In Don DeLillo’s brilliant satire of modern American culture, White Noise, there's a scene where two characters stand outside a popular tourist attraction, "The Most Photographed Barn in America." They notice that the photographers who gather there now do not take pictures of the barn; they take pictures of each other taking pictures. One of the characters says, “What was the barn like before it was photographed? What did it look like, how was it different from other barns, how was it similar to other barns? We can’t answer these questions because we’ve read the signs, seen the people snapping the pictures. We can’t get outside the aura. We’re part of the aura. We’re here, we’re now.” The barn has become beside the point; all that matters now is this “aura”—the noise that surrounds the thing and not the thing itself.
I was reminded of this scene a few days ago, when my Beloved Chicago Cubs opened up a four-game series against the Loathsome Cardinals in St. Louis. Early in the game—the second inning, maybe—Cubs shortstop Addison Russell dove into the stands attempting to catch a foul ball. He didn’t make the catch, but he did manage to obliterate a plate of nachos held by a Cardinals fan.
Like any play where an athlete manages to land in the crowd, the announcers seized on this moment, and showed multiple (and I mean multiple) replays of the incident and its signature images: Russell launching himself horizontally; the fan recoiling, face contorted, large plate of loaded nachos precariously balanced on his left hand; Russell’s foot kicking said plate into a cloudburst of chips and cheese.
At that very moment, the fifteen-minute clock started for 21-year-old Andrew Gudermuth, the owner of said former nachos.
What quickly became clear was that the announcers were much less interested in Russell’s fearless effort—putting himself in harm’s way unnecessarily (it was a foul ball and the Cubs were up 5-0)—than in the destruction of the nachos. It made its way onto the Jumbotron, and the “evolution” of Gudermuth’s fame proceeded rapidly over the next few innings. Some highlights:
- Stadium officials delivered a new plate of nachos to him (replayed on camera, of course)
- Addison Russell delivered a new plate of nachos to him (also replayed on camera)
- Gudermuth took a selfie with Russell and posted to Twitter
- Gudermuth changed his Twitter handle to “nacho man” (not sure if this was his original idea or in response to the announcers use of the moniker).
- The hashtag #nachoman was born as people began retweeting this selfie
- Nachoman made it onto the fan cam
- Nachoman was interviewed about the nachos he received, at which point we learned that the Cardinals-bought nachos were “loaded” while the Cubs-bought nachos had only “a cup of cheese”
During the 7th inning or so, as the Cubs continued to soundly drub the Abhorred Cardinals, the announcers once again checked in with Nachoman, whose fame had reached new heights (or lows, depending on your point of view).
Specifically, people in the crowd were now lining up to take pictures with him. In short order, these new pics started appearing on Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook—all bearing the by-now-trending #nachoman.
And at this point, my mind slowly formed one thought, and as I picture it now, the words are being squeezed out of a red, white, and blue bottle of nacho cheese: THIS IS WHY TRUMP GOT ELECTED.
Now I have nothing personal against Nachoman. He seems like a perfectly nice guy. In his post-game interviews (yes, there were post-game interviews, too), he seemed affable and a little overwhelmed by this moment of instant stardom. In fact, his only apparent flaw seems to be that he actually enjoys watching and rooting for the Detestable Cardinals.
But the lining up to take pictures with him was too much. All this guy did that night was get a plate of nachos kicked out of his hand. Is this the kind of “achievement” that deserves to be replayed and Tweeted and lined up for? This naked hunger to touch “celebrity”—no matter how artificial or empty—is an example of the same kind of mindset that can’t (or won’t) tell the difference between authenticity and branding, between credible anti-establishment behavior and serious character flaws, between a positive change agent and a narcissistic, racist con man.
A mindset, in short, that’s too wrapped up in the noise, the "aura," to notice the thing itself, which as far as I can tell is someone who thrives on making noise, and lots of it—the louder, more distracting, more divisive, the better.