With all due respect to pundits who write about "transformative moments" and "tipping points," I'm not sure that such phenomena exist any more. In this digital age, change is accumulative. One can intuit change by studying pop culture as it shifts and morphs, long before there's a big-bang moment that seems to indicate a massive rearrangement.
Take Donald Trump. Or as NBC is saying, "Please, just take him, we don't want him around our network." That's because of the outrageous racist propaganda he's been spewing in his ludicrous circus act of a bid for the Republican presidential nomination.
Jon Stewart may refer to Trump as "clownstick" and it's true that Trump is laughably unsuited to hold any office except village idiot of American capitalism, but his TV career is an interesting story.
It's over, that career. It was over years ago. What Trump is doing now is a craven attempt at re-establishing his name and polishing his brand. Such as it is.
Trump's impact on TV is anchored in The Apprentice. A competitive business-reality show with the prize being a job for a year running one of Trump's companies, it started airing on NBC in January, 2004. And it was an immediate hit.
The air date is relevant. It was a period of wild optimism about the Wild West that was Wall Street at the time. The public was fascinated by outrageous sales tactics and the astonishing wealth of young people working in banking, the stock market and real estate.
The contestants on The Apprentice instinctively played up the image of ruthless sharks willing to do anything, bend any rule to make a fortune. The more outlandish the tactics and business savvy, the more popular the contestant as temporary reality-TV icon.
By 2008, when a financial crisis changed everything, The Apprentice was dead as a TV phenomenon. It had lost its novelty value and the public was wary of business sharks and tycoons who had, in fact, led the world to the brink of financial disaster. The opulence celebrated by Trump and coveted by Apprentice contestants was obnoxious, not representative of exuberance.
And by the way, at about the time The Apprentice was fading, in fall, 2007, Jordan Belfort's memoir The Wolf of Wall Street was published – a cautionary tale about an ambitious guy who went from apprentice at a brokerage house to heading his own investment firm, and then on to jail and ruin.
The Apprentice was replaced in 2008 by The Celebrity Apprentice, essentially a cartoon version of the original and a show about celebrities of varying fame and accomplishment competing to win money for a charitable organization of their choice.
The Celebrity Apprentice never had the same appeal as the original because the viewing public was disgusted already by Wall Street antics and that dynamic was not an option for the series. It has fitfully remained on the air thanks to a standard curiosity about has-been celebrities and an opportunity to see more contemporary celebrities outside of their usual roles. Also, in pure capitalist terms, it has been an extremely cheap show for NBC to produce.
What Trump has been doing since the original Apprentice faded away is two things. First, he's been using politics to market himself. Every clumsy, loudmouth foray into U.S. politics is less about a political agenda than it is about furthering his fame, allowing him to charge even more money to lend his name to golf courses, hotels or whatever else he endorses. It's about him staying in the public eye as a celebrity.
Ironically, what he's doing is mimicking the behaviour of the brash, attention-seeking candidates on the original version of The Apprentice.
Secondly, he's articulating a longing for the pre-2008 period of rampant, less-regulated capitalist schemes. That's when he made a lot of money. That's when all his brazen crassness and vulgar opulence was something to be admired, not abhorred, as it is now.
In this, Trump is again a representative figure. While his racist remarks about Mexico are loathsome, there is this other thing about him that's troubling. Every time he's on TV, he represents those people who want the post-2008 period in business wiped out. Politics is just a vehicle to peddle that notion.
A "clownstick" Trump might be, but he was zeitgeist-archetype before and, that he might be now, is worrying.
Even would-be village idiots can be figures who tell us what's happening, long before tipping points occur.