It seems entirely fitting that OJ Simpson should reappear at this surreal juncture in American life because many of the trends that culminated in the election of Donald J Trump can be traced back to his arrest and trial.
Consider first of all the impact on the US media of that slow-motion car chase, as “The Juice” headed down the 405 freeway in the back of his white Ford Bronco pursued by a small armada of police cars and a squadron of news helicopters. With viewers glued to their televisions that day, Domino’s recorded a record spike in pizza deliveries.
It was the moment arguably that real-time, rolling news truly came of age.
That chase and the gavel-to-gavel coverage of the 1997 trial on CNN and Court TV demonstrated a voracious appetite for cable news. The OJ “trial of the century”, with its blend of tabloid sensationalism and serious analysis, established the formula for ratings success.
In last year’s presidential election, the media fixation with Donald Trump demonstrated how that recipe still works now. His candidacy could almost have been tailor made to fit the requirements of real-time cable news and Twitter, its digital equivalent.
In ratings terms, his road to the White House became the political equivalent of that freeway chase, an improbable journey we couldn’t take our eyes off partly because we were fascinated to learn how it would end. Donald Trump exploited this. The billionaire reality TV star, sensing immediately his media pulling power, became the ringmaster of an OJ-style circus.
America’s celebrity culture predates OJ Simpson, but his trial unquestionably fuelled it. Johnny Cochran, Marcia Clark, Robert Shapiro. The attorneys became stars in their own right. So, too, did Judge Lance Ito. Kato Kaelin, a minor player, parlayed his witness stand limelight into various appearances on reality TV shows.
Then there’s the Kardashian connection. OJ’s close friend Robert Kardashian, the father of Kourtney, Kim, Chloe and Rob, sat alongside the defence team throughout the trial.
The first time that Americans were introduced to a Kardashian on television was when Robert appeared before the media on 17 June, 1994, the day of the Bronco car chase, to read a letter penned by OJ which sounded like a confession. Robert Kardashian became one of the first inadvertent celebrities of the OJ story, and his children ended up being beneficiaries.
Few episodes in American life so starkly exposed the racial divide as the OJ verdict. A majority of whites were convinced of his guilt. Polls suggested that six out of 10 African-Americans thought him innocent. In the Oscar-winning documentary OJ: Made in America, one of the most stunning sequences comes when the shots of jubilant African-Americans celebrating OJ’s acquittal are juxtaposed with white viewers speechless and stunned. Such was the roar of delight from OJ’s supporters gathered outside the courthouse that a police horse reared up in fright.
Back then it was stunning to see how Americans presented with the same evidence could reach conclusions so diametrically opposed. But it was not altogether surprising. In the aftermath of the Rodney King beating, and the acquittal of the officers who clubbed him so mercilessly, it made sense for the defence team to put the Los Angeles Police Department on trial. Playing what became known as “the race card” was a clever, if cynical ploy (OJ’s lawyer Robert Shapiro famously said afterwards his legal team had played the race card from “the bottom of the pack”).
After the celebrated former football star had been acquitted, one of the nine African-Americans on the jury was brazen enough to flash OJ Simpson the black power salute. Another black juror, Carrie Bess, unashamedly told the makers of OJ: Made in America the verdict was payback for Rodney King.
The black lawyer Johnny Cochran had successfully tapped into a shared sense of victimhood among African-Americans understandably appalled by the institutional racism of the LAPD. Mark Fuhrman, the detective who was recorded using a racial epithet, became exhibit one, the perfect bogey man.
Here again there are parallels with the election of Donald Trump, when voters were presented with the same evidence, the same televised spectacle, and reached diametrically opposed opinions. Again America was riven, although the roots of that polarisation were different. With OJ, it was race.
With Trump, it was class, education, gender and geography. Yet he, too, tapped into a shared sense of victimhood. He portrayed himself as the victim of the Washington political establishment and East Coast liberal media, essentially telling his supporters that the same elites sneering at him were the same elites sneering at them. Whereas Cochran played the race card, Trump deployed the rage card.
Another parallel. When historians study the rise of post-truth politics, the triumph of feelings over fact, they will surely trace at least some of its origins back to the OJ Simpson trial. In that LA County courtroom, the evidence overwhelmingly pointed towards Simpson’s guilt.
Yet some jury members admitted afterwards they wanted to give the LAPD and the prosecution team a bloody nose. For some jurors, it was a protest verdict, based on emotion rather than the facts of the case.
What struck me about last year’s election was how many voters were prepared to overlook Donald Trump’s truth-stretching and falsehoods because of their determination to exact revenge and send a message. Trump’s relied on slogans – Make America Great Again, Build the Wall, Lock Her Up – knowing they had more resonance than detailed policies. Feelings were more important than facts. Hillary Clinton became the perfect bogey woman. Someone who personified all that was wrong with the American body politic. Someone who used the “d” word, deplorables, to describe them.
Many of those who voted for Trump felt the political system was rigged against the white working class, just as some of the black jurors in the OJ trial felt the political system was rigged against them.
Johnny Cochran proved a master at presenting alternative facts, even coming up with the simple, but deeply misleading, catch-phrase, “if it doesn’t fit you must acquit”. Donald Trump has become the greatest practitioner of post-truth politics, and cries “fake media” in much the same way that Cochran talked of fake forensic evidence. During his first six months in office, the President made 836 false statements, according to the fact-checkers at the Washington Post, but that doesn’t seem to worry staunch Trump loyalists.
Back in 1997 the world was captivated by the trial of OJ Simpson, just as it now is with the trials and tribulations of Donald Trump.
To outsiders, both are Only in America phenomena. When the not guilty verdict was handed down, many global onlookers found it completely inexplicable, and concluded there must be something terribly wrong with America’s criminal justice system.
Is that now not the question being asked of America’s broken politics?