Jonah Goldberg is out today with a piece that he pushed on Twitter as “Muhammad Ali and the birth of bragging culture.”
It’s fair to say that our culture has become less humble and more cocky, and that if one were charting the course of this trend, Ali’s arrival on the scene could be seen from outer space. He was a pioneer in the art of showmanship, but he didn’t invent it—he merely perfected it.
Even before the turmoil that was the 1960s, we had gone from a time when candidates stood for office to a time when they ran for office. But when Ali ran all over the competition, he paved the way for imitators in the world of sports and entertainment. And, it turns out, in politics. Culture is upstream from politics, so it was just a matter of time until our politicians reflected our culture—which is arrogant and ostentatious. Likewise, it was just a matter of time until someone compared Ali, who died last week, to today’s trash talker, Donald Trump, who once declared: “Every once in a while, you like to brag a little big.”
Could it be that bragging—and belittling one’s opponents—is now just part of the gig? Showmanship is at least as important as substance, and sportsmanship is obsolete. This is essentially the message that a lot of Trump fans are espousing today. The idea is that traditional conservatives are too nice and polite; they play by the rules and lose. The lesson is to throw humility and decorum out the window. To win, we are told, you’ve got to be meaner, more provocative, and more salacious—on Twitter and during interviews—than your enemies.
Like Trump, Ali was a master at public relations. He understood that just being good (and he was very good) isn’t enough. He understood that you had to feed the media beast, craft narratives, and define your opponents. Here’s something I wrote in 2011 after Joe Frazier died:
Joe Frazier was a poor black kid from Beaufort, South Carolina, who made his bones on the mean streets of Philadelphia, working at a meat-packing factory. Ali, conversely, was from a relatively middle class (some would say working class) family background. In any regard, Frazier’s experience was likely much more similar to the experience of most American blacks of his era. Yet he was portrayed as the “Uncle Tom.”
It was a punch he never saw coming. And it’s a lesson that just being good at what you do—and being authentic—isn’t enough. In this modern media world (which was rapidly changing during Frazier’s era), you ignore public relations and politics at your own peril.
This, of course, wouldn’t be the first or last time someone with lesser “street cred” persuaded the crowd to turn against someone who was actually the real deal.
I think about Frazier every time I see it happen.
Trump’s comments about Jeb Bush, “Lyin” Ted Cruz, “Little” Marco Rubio, et al., are probably more defensible than what Ali did to Frazier. But the lessons are the same. Buzz and attention matter. Psychological warfare can defeat your enemies. And sometimes you have to step on a few people on your way to the top.
The danger, of course, is that these things are not reserved for entertainers. Trump’s behavior is a microcosm of our culture. He wouldn’t have been rewarded for acting the way he did if his behavior was viewed as repellent. Ali probably couldn’t have won an election in 1970; buying a ticket to a fight was not a tacit endorsement of a pugilist’s rhetorical choices. But Donald Trump is now the presumptive Republican nominee. The GOP owns his behavior.
(An aside: There’s a fine line between boasting about your talent and bragging about the rewards your talent provides. In an ironic way, Trump appeals to a sort of entrepreneurial hip-hop ethos that celebrates, as Lorde put it, “Jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash.” One wonders if Trump’s celebrity appeal, coupled with the aspirational quality associated with conspicuous consumption, might be more compelling to a larger and more diverse audience than most political observers appreciate.)
Ali was once an incredibly divisive and polarizing figure. But he was a winner, and he ended up winning many of his erstwhile critics over, too. In a sense, he preached his own sort of “name it and claim it” prosperity gospel, declaring “I am the greatest.” And he might’ve been. It’ll be interesting to see if Trump can pull off the same feat. “It’s not bragging if you can back it up.”