Has Celebrity Become the Point of American Politics?

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Editor's Note:

Ron Currie is the author of the novels Everything Matters! and Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles, and most recently The One-Eyed Man, which plays at the intersection between politics and American entertainment. Ron joins Signature to discuss how today it seems celebrity has became the shiniest form of political currency.

Celebrity has always been an element of American politics. Ben Franklin’s fame, considerable in his own time, has endured into ours. JFK and Jackie, of course, redefined the presidency with their glamor and refinement. Reagan, Bill Bradley, John Glenn, and plenty of others enjoyed high-profile lives before entering politics, and used their fame to leverage themselves into office.

The difference now is that celebrity itself is the whole point. Take Donald Trump: the essence of his fame is no different from that of, say, Paris Hilton. He didn’t orbit the earth or win an Oscar or cure athlete’s foot. He used other peoples’ money to buy real estate, and one time pretended to beat up Vince McMahon at Wrestlemania. That’s it. He has no talent except for self-promotion. He is, in other words, famous for being famous.

This, of course, reflects a parallel phenomenon in politics — over the last twenty years, politicians have themselves become bona fide celebrities. Government has been transformed from the provenance of wonks and poly-sci nerds to a nonstop cable melodrama, complete with heroes, villains, illicit sex, lies, and intrigue. And in the process, people like Nancy Pelosi have become recognizable to the point that they couldn’t walk into a diner without turning heads in every booth.

The problem with elected officials as a celebrity class is as simple as it is obvious: in the face of fame, we lose our critical acumen. As everyday people, our engagement with the famous is either breathlessly fawning or studiously unaffected — but either way, what it is not is objective. When we hyperventilate taking a selfie with Obama, we’re not inclined to think all that carefully about whether it’s the government’s place to force us into commerce with private enterprise, a la the Affordable Care Act. All we care about is that we’ve got a shot of ourselves with a famous person. Neat!

If you think I’m wrong, flip through some photos from Trump and Clinton rallies. Take a look at the faces, particularly those in close proximity to the candidates. What you see, by and large, is not a thoughtful electorate, but rather distilled, molten id. Note the eyes: wide, crazed, rapturous. Check out the mouths: opioid grins and rageful sneers, depending on the rhetoric coming from the P.A. system. The spit flies, the blood flows, and we all move one step further away from being great again, thanks to the two-pronged foolishness of fame and crowd psychology.

And it’s the persistence of this mindless fealty, far more than any of Trump’s executive orders or cabinet appointments, that frightens me. His supporters aren’t just supporters, they’re fans. “Fan,” of course, being short for “fanatic.” Nothing less than a nuclear detