I want to tell you a weird story about the Trump campaign. Only this one starts before Trump ever announced his candidacy, actually before he even became the national media figure he’s been for decades.
Let’s go back to the early 1980s in Southern California, a very different place from what it is today. I know it well because I grew up there. Back in the very early 80s, when I was 12 or 13 or 14, I and a number of friends were big fans of a guy named Wally George. George was the originator of what was once called ‘combat TV.’ His show briefly went nationwide. But he was overtaken by imitators who were more polished, less odd and ungainly. The late and much-better-known Morton Downey Jr successfully took George’s schtick nationwide and himself become the pioneer of tabloid daytime talk shows like Geraldo and Jerry Springer. He and especially George also paved the way for Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, O’Reilly and more. In a sense, Stephen Colbert – in his Colbert Report persona – was a direct lineal, if parodic, descendent of Wally George.
By the early 1980s, Wally George (born George Walter Pearch in 1931) had been knocking around Southern California radio and TV for decades. (Odd trivia: he was actress Rebecca de Mornay’s estranged father.) His show Hot Seat debuted in 1983 and ran way up in the nosebleed seats on the UHF dial, KDOC Channel 56. There was also a more sedate version of the show on KDOC starting a year earlier and before that on KCOP. That’s where I first starting watching.
It is difficult to convey just how bizarre a figure George was. He wore ill-fitting suits and had a hair helmet hairdo that looked far too preposterous to be real. George’s deep weirdness always made it a bit hard to figure if he could actually be on the level. His studio set had a framed picture of John Wayne behind the lead guest and a poster of the Space Shuttle emblazoned “USA is #1” behind Wally. Like Colbert he was a parody of the hyper-patriotic right-wing blowhard.
Only he was real.
From what I understand, the various iterations of George’s show through the 70s and early 80s had been underwritten by hyper-conservative businessmen from Orange County, then the epicenter of Southern California conservatism. Compared to Hot Seat, which became crazier and more antic over time, the earlier shows were more conventional local affiliate talk shows. They had the clownish, almost parodic conservative chatter but none of the kinetic, pro-wrestling flavor or even violence of Hot Seat in its prime. What happened was that at some point George started developing a following of people – and by ‘people’ here I mean predominantly adolescent boys and young men – who saw him as a ridiculous, hilarious and highly entertaining figure. Here was this oddball guy who looked like a throwback from the 1950s, smack dab in the early 1980s with young fans who – as the show picked up speed and a following – would greet with him chants of “Wal-ly Wal-ly Wal-ly” during the live taping of his show.
There was a weird alchemy between George and his audience that developed from the pre-Hot Seat days and over the course of the Hot Seat’s long run, which I was able to observe as it happened. As his cultish following grew up around him, he evolved into a more and more parodic and bombastic version of the person his fanbase of archeo-Bros, proto-skinheads and drunk college students wanted him to be. It was always a bit hard to make out how much his fans were just making a fool of him, laughing at him, or actually being his fans. But that was the point: there was no distinction. George himself seemed half aware that many or most of his fans thought he was hilarious and ridiculous. Or maybe fully aware. Or maybe not aware at all. Like pro-wrestling these literalist distinctions didn’t seem fully operative in the world of Wally George. The show developed a fairly ritualized model which also shared the basic dynamics of pro-wrestling.
1. Wally invites caricature liberal softie on to the show, or at least someone who was willing to play one for an hour.
2. Liberal says clownish things.
3. Wally berates liberal but liberal persists.
4. Wally’s anger starts to build.
5. Half drunk crowd of 18 to 24 years olds starts chanting “Wal-ly, Wal-ly, Wal-ly” in expectation of the inevitable crescendo.
6. Wally flips and kicks liberal softie off the show, usually escorted by security guard, as crowd whoops and hollers derision.
What can I say? I was like 13 or 14 and it was amazing. Most of the guests were extreme versions of what we now recognize as Fox News left-wingers, people chosen precisely for their discrediting ridiculousness. But he got more serious guests too, ones who went on to national prominence: feminist attorney Gloria Allred, Jerry Brown’s Chief of Staff Grey Davis, himself later governor, media analyst and now journalism professor Jeff Cohen, then with the ACLU.
Over the years, as I wrote more and more about the right, I began to realize that George was like one of those early hominid fossil skeletons which are lineal ancestors of all the diverse permutations of humanity today. Perhaps more apt, he was like that archaic fish who made the first sustained steps out onto land, opening a path for all subsequent terrestrial fauna. If you’ve watched O’Reilly or Colbert or Limbaugh or so many others, you can’t watch the old videos of Wally George on youtube and not say, “Ahhh, yes, I get it now.”
So it is with all this that I come back to the Trump campaign. As the Trump rally antics and violence have grown they too have taken on an increasingly ritualized form.
1. Protesters disrupt Trump rally and create disturbance as angry Trumpites gather around to express anger at caricatured versions of 21st century loser class who threaten their inheritance.
2. Trump engages in brief parley with protesters before calling for them to be ejected with now trademark “Get’em outta here!” (Sort of the paramilitary version of the once iconic, corporate “You’re fired!”)
3. Crowd ecstatic as security guards escort protestors out through a sort of Tea Party walk of shame, eventually along an aisle which is actually a gauntlet of jeering and taunts.
4. Self-selected Trumpite assaults protester being led out of arena, bringing the ritual to a conclusion.
So, parodic left-wing protester, fight, ejection, ritual violence, symbolic confirmation of Trump’s role as destroyer of bad guys and losers.
Trump’s rallies too are quickly becoming as ritualized as pro-wrestling. I very much doubt the first protesters at Trump rallies knew this would emerge as the model, and likely the same for his supporters. But at this point all the protesters pretty much get this drill, as do the Trump supporters. Do we think the guy who assaulted the protester on the way out of the arena in Tucson last night hadn’t seen the video of John McGraw assaulting the protester in Fayetteville earlier this month? Of course he had. Do protesters who go to Trump rallies now know there’s a decent chance they’ll get clocked by a Trump supporter and end up on a viral video? Of course they do. Others are simply there for the show. The woman on Twitter who shot the second video in this post said: “Went to the Trump rally just to see how crazy it would be……..this is insane”
This is not to equate the protesters and the Trump supporters. But each are now filling increasingly defined roles in the recurring drama. As I said last weekend, the rallies and the ritual are drawing in people who want trouble, above and beyond the normal run of Trumpites. How much demand do you think there will be for aisle seats at future Trump rallies?
If you were anyone watching Wally George in the early 80s, you watch these viral videos from the Trump rallies and think “Ahh, yep, I totally remember this.” The common denominator of blonde/grey/dyed helmet hair is only an additional touch. Indeed, the Trump rally game is almost old hat if you’ve seen Wally George, pro-wrestling or Roller Derby. Only this time it’s a show revolving around the guy who is almost certainly going to be the Republican nominee for President. And it is playing out on an infinitely bigger stage, with an overlay of resentment and desire for payback that puts it in an altogether different league.