or a cause of the lack of decorum — to say nothing of the weird politics / culture synergy. On the one hand, the celebri-fication of politics predates him. On the other, he made porn industry reporting an essential part of the beat!
Rogers: That says it all.
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Flegenheimer: Political stories this year took me to a strip club in Greenville, South Carolina, to see Stormy Daniels; a basketball gym in Houston to watch Ted Cruz and Jimmy Kimmel settle a feud by sweating on each other for charity; and the living room of a former “Sex and the City” star running for governor of New York. Read that sentence! America!
Rogers: Yesterday it was crazy to see Stormy’s memoir sitting next to Michelle Obama’s in the airport bookstore.
Herndon: That relates to the authenticity point we were discussing earlier. The idea that both women are living out their truths in a society that has tried to stifle it
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Healy: I read “Becoming” on vacation. The first two sections — “Becoming Me” about Michelle Obama’s childhood, and “Becoming Us” about her and Barack — were absorbing. She was a deeply driven perfectionist, and her views on assimilation (it’s always minorities under pressure to assimilate) and about constraining herself in predominantly white power structures were a reminder (among other things) that it’s so hard to be an individual in politics. That’s part of what interests me about Ocasio-Cortez. She is doing it her way, for better or for worse.
Flegenheimer: Sinatra-Ocasio-Cortez 2020.
Herndon: The thing about Michelle Obama, and Ocasio-Cortez, also, is that there’s a working-class background most minorities can relate to. There’s a reason you have moments like the little black girl who posed with Michelle Obama’s National Portrait Gallery painting.
Rogers: There’s a freshness, an edginess and a sense of disruption on the left in its candidates and leaders like the Obamas, from memoirs to those portraits. What stands out about the right, which is where I focus most of my attention, is conservatives’ commitment to treat that edginess as an assault on a specific idea of the American Dream.
Herndon: I agree with Katie. You have historically marginalized voices asserting themselves and demanding to be heard in pop culture and Washington. But you also have a conservative universe that’s using these new voices as proof that the country’s direction is being lost. Something’s gotta give.
Rogers: 2018: Something’s Gotta Give is an excellent theme.
Flegenheimer: Happy New Year!