The election of Donald Trump as President has been been a shock to many, leading to post-election analysis about how so many Americans could vote for someone so flawed and unqualified. In searching for answers, I found strange similarities to and deeper understanding from another pivotal moment in American history, the acquittal of O.J. Simpson.* Although not a perfect analogy, there are many more illuminating parallels than one might imagine, including:
- Part of the American Upper Class – O.J. Simpson found his way into the elite through football, winning the Heisman while at USC and an MVP award while with the Buffalo Bills, and eventually moved to Los Angeles to live among the Hollywood upper class. Donald Trump took a very different path, being born into the upper class through his inheritance and completing his status with brand recognition from his real estate empire, living in New York among the Manhattan upper class. In fact, Simpson and Trump even spent time together (as can be seen with the photo).
- Celebrity Status through Media – Although both Simpson and Trump were known, it was through TV and other means that they turned into household names. Simpson became a face of Hertz in a successful advertising campaign in the late 70s (becoming one of the first African-Americans to be featured in a national ad on TV) before going on to act in movies and appear in other shows. Trump’s The Apprentice, along with often being on other TV shows, dramatically increased his name recognition.
- Severe Character Flaws – Both Simpson and Trump share severe character flaws, including known mistreatment of women – Simpson, at a minimum, being guilty of domestic battery and Trump being caught saying lewd comments about women on tape.
- Moment of Reckoning – Simpson and Trump both ended up in a situation where their fates would be decided by voting; a predominantly African-America jury for Simpson and the American electorate for Trump.
- Groups with Grievances – Not related to the life that either Simpson or Trump led, many of the people who would vote to decide their fates had concrete grievances. For Simpson’s trial, many of the jurors were African-Americans deeply aware of the history of police violence against the African-American community. This includes Operation Hammer, gang sweeps in Los Angeles in the late 80s resulting in many arrests along with beatings and property damage to those not accused of any crimes. More importantly was the beating of Rodney King on tape, and the eventual acquittal of the police officers. For the election of Trump, it was the decline of de-industrializing America along with the lack of upper class empathy for the challenges faced, from plant closures, other job losses, and general malaise.
- Became a Symbol for Groups with Hardships – Strangely enough, both Simpson and Trump were able to become a symbol for dissatisfied segments of Americans that they had little to no interaction with. Simpson, living in white Hollywood, seemed to be unaware or willfully ignorant of the challenges between much of the Los Angeles African-American community and the police, and even cultivated good friendships with many of the LAPD members. Simpson was able to tap into the resentment of the police by being an African-American and having his lawyers call LAPD’s facts and integrity into question at every opportunity available. On the other hand, Trump’s business practices seemed to constantly take advantage of many Americans, whether by hiring illegal immigrants to pay below minimum wage, just not paying wages for work done (conveniently taking advantage of the fact many contractors didn’t have the money to sue for their wages), or constantly up selling a ‘get-rich’ educational investment that rarely provided much of value. However, Trump was still able to gain credibility among many Americans by constantly attacking the ‘elites’ and the media.
- Voting to Rebuke the Upper Class – For both Simpson and Trump, the results were at least partially intended to send a message to the upper class. The acquittal of Simpson was payback against a ‘corrupt’ LAPD that discriminated against African-Americans and Trump’s election was pushback against the ‘Hillary Clinton elites’ that included broken promises (lying), condescension (‘deplorables’), and a lack of a plan for new/replacement jobs (beyond ‘green energy’).
- Common Consensus Shock about Results– In both cases, the result went against conventional wisdom, as the media seemed to not understand or dismiss real grievances held. The O.J. Simpson trial was focused on Simpson and rarely framed in the context of African-American Los Angeles of the early 90s. In Trump’s election, the focus was mostly on Trump’s character flaws and controversies, instead of the challenges of de-industrializing America.
The comparison obviously has some flaws (the Rodney King beatings are not equivalent to the challenges of de-industrializing America, and Trump has not been accused of beating any of his wives), but there is a clear pattern of misunderstanding what matters. In both situations, the focus was on the individual, not the people behind making the decision, missing an opportunity to explore Simpson’s and Trump’s symbolic value to different groups. Despite being tremendously flawed symbols, Simpson and Trump were both present at the right time and were able to take advantage of deeply-held unhappiness that was not widely recognized.
As America continues to be separated, accepted wisdom will often be created based on a different set of criteria than the individuals with decision-making power. Whether it be the African-American community in Los Angeles in the 90s or de-industrializing America, hopefully we can do a better job being aware of the many challenges faced, addressing them, and thus preventing such flawed individuals from becoming powerful symbols for marginalized groups.
* ESPN’s O.J.: Made in America documentary as part of their 30 for 30 series is an excellent investigation into the O.J. Simpson phenomenon that much of this post is based on.
* Although Trump did win the election, I would be careful about overemphasizing the extent of his victory. Beyond losing the popular vote by a significant margin (to an extremely unpopular candidate), he still remains deeply unpopular in the U.S.