The (Orange) Juice is Loose!: Is Trump the new OJ?

ALLYSON KO / AGGIE

How the Trump Era evolved out of the OJ Simpson saga

If the OJ Simpson ordeal had not occurred and was instead a work of fiction produced decades from now, people might say something like, “You know, I think this might actually be a rough allegory for the Trump Era.”

Of course, this wouldn’t be possible, because without The Juice, we wouldn’t have The Donald. After finally watching “American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson,” I realized that today’s circumstances are more than just analogous to the OJ saga — they are directly derived from it.

Many of the same elements from the OJ moment, like aggravated racial tensions, are now being carried to parody-level extremes. During the trial, prosecutor Marcia Clark experienced much of the same sexism and unjust criticism that Hillary Clinton faces, even long after the election. We also witness an endless stream of strange, recurring side characters, like Spicoli-in-vivo Kato Kaelin, Dr. Harold Bornstein and Rudy Giuliani. Lawyer Alan Dershowitz actually pops up in both stories, first as counsel to OJ and today as a dinner pal of Trump, but always as a talking head on the news shows — albeit a bit less ginger and “mustachey” than he was two decades ago.

Today’s extreme absurdities are possible because the frenzied fervor with which America ate up the OJ saga, a tasty appetizer for today’s all-consuming chaos, did nothing except scream, “WE WANT MORE OF THIS.” Our fixation on OJ heightened our demand for numbingly absurd entertainment, cultivating the new media environment that would allow Trump to stick. More importantly, it created a precedent for the notion of an iconic hero synonymous with success standing up to the perceived corrupt establishment.

The moment that TV producers put the NBA Finals in the corner box in order to broadcast the Bronco chase forever changed our relationship with the media. Networks had to cover the chase, as well as the many months of the murder trial. It was the first time on the national stage that our collective obsessions with celebrity, crime and sports were fused into an easily digestible form of 24/7 entertainment.

After the OJ trial, our demand for this continued to grow, creating a type of sensation inflation that devalued our discourse, fueled reality TV and cable news and made celebrities out of undeserving people. The Kardashian siblings are only famous because their father, Robert, was OJ’s best friend and legal counsel. So obviously we need to “keep up” with his kids, right?

This leads to Donald Trump. Before the 90s, Trump gained fame for making the Forbes 400 (lying about his assets to inflate his wealth), writing hit books like “The Art of the Deal” (being shadowed by a ghostwriter), succeeding (and failing) as a real estate mogul (while discriminating against black renters) and being an oddball, outspoken talk show guest (getting incessantly mocked by David Letterman). Trump had a reputation, but his business-themed reality show “The Apprentice” provided the crucial final ingredient in crafting his aura. Here, Trump could sit around looking like an expert and serve as a powerful symbol of success, which helped give him a type of fame similar to that enjoyed by OJ in his post-football acting career.

The respective sociopolitical environments were also pivotal in developing strong supporter bases for each figure. OJ was a popular and successful black man being tried for murder in post-Rodney King Los Angeles, while Trump entered politics as a reactionary force in Obama’s “post-racial” America, garnering some of his earliest political support by propagating the racist birther lie.

The contradictory racial attitudes that Trump and OJ symbolize complicate this comparison, but examining their defense tactics and their supporters’ perception of them shows how Trump fulfills the role of a modern OJ. Based on facts and evidence, OJ was clearly guilty, but his legal team exploited emotion over rationality, obscuring and discrediting facts, just like Trump does today. Trump and his surrogates lie with impunity and are trying to smear Robert Mueller, while OJ’s team disputed the DNA evidence and exposed detective Mark Fuhrman, a key witness, as a blatant racist (bizarrely enough, he’s a semi-frequent guest on “Hannity”).

Supporters came to view Trump and OJ as folk heroes standing up to “corrupt” institutions intent on framing them. With so much doubt, the trial became about the black community getting a win over the LAPD (or today, MAGA supporters over the “Swamp”) instead of about the actual crime.

It’s quite ironic that the primary defense strategy in both cases has been to distract, confuse and exploit, but that today, these tactics are part of the alleged collusion crime itself. This proves just how many levels deep into parody we now find ourselves and makes it clear that this comparison fits like a glove.

 

 

Written by: Benjamin Porter — bbporter@ucdavis.edu

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