Misty and I were late to the game but we finished American Crime Story: The People vs. O. J. Simpson a few nights ago. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it, and how much I’d forgotten/never known about the trial. It’s also a surprisingly timely docudrama of a trial that happened in 1994. It offers insight into the social forces currently shaping our country. The parallels between O.J. Simpson’s trial and Donald Trump’s election are glaring. They only become harsher as the final of the ten episodes and overall trial come to their ends.
It’s useful to look at these intersections in search of reflections and harbingers of the social, ideological and other disconnections and continuing threads in our society that lead to votes for people like Simpson and Trump.
First, the prosecution. We have Marcia Clark, an accomplished woman who is criticized and ridiculed for being an accomplished woman, and Christopher Darden, who provided the little cultural insight the prosecution had and, as a result of its being ignored, is demonized as an Uncle Tom. I will refrain from making comparisons to Hillary and Obama here, but the pairs share a fault: believing voters/jurors are reasonable people who will put their communities above personal animus. That is clearly not the case, and it’s why The People of California and The People of the United States lost in the end.
Now, the defense and the president. We have two wealthy men with little respect for the law or women surrounded by a cabal of advisers and lawyers who subvert the truth for their own ends. Indeed, like the Trump campaign and administration, O.J.’s lawyers don’t argue the facts. Instead, they float “alternative facts” and conspiracy theories that are ridiculous, easily disproven and yet all too attractive to certain segments of the population. They offer a more attractive, if far less true or coherent, narrative.
The trial made O.J. as much a reality TV star as Celebrity Apprentice did Trump. Their respective coteries’ infighting only needs a few more cameras and a broadcast agreement with a major network to qualify as one as well. Both play(ed) the media well. Maybe Kardashian plays the role of the regretful voter. They also both have horrible taste – gold-on-gold in the Oval Office for Trump and a statue of himself in O.J.’s backyard. These are sick men. The TV possibilities and aesthetic insults of the trial and presidency, however, are the least insidious.
Both men’s wins were driven by racism, to a large degree. The jury followed Johnnie Cochran’s pipe-playing to a not-guilty verdict based on anger and sticking it to the LAPD and white people rather than serving justice. Trump was elected largely by white rural voters motivated by racism and nationalism (America first, which means “white America first”).
The most crucial similarity, though, may be both Trump and O.J.’s snookering of their supporters by playing to their basest beliefs. Instead of being offended by the use of divisive language, those who voted for Trump’s presidency and O.J.’s acquittal accepted their playacting at being just like their supporters when they are, in fact, diametrically opposed. They’ve lived lives disconnected from the wider population by design. They aren’t like us or serving us.
The wealthy, Manhattan-dwelling real estate/reality TV mogul is one with the working class rural voter. The wealthy, Brentwood-dwelling football player/B-actor suffered the same discrimination at the hands of the NFL and Hollywood that other blacks face throughout their lives. Yeah, right. As Ta Nehisi Coates writes about O.J.’s relationship with the wider black community, “Since Simpson’s practices show he clearly has no interest in the affairs of black people, the question becomes why do blacks have any interest in him?” O.J., like Trump, ignored the plight of regular folks until it served his purposes to mobilize them for his own profit. Coates goes on to say,
“The goings-on in the ghettos of L.A. were both more knowable and better explored—but not by O. J. Simpson. He eschewed involvement in any sort of politics that might tarnish his brand, and thus his pursuit of wealth.”
O.J. didn’t need black people until he needed their votes. Same goes for Trump.
Poor white voters are similarly enthralled by Trump, even if he’s never known the financial poverty (poverty of the soul is another matter) they experience. Unlike Houdini in O.J,’s favorite book, the only thing Trump tries to escape from is responsibility. He’s undoubtedly lied under oath during one of his many bankruptcies or defamation trials; he’s blamed the generals for a compromised – and fatal for one soldier and numerous others – mission in Yemen he authorized; he even tried to lie about donating money to veterans’ causes when he hadn’t – proof that he had no need for the working class, military members or anyone outside his company until he needed their votes, and that’s only because the law required them.
It’s not the fault of O.J. or Trump that they came out on top.
At bottom, it’s the jury’s and American voters’ decisions to stick it to The Man no matter the consequences and who they hurt (the Goldmans, the Browns, immigrant families, the families of fallen soldiers and many others to come) because they were unhappy with their lives. Their votes may not improve their lives, but it will give them the pleasure of watching others suffer/abhor the injustice. You can already see it as they engage in schadenfreude upon seeing Trump sign ill-considered executive orders and their effects. They cheer while those most affected cry or stand stunned.
I can’t imagine Trump voters taking kindly to being compared to black, not-guilty-voting O.J. jurors. But there it is.
° ° °
Were O.J. and Donald Trump to go into business together, they would likely try to sell Gatorade as a replacement for water. In this world, however, we can only hope they share a jail cell.