Juan Williams: What Tiger King tells us about Trump's America

Andrew Breitbart, the late rightwing media provocateur who became a friend of mine when we did debates, once famously remarked that politics is downstream from American culture.

So, what does it say about our politics when the most popular show on Netflix right now, when everyone is staying home due to coronavirus, is “Tiger King”?

The documentary is a cultural phenomenon with its carnival of characters involved with murder-for-hire, animal cruelty, and gay polygamy.


It even caught the attention of O.J. Simpson — a celebrity familiar with sensational murders. He tweeted that one character fed her missing husband to the big cats as “Tiger Sashimi.”

When I asked a Washington wiseman about the political message coming from the show’s success, he tried to stop the conversation. “Why do you bring politics into everything?” he asked.

I then reminded him that the central character in “Tiger King,” ran for political office twice.

‘Joe Exotic,’ the gun-toting zookeeper, got 19 percent of the vote in the 2018 Libertarian primary for governor of Oklahoma.

And two years earlier, Joe Exotic, also known as Joe Maldonado-Passage, got nearly a thousand votes for President of the United States.

His third-party presidential run got attention on “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.”  The HBO host described the tiger tamer as the “candidate you’d like to sit down and have a beer with, and then another beer and then several more beers…”

Joe Exotic’s attraction as a candidate is the latest evidence of the power of celebrity in today’s politics.

After all, Donald TrumpDonald TrumpFormer New York state Senate candidate charged in riot Trump called acting attorney general almost daily to push election voter fraud claim: report GOP senator clashes with radio caller who wants identity of cop who shot Babbitt MORE, a self-promoting reality television star with no political experience, won Oklahoma in 2016 with 65 percent of the vote on his way to winning the presidency.

Celebrity politics roared again last week when a reporter asked Trump if he would consider pardoning the ‘Tiger King,’ who is currently in jail after being convicted of plotting to murder a rival.

Culture and politics are now so mixed together that they can’t be separated. That’s the reality of American politics in 2020.

We’ve reached an extreme where the president, in the middle of national crisis, happily brags that his daily televised briefings from the White House get high ratings on par with the finale of “The Bachelor,” and "Monday Night Football."

As the conservative editorial page at The Wall Street Journal wrote last week, Trump has turned briefings intended to inform people about the crisis into “a showcase for him…[a] substitute in his mind for campaign rallies…the briefings are now all about the president.”

More precisely, the briefings are now a televised platform for his stroking his ego and promoting his re-election campaign. He even awarded himself the brassy title of “Wartime President.”

With cameras on him for more than an hour, he pursues grudges, including raging at governors who fail to praise him. In the middle of a global pandemic the TV audience can see him trash the World Health Organization, shifting blame from his own slow response to the pandemic.

How can Democrats create a reality show to compete with the Trump show?

To flip the script, Democrats need to outdo Trump with a more fascinating show featuring their own heroes and villains.

“Tiger King” provides the script outline for how Democrats can replace Trump as the leading man in contemporary political culture.

The new storyline was written by Amanda Green, the U.S. attorney who got a red-state, Oklahoma jury to convict Joe Exotic of hiring a hitman to kill his rival.

In a made-for-TV closing statement, Green said Joe Exotic built his fame by deceiving people and abusing tigers to build “his own kingdom,” and convince people he was a real “Tiger King.” In Trump-like style he boasted, he lied, attacked critics and fed his ego with an internet television show.

Green got the jury to shift from fascination with Joe Exotic to revulsion with a bully who took advantage of people because he got to make “all the rules… He decided he would protect the kingdom at all costs. It’s your job to make sure that no one, not even the Tiger King, is above the laws of the United States.”

Imagine if Green had been the lead attorney for Trump’s impeachment over the Ukraine scandal.


Instead of Trump depicting himself as a hero under attack from evil Democrats led by “Shifty-Schiff” [Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffOfficers offer harrowing accounts at first Jan. 6 committee hearing Live coverage: House panel holds first hearing on Jan. 6 probe Five things to watch as Jan. 6 panel begins its work MORE (D-Calif.), the lead House prosecutor] Green would have called out Trump as a “Paper Tiger,” another fake concerned only with protecting his power.

With that vivid talk, she would have created the kind of made-for-TV moment that gripped a jury in Oklahoma and turned Joe Exotic into a villain behind bars.

America’s fascination with Joe Exotic fills me with fear that we may not have seen the height of celebrity politics with Trump. One day we may look back at Trump as a relatively dignified character given the excesses of the next generation of celebrity politicians.

If the Democrats want to prevent the next wave of charlatans from presenting themselves as heroes fighting the establishment, they can begin by recasting Trump, Red State America’s current hero, as the villain.

A highly entertaining villain but nonetheless, a villain. 

Juan Williams is an author, and a political analyst for Fox News Channel