Last year there were two amazing shows produced about the O.J. trial. The narrative version, The People Vs. O.J. Simpson, and O.J. Made in America, the documentary, together make up all of 17 hours of television that is all well worth your time. This is goes doubly so for the documentary, which gives us a gripping sociohistorical view of the last quarter of the 20th Century and the rich tapestry that provides the O.J. story such deep cultural resonance. The O.J. story is a rich intertwining of Americana – celebrity, domestic violence, race, tv, a media circus, money, a brain damaged sociopath, city ravaged by a history of racial profiling and corruption, and a public that was fed up with it all.
I think that to watch this documentary, you can get a harbinger, a microcosmic impression through a media-circus kaleidoscope, of a country that is preparing for a phenomena like President Trump. The social forces at work in letting Simpson off the hook are the same ones – if the racial vectors are switched from black to white – that elected Donald Trump. So that Trump too is a story of all of those same things – celebrity, domestic violence, race, tv, a media circus, money, a brain damaged sociopath, cities ravaged by racial profiling and corruption and a public that was fed up with it all.
What the hell was the jury thinking in 1995? In the short version of it, the jury was a carefully crafted group, selected by Johnnie Cochran and F. Lee Baily. It was clear to them that the forensic evidence against O.J. was overwhelming – bloody gloves, DNA, footprints, blood drops in the Bronco – the Juice was doomed. So it was clear that the defense needed Johnny, who spent a career fighting police corruption and their systematic terrorization of the black community for decades, to come in and play the race card. He stacked the jury with African Americans. Marcia Clark thought she could win over women jurors regardless of race, and would play the narrative that the case was about domestic violence. It is clear which narrative won: race trumped domestic violence. And incredulously, against the apparent open and shut forensic evidence, the jury bought the crude homespun narrative of the defense – the police were framing the Juice!
Essentially, the deep irony of it all is that the jury let Simpson off the hook because of his blackness, which is something that he himself had been running from his whole life. In doing this, the jury rejected Reason. They rejected science. They rejected truth. They also rejected the historical corruption of the judicial system. They rejected the police. They rejected a system of law that had persecuted them. They voted for no confidence in this culture of the LAPD. The not guilty verdict would be a symbolic repudiation of racist cops, of systematic brutality committed at the end of their billy clubs and the disproportionate, systematic incarceration of African Americans for decades. It was irrational, but it felt right. It was a post-truth verdict.
So, to Trump … what were the voters thinking? The voters were propelled by an energized base of resentful whites: the disenfranchised middle America, the losers of globalization, towns torn apart by the ghosts of American manufacturing, ravaged by Oxycontin, alcohol, firearms. Praying for relief that would never come. They brought in their version of Johnny Cochran, the forces of the Alt-Right, which would play the race card, this time against foreigners, Muslims, Mexicans, dividing the nation along nativist lines and birtherism. Didn’t matter that this was a phony narrative, it just felt right to them. Never mind that the jobs aren’t really coming back, it just felt right to believe so. It was a repudiation of the system, they rejected the political system, elites, college. They rejected politics, K Street, the disproportionate favoring of elites on the coasts. The rich white tough-talking, toxic masculine authority figure was trusted to whip it back into shape. It was irrational, but it felt right. It was a post-truth election.
So what happened with O.J. in the end? The forces that liberated O.J. then abandoned him. He was a symbolic “eff-you” in that trial from a hurting community. But once his symbolic purpose was fulfilled, he was disposed of. Later Simpson would be successfully sued for 33 million dollars by the Goldmans in a civil trial. Simpson would live like a ghost, wandering around the underworld as a notorious killer who got away, appearing on late night tv, adult videos, and talk radio, the fringes of junk celebrity culture. He created money havens to resist paying Goldman, who himself got little money and continued to mourn his son as he worked in a department store. Simpson colluded with some other idiots trying to steal back some sports memorabilia from a collector at a Vegas hotel. He was given a ridiculous 33 year jail sentence for this crime and is doing time in Nevada. It was the court’s obvious reprisal for his earlier escape of justice. The racial divide would remain. Marcia Clark’s narrative would remain swept under the rug – it was about domestic violence.
Time will yet tell what will happen to Trump. If history is a guide, and the O.J. analogy complete, Trump’s symbolic election as a repudiation of Reason, democracy and American society will run out. It’s one thing to have a protest election, another question altogether to actually govern (as the folks in Egypt have learned as well.) Trump’s novelty, like all consumer products, will begin to wane, and he will be disposed of. The forces that elevated him will abandon him, and begin to champion another celebrity, another product. He will be the world’s most notorious thief. Trump will remain rich, and probably return to his true home – late night tv, wrestling events, talk radio and reality tv junk culture. He will continue his tax havens, and advance his name brand. Or, perhaps some other form of justice will catch up to him, his many enemies will want a piece of the action. The racial divides will remain. Oh, and the women he groped and assaulted, all that will be swept under the rug, along with all the domestic violence he’s done.