The irony of celebrity populism


BOSTON: “When you become famous,” the famous political consultant James Carville once said, “being famous becomes your profession.”

It’s a sign of the stunning success of Donald Trump’s crossover act that we no longer even think about this campaign’s most revolutionary effect on our politics: the demolition of the line between celebrity and political achievement.

Of course, success in politics can itself breed celebrity. Carville earned his by combining his eccentric sense of humor with actual skill in helping Bill Clinton become president in 1992.

But celebrity has never before been a sufficient qualification for the nation’s highest office. Consider John McCain’s signature attack on Barack Obama in 2008 in a commercial that began with the words: “He’s the biggest celebrity in the world.” The ad’s next line captured the old war hero’s disdain for his opponent and his fame: “But is he ready to lead?”

In light of this year’s campaign, there is something touching about McCain’s protest. He reasoned that sober voters would reject the idea of electing someone merely because of his celebrity.

If the ad misunderstood the sources of Obama’s political strength, it did speak to a nation that still respected actual experience in government. Trump has now far surpassed Obama in converting fame directly into electoral currency, moving from celebrity to frontrunner status without going through the messy, time-consuming work of being a state legislator and US senator. Ronald Reagan, given his Hollywood standing, may be the closest historical analogue to Trump. But Trump did not spend eight years as governor of a large state. There is a perverse purity to Trump’s great leap.

He also uses celebrity allies he accumulated in the course of his career as a fame-monger to validate his quest. Facing a decisive challenge in Tuesday’s Indiana primary, Trump hauled out an endorsement from Bobby Knight, a state icon from his successful if controversial run as Indiana University’s basketball coach. Trump may dominate CNN, MSNBC and Fox News, but Knight has ESPN, generally a much bigger draw – except, of course, when Trump has been on a debate stage.

Trump represents the triumph in politics of what the scholars of postmodernism call “transgressive” art, which violates boundaries, including moral strictures, and commands attention through its shock value. Trump is now the transgressor-in-chief.

We need to think hard about the multiple weaknesses Trump is exposing in our politics. How has he been able to convert fame and outrage into votes without even a moment of apprenticeship in public service?

One reason is the anger in a large segment of the Republican Party that has been stoked by its leaders. You might say they have now lost control of the beast they were feeding. There is also the utter contempt toward government that their ideology encouraged. Trump has played on the fragility of our media system, which, in its search for ratings, can’t get enough of him, and on a pervasive pain among the many who have been cast aside by our economy. They had been ignored by elites of all kinds.

Trump is what passes for “populism” now, but celebrity populism is a strange creature. Consider the case of Tom Brady, the masterly quarterback of my beloved New England Patriots and another sports celebrity who has spoken kindly of Trump.

In a court ruling against him in the Deflategate case, Brady learned that neither wealth nor celebrity nor talent protects him in a National Football League system that, in the view of two of three Court of Appeals judges, confers almost unlimited power to management over labor.

Yes, at that moment, Brady learned he was labor. “Welcome to the working class, Tom,” wrote Boston Herald sports columnist Ron Borges.

I don’t know if this controversy will alter Brady’s politics. But it was a reminder of how structural realities that rarely get much television time – collective bargaining agreements, judicial decisions, ownership rights, and the raw distribution of power – will not be swept away simply because a man who has mastered old and new media alike has succeeded so brilliantly in casting himself as the avenger for the dispossessed.

Still, a phony celebrity populism plays well on television at a time when politics and governing are regularly trashed by those who claim both as their calling. Politicians who don’t want to play their assigned roles make it easy for a role-player to look like the real thing, and for a billionaire who flies around on his own plane to look like a populist.



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1 Comment

  1. Mariano Patalinjug on

    Yonkers, New York
    02 May 2016

    DONALD TRUMP is good and solid proof that a good swath of the American people, and of conservatives and Republicans in particular, must be sick and tired of traditional politicos [“trapos” for short] and welcome him as a fresh breeze in a dank and smelly political dungeon.

    He appears thus as the new “phenomenon” in American politics, a political candidate who is not a politician, but who is an extremely successful businessman who has no problem flaunting his $10 billion wealth, and his $400 million-a-year in present income. When he tells adoring crowds that he will not accept donations from such “notorious” Republican billionaire donors as Charles and David Koch, they reflexively applaud and realize that The Donald cannot be corrupted by those mega-donors who do so of course on a quid-pro-quo basis, meaning “I scratch your back, you scratch mine.”

    And that’s only the start. He vows that if elected President he would deport all 11 millioi illegal immigrants who are now in the US–including, possibly, their children who were born in the United States! Then he denounces Mexicans, in particular those who cross the border illegally, as rapists, drug lords and as criminals of all kinds!

    He has the perfect Solution to all of these “criminals” who cross the border at will: he says he will build an unbreachable GREAT WALL on the southern border, stretching all of around 1,200 miles from west to east–and GET MEXICO TO PAY FOR IT! [As expected the President of Mexico is pissed off, but The Donald obviously doesn’t care. He is used to getting what he wants.

    It will be easily sailing for Donald Trump from here on, obviously. John Kasich should have the good sense to quit now. That leaves TED CRUZ, who is a far second to Trump, but who must still be hoping for a miracle. That “miracle” may have come from former Republican Speaker of the House JOHN BOEHNER who fondly calls TED CRUZ “LUCIFER IN THE FLESH!” Now, would GOP delegates ever consider the DEVIL himself as their nominee? You know the answer to that devilish question, don’t you?

    Come November, let’s face it: It will be Democrat HILLARY CLINTON against Republican DONALD TRUMP.

    In the presidential elections, Trump will easily be at a serious disadvantage when the American people of all political stripes decide on who should be President of these United States. By that time Trump’s “celebrity” cannot possibly overwhelm all of the shocking things he said in a bruising campaign against his Republican rivals.

    And so, it will be Hillary Clinton who will be the next President, and the first women ever to win that high office, one which has been monopolized by men in the last over-200 years of American “democracy” with its pretensions to “justice and equality for all.”