Maybe you’ve noticed that President Trump is impossible to escape these days. I mean this mostly figuratively, because — as of this writing — he hasn’t federalized law enforcement or fired up up mass deportation squads. He is impossible to escape as a topic of discussion, as context, as the sometimes unspoken counterpoint to an otherwise garden-variety conversation or action.
That sense of looming presence (not so much Big Brother as a foul odor you just can’t mask) has created an industry of “subtweeting” Trump, even when the statement or gesture in question takes place away from the president’s digital playground. There’s the Top Chef restaurateur who has appended a supportive message about the immigrants who work in his kitchen to the bottom of every check. There was Meryl Streep’s he-who-shall-not-be-named acceptance speech and the more pugilistic and oblique one from the Stranger Things sheriff. On Twitter itself, the Department of Defense nonchalantly counseled followers, "Social media postings sometimes provide an important window into a person’s #mentalhealth. Know what to look for," while the official Merriam-Webster account is an almost daily commentary on the new regime.
Even Fox News has gotten in on the Trump subtweeting, it seems. A story on the “emerging alt-left” cited an “anti-Trump graffiti spree” as proof of the gang’s thuggishness. But what did this "gang" actually write on the wall? “No fascist USA” — if Fox thinks that’s an anti-Trump message, we agree on more than I thought.
And, of course, there was the Super Bowl, where the Trump Question turned Lady Gaga’s anodyne halftime show — for those who wanted to see something — into either a defiant show of strength or a celebration of unity depending on the politics of the observer. And then there were the ads. Not a single one mentioned the president’s name, yet many appeared to be about him (or us). One standout? The Coca-Cola commercial that zinged heartstrings with a multilingual rendition of “America the Beautiful.” Trump critics embraced it as an explicit renunciation of the president:
But the ad predates the Muslim travel ban by three years. Its age doesn’t make the ad any less relevant, but it does undermine the argument that it’s Trump’s antagonists who have made popular culture political. Popular culture hasn’t changed much at all. Politics has.
That those outside the standard political arena should “stick to sports” (or music or movies) is a common conservative bromide, of course. They complain that politics ruins our collective experience, steals away the potential joy we might feel at leaving the real world behind. One recent New York Times op-ed warned that should entertainers "express a strong political opinion, they lessen something important entertainment provides: a break from the ardent and all-encompassing politics that have left Americans feeling divided, anxious, and angry." And here I thought that it was elites not paying attention to the wounded feelings of real Americans that made middle-class white people turn out for Trump.
This criticism also seems to ignore the fact that our president is himself an entertainer, someone who brought all the tricks and gimmicks of prime time to the campaign stage — including a willingness to fictionalize when facts aren't quite entertaining enough. Trump's critics didn't make politics "all-encompassing"; Trump made sure entertainment encompassed politics.
What such naysayers are really asking for is the comfort of the status quo, and for permission to forget or deny that politics doesn’t stop at the TV’s edge. Sometimes even the celebrities who transport our attention don’t have the luxury of escapism. As Nigel Hayes, a star player at the University of Wisconsin and Black Lives Matter supporter, once said when asked about fans’ responses to his activism: “I’ll be black more of my life than I’ll be a professional basketball player.” This week, Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett responded to critics of his decision to skip the traditional White House visit with an epic Twitterstorm on the fullness of his identity.
When people say they want to keep “politics” out of their entertainment, they’re asking to not be made uncomfortable. It’s a subtle twist on the old saw that “to the privileged, justice feels like oppression”: “To the privileged, injustice feels like changing the channel.”
There aren’t many progressives who argue against the politicization of popular culture. I can already hear the conservative counter: It’s because progressives already have popular culture on their side. But the reason that progressives have embraced the cultural Trump subtweet is that pop culture is pretty much all we have. You might say we won the popular vote.
The stakes are too high to pretend that politics is an intrusion. To not explicitly acknowledge the world around us is a political choice as well. Silence never speaks louder than when it accompanies human tragedy. Imagine someone giving an Oscar speech in a burning auditorium. Would it be overly political to shout “fire”?