The ‘60s are often romanticized as the most tumultuous decade in contemporary US history. It is possible, however, that the ‘90s faced as much, albeit different, social upheaval. On 2 August 1990, America led United Nation forces in an invasion of Iraq. On 28 February 1993, agents of the Bureau of Alcohol and Fire Arms attempted to serve arrest and search warrants to David Koresch in Waco, Texas. Koresch was the leader of the Branch Dividians. Leading to a full-on siege that ended on 19 April when Koresch ignited several fires within the compound, killing 76 members.
On the second anniversary of the siege Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols parked a rental truck packed with explosives in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City; 168 people were killed in the explosion. On 12 February 1999 the House of Representatives impeached President Bill Clinton.
All of these events dealt with huge political issues of the exercise of power, both nationally and internationally. Ironically, the single most divisive event during the decade started with the intimate murder of two people.
On 12 June 1994 Nicole Brown-Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman were found murdered outside her Brentwood, Los Angeles home. Brown-Simpson was the ex-wife of NFL Hall of Famer and C-list movie star Orenthal James “O. J.” Simpson. This initiated a 16-month media circus. On 3 October 1995, 12 citizens of the city of Los Angeles exonerated Simpson of the two murders. It was an event that divided the country mostly, but not exclusively, along racial lines. I remember several close friends with whom I could not even discuss the murders with until well over a year.
A child born after the verdict was delivered can now go into a shop in most places in America and buy a fifth of scotch, a six-pack of beer and a carton of cigarettes. While the country has certainly suffered through some major and far more traumatic events, nothing cleaved off a section of the country and segregated citizens from one another quite like these murders. That is until 16 June 2015, when billionaire Donald J. Trump announced he was running for president of the United States. Granted, there are several major differences between a murder, arrest, and trial, and a successful run for presidency—yet in this case, there are a great many parallels, as well. These similarities between O.J. Simpson and Donald Trump provide insight into how American celebrity works.
The most immediate and necessary connection between the two events are the similarities between Simpson and Trump. They emerged from different backgrounds but had obtained an uncanny similar kind of celebrity. In 1968, artist Andy Warhol famously pronounced, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” This suggested a certain banality and artificial quality to celebrity. Both Simpson and Trump’s fame embody these qualities.
Simpson grew up in San Francisco public housing. Trump was born into a third generation wealthy family. Simpson first became famous in 1968 when he won the Heisman Trophy while playing running back for the USC Trojans. Five years later, Trump would get his first taste of the spotlight when his family business was sued by the Department of Justice for racial discrimination. This was, curiously, the same year that Simpson became a superstar in football, becoming the first running back in history to rush for over 2,000 yards in a season. In 1978, Trump had his greatest business success when he was able to leverage his father’s connections and money to remodel the Commodore Hotel into the Grand Hyatt Hotel. In 1985, Simpson was inducted into the Pro-Football Hall of Fame. The same year Trump made his first appearance on 60 Minutes.
Where Simpson and Trump start to develop similarities is when they both decided to leverage their fame into a career in the entertainment industry. Their success reflects a certain amount of innate charisma. Quite a few ex-jocks and famous businessmen have tried to make the same pivot. A few, like ex-football player Michael Strahan and internet maverick Mark Cuban, have had some success. For every Strahan there are hundreds of people like Emmitt Smith, Tiki Barber or Carl Lewis— great athletes who sought the spotlight but got very little traction. On the business side, few business leaders share the same passion for the limelight as either Trump or Cuban, but no one ever succeeded as well as Simpson and Trump, who ended up turning their names into brands.
They share a genius for banality. Simpson’s first introduction to everyone in America other than football fans was in a series of commercials for Hertz Rent-a-Car. The series began with him running through an airport, bag in hand, hurdling and spinning his way through obstacles. He became most famous for his role as Detective Nordberg, a lug of a police detective in the Naked Gun Trilogy, a David and Jerry Zucker movie franchise. His primary function was to be the subject of cartoon-like slapstick. In one scene he rolls down a flight of stairs in a wheelchair at a baseball stadium before being catapulted up in the air. In another he’s shot several times, bumps his head against a pipe, places his hand on a hot stove, gets a window slammed on his other hand, trips into a wedding cake and steps into a bear trap before falling off the side of a ship. When not being subject to a sadistic sense of karma, Simpson, as Norberg, can read as a parody of the successful minority. Through all of the abuse and mistreatment he receives, Norberg keeps his smile and affable disposition.
