How Jerry Springer led to the rise of Donald Trump

When the news broke this week that, after 27 years, The Jerry Springer Show was being cancelled, my reaction — like a lot of people I suspect — was, “Is that still on?”

Back when I wrote for The Toronto Sun, I remember arriving for an interview with Springer 15 years or so ago when he made a promotional stop in Toronto. Upon my arrival at the designated hotel, there was no chair tossing, only warmth and good humour. My memory is that Springer was a very reasonable, relaxed, happy millionaire who had tapped into the secret of attracting mass audiences on television: shame.

Springer embraced what a lot of us didn’t want to accept — that viewers never get tired of seeing other people humiliated on television.

It’s what drives magazine sales at checkout stands — seeing famous people — members of the Royal Family — or beautiful people — especially the holy trinity of Jennifer Aniston, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie — made to look like losers. It is apparently how many people who buy groceries are able to feel better about themselves and go on with their lives.

For them and others, the Springer Show was a daily dose of catharsis, and Jerry knew he was providing a valued public service. While he once apologized for “ruining the culture,” he looked like a man who slept well at night, who was OK being the P.T. Barnum of the freak show that was America’s underbelly.

What that led to, 20 years ago, was Survivor, Temptation Island, The Bachelor, The Swan (shudder) and dozens of other reality shows where shame and humiliation are part of the brand.

What it also may have inadvertently led to was the political rise of Donald Trump. In Springer, you had a former mayor of Cincinnati down in the muck with America’s riff-raff and not getting any of the icky stuff on him. It showed that the anti-elite, the great unwashed, were looking for a leader and that if you were their guy, you could go far.

Think of it this way: there is a through line from, “Jerry! Jerry! Jerry!” to “Lock ‘er up! Lock ‘er up! Lock ‘er up!” Springer gave voice daily to millions of frustrated, disenfranchised viewers. He was the anti-Oprah, preaching to groups who were in many ways fed up with the usual sermon about empowerment and enlightenment.

That his show is finally being cancelled is probably due to the fact that Springer’s audience has a new, more powerful man to follow: Trump.

If Democrats wanted to fight fire with fire, they’d nominate Springer in 2020. He’d be Bernie with better hair. Forget that he was born in The UK (in a subway station!) and is therefore ineligible. There are no more rules. “Jerry! Jerry! Jerry!”

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