Trump presidency provokes unlikely cultural boom

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL February 23, 2017
Donald Trump is big business for the media. Karen Bleier / AFP

Donald Trump is big business for the media. Karen Bleier / AFP

Donald Trump really is good for business but not in the way you might think. The new United States president may or may not be able to help America’s declining coal industry. However much he deregulates non-renewable fuel sources, coal is unlikely to come roaring back. This is chiefly because shale gas offers solid competition. In 2015, coal had just a 33 per cent share of US electricity generation, down from nearly 45 per cent in the 1970s.

As for the US steel industry, it can’t really do much better whatever Mr Trump’s interventions. US steel production is at the same level it’s been for decades — 90 million to 120 million tonnes per year — even though it accounts for fewer jobs because of efficiency gains. But Mr Trump really is good for business. Various sectors find themselves flourishing, not least the business of political podcasts. Dozens of new ones are being put out by media outlets in an attempt to explain and understand Mr Trump, the America he leads and the effect his policies are having both on his supporters and critics.

These include Trumpcast from Slate magazine, the fact-checking Can He Do That? from The Washington Post, the unity-seeking Indivisible from the New York public radio station WNYC, Minnesota Public Radio and The Economist, and Intercepted by investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill. Last year, market analyst Edison Research said that 21 per cent of Americans over the age of 12 — roughly 57 million people — had listened to at least one podcast in the past month. If this figure rises exponentially, podcasts may become a sunshine sector.

Mr Trump is also proving to be good for the business of satire. Though firmly into middle age, the American late-night TV comedy show Saturday Night Live has been enjoying a giddy romp with newly attentive audiences. One of its recent offerings had the show’s highest ratings in 22 years.

Struggling short-fiction writers also have better prospects with publications wanting to imagine the future rather than pore over the present. The Trump Story Project, which got its first outing on January 31, featured Ben H Winters. His New York Times bestselling novel Underground Airlines portrayed a world full of smartphones and social networking but with one crucial difference — the Civil War never occurred in the US and slavery was never abolished. Now, he turns his talents to Mr Trump’s America.

Meanwhile, long-dead authors are getting a new lease of life. Sales of George Orwell, Hannah Arendt and Sinclair Lewis’s books are soaring. Last month ended with Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here becoming the 26th most-purchased book on Amazon. It is an engaging read about the rise of an authoritarian fascist in the US. Orwell’s 1984 has always been popular (just not quite this much), featuring in the top 100 of Amazon’s most-ordered books for the last three years. But it is the trendiness of Arendt that proves the astonishing Trump effect. Having fled Germany for America, Arendt wrote the dense tome titled The Origins of Totalitarianism to explain the elements in society that led to the rise of Stalinism and Nazism. According to data from Nielsen BookScan, it normally sells about 50 copies across America every week but within four weeks of Mr Trump’s November 8 election win, it was changing hands at 16 times that rate. University professors in the US and the UK are reporting that their students are more interested in Arendt’s work — and her words, especially for social media dissemination — than at any time they can remember.

Media outlets that attract Mr Trump’s wrath are also gaining business, with Vanity Fair’s new subscriptions soaring a hundred-fold in December after a kerfuffle over a Trump Tower restaurant review. The New York Times, which the president repeatedly describes as “failing”, has said new subscribers have surged by the tens of thousands.

The Trump effect appears to be beneficial not just for products. It is also raising the profile and desirability of a range of service providers. Lawyers are increasingly being viewed more kindly. The American Civil Liberties Union, whose lawyers challenged Mr Trump’s travel ban on citizens from seven mainly Muslim countries, received $24 million, six times its annual average, in online donations in just one weekend.

Others who have gained include obscure psychiatrists, lowly fact-checkers and those who have long tried to make lexicography hip. After one of the president’s aides used the phrase “alternative facts”, Merriam-Webster dictionary weighed in with the reminder that some definitions aren’t subjective and gained tremendous social media cred.

And if Mr Trump has been good for those who have somewhat despairingly pitched right-wing ideas for years, he’s also been energising for left-wingers. They have been shocked out of their complacency and are being forced to restate the case for things such as trade unions and tree-hugging. It’s clear there is an overwhelming Trump effect on many industries, although perhaps not the expected ones.