Throughout the ‘90s Trump would try to stay in the spotlight through appearances on shows like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, or appearing on the Howard Stern Radio Show. For the great majority of his life, he was a minor curiosity. He was a kind of predecessor to Kim Kardashian—famous mainly for being famous. His celebrity really took off when he became the center of a television project called The Apprentice. The reality show premiered on 8 January 2004, with the episode “Meet the Billionaire”. The theme was a collection of young, good looking power business people who would fight for the honor of being his apprentice. In their 28 March 2004 article for the New York Times, “Is Trump Headed for a Fall?” Timothy L. O’Brien and Eric Dash document the collapse of Trump’s publicly traded stock, DJT. The stock was overwhelmed in debt and the stockholders were desperately trying to arrange a buyout. The stock, which was had traded at $34 a share in 1996 bottomed out to $1.51 in 2004, although with the success of The Apprentice, the stock rebounded slightly to $3.40 a share. A year later the stock was delisted. Today it is worthless.
Both Simpson and Trump became a champion for a community that believed itself to be oppressed. Leading up to the trial, Los Angeles had become the epicenter of American’s racial conflict. On 3 March 1991, Rodney King was pulled over by several police men and beaten. The images were captured on video. The acquittal of four police officers led to a week-long series of riots from 29 April through 4 May 1992. So, when Simpson was arrested, he became the personification of justice for both the local Los Angeles community and to a large extent for the entire national African American community.
Trump’s genius, be it deliberate or just by luck, is that he became the great apologist for disaffected white Americans. During his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump took on the moniker “Blue-Collar billionaire”. Trump embraced excessive consumption unfettered by taste or decorum. He cultivated the image of living the life an average working man could live—if he won the Powerball—clearly, a highly condescending view of working class America. Mexicans, liberals, Muslims, elites, bankers, the Chinese, the poor and politicians were all responsible for the stagnation of the American economy and their oppression. This created a political jiu-jitsu where the power of any attack against him got redirected and therefore reinforced his belief that others were trying to oppress him.
A lot of this came from social issues. In 2004, George Bush had won a presidential campaign running against gay marriage. Last year the Supreme court legalized gay marriage throughout the country. Small things like having baristas say “Happy Holidays” and not “Merry Christmas”, became perceived, by some, as insults. This fixation on nomenclature predated Trump. On LGBT issues, many people viewed having to have their teenage son or daughter share a bathroom with a transgendered person as a kin to exposing them to a sexual predator.
This lead to one of the most meaningful links between Simpson and Trump. There’s a big difference between supporting someone and seeing them as embodying your cause. The former allows for some dissent. They (Simpson and Trump) are individuals, and individuals are allowed strengths and flaws. As emblems of movements, as representatives of people who believe they have been neglected and abused, flaws were irrelevant. If anything, hostility toward one’s champion was viewed by some as an extension of all kinds of slights. Through some proportion of blind luck, charisma, and a little political genius, both Simpson and Trump got themselves cast in such a role.
A most disturbing parallel between Clinton and Trump arose from this. Both Simpson and Trump exposed America’s relative antipathy toward violence against women.
As the Simpson crime and trial coverage intensified, many incidents of Nicole Brown-Simpson being beaten by O.J. Simpson came to light. On 25 October 1993, Brown-Simpson stated that her ex-husband, O.J. Simpson, had broken into her house. On 11 January 1995 the prosecution submitted over 85 pages of documentation to support the murder charge. Photos emerged of a bruised Nicole Brown-Simpson. The jury and many among the general population, however, dismissed this evidence as not being relevant to the case.
On 7 October 2016 The Washington Post published a video in which Trump bragged about sexually assaulting women. He’s heard saying, “Yeah, that’s her in the gold. I better use some Tic Tacs just in case I start kissing her. You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful… I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.”
Of course, there are a few differences between Simpson and Trump to be noted. First, Trump and his supporters argued that the video was not a real confession, but just “locker room” talk. After the video was released many women came forward with complaints of sexual harassment against Trump. Shortly thereafter another recording was discovered in which Trump bragged to Howard Stern about how running beauty pageants allowed him to be able to invade the contestant changing rooms. On 8 November 2016, almost 62 million Americans indicated that to their minds, the extreme likelihood of Trump being a sexual predator was not a disqualifying quality for a president of the United States.
The second link between the Simpson trial and Trump’s election campaign emerged through the eagerness of the news media’s willingness to blur the line between entertainment and journalism. Both triggered the public’s imagination and the media outlets—especially the news networks that were eager to exploit this popularity. In talking about the phenomena that was the Simpson trial, CNN’s executive vice president Bob Furnad told the Los Angeles Times on 11 February 1995:
We’re getting high ratings for our trial coverage, and all of our other shows, even on the weekend, are benefiting. But, while this is a good news story and obviously one of high interest, it’s not one of those stories that as a journalist you necessarily feel deserves the audience thirst it’s getting. I’d like to see us get high numbers for covering the revolt in Moscow or the war in Bosnia, stories that affect many people’s lives. But this is clearly a story that people are thirsty for.
Perhaps the most compelling proof of the impact of Simpson on CNN was that the coverage created a business case for CNN’s current competitors. Up until the Simpson trial, CNN was languishing on cable—the feasibility of a 24-hour news network was very much in doubt. Within less than a year, CNN’s two major rivals had launched networks of their own; in 1996, MSNBC and Fox News launched on 15 July and 7 October, respectively. This tension between supply and demand would become a central issue for driving Trump’s campaign. As early as 1 September 2015 The Atlantic’s Adrienne LaFrance observed:
Whether this is because the media is doing its duty or because news organizations are capitalizing on Trump’s bombast for ratings and traffic is a matter of debate. But one thing is clear: Trump is getting outsized attention compared with his opponents.
At that time, no one considered Trump a serious candidate for president. Up to that point, all he had done pronounce that a wall should be built across the southern US border, and said—in a dig at Senator John McCain—that being captured by combatant enemies disqualified someone from being a war hero.
The final link between the two persons is how they each galvanized their supporters. In the case of Simpson, the population centered on race. Carl Bielik’s article, “Most Black People Now Think O.J. was Guilty” (FiveThirtyEight) showed just how stark the divide was. In 1995, multiple polls showed that between 60 and 80 percent of whites believed that Simpson was guilty only between 20 and 40 percent thought he was not guilty. The percentages were almost reversed for black people. About 20 to 45 percent believed him to be guilty, and 55 to 80 percent thought he was not guilty. (Currently, 50 percent of black people surveyed believe Simpson to be guilty.)
This triggered a backlash. People who viewed Simpson as guilty, could not imagine how anyone could honestly think he was innocent. Many believed, ironically. that he was only exonerated because he was black. Most of the people who believed that Simpson was guilty assumed that bias informed the jury decision. This dynamic played out in Trump’s campaign, as well. Where many of the people who did not vote for him view him as nothing more than a con-artist. In fairness, his opponent Hillary Clinton generated hostility among the population, as well.
Trump has actually generated a far more significant backlash than Simpson did, however, although it’s based less on race than gender. If you believe in the sexual autonomy of women, 2016 has been one really bad year. Trump’s “pussy grabbing tirade” was just the last in a series of events where sexual assault against women has been trivialized. Martin Blake of Glasgow, Montana was given a six-month sentence for multiple rapes of his 12-year-old daughter. Stanford swimmer Brock Turner was given six months in jail for rape.
Both events are over. Both Simpson and Trump won. The aftermath of Simpson’s victory offers no illusion of what was in store for the country. Simpson became a social pariah. For the next four years, barring impeachment or death, Trump is going to be in the spotlight.
There’s a much more esoteric difference between these two men that has very dangerous practical manifestations. Even if Simpson was guilty, and his acquittal was a miscarriage of justice, it’s the kind of miscarriage that is a function, not a fault of the American judicial system. If Trump’s win was a subversion of democracy, as many of his critics suggest, it’s a subversion that is caustic to a democratic society.
Trump and his supporters were absolutely right to fear that as white men in America, they are losing power. In 2014, The Washington Post reported on a survey of all elected officials in the United States; 65 percent were white men. This contrasts with white men making up only about 35 percent of the population. To about 46 percent of the population, Trump’s election marks a victory of democracy over its corruption by political parties. To about the same amount, Trump’s election can be read as the first step in the dismantling of democracy. Perhaps this is the ultimate parallel between the men. Either Simpson was or was not guilty. Either Trump fulfills or destroys democracy. There is no middle ground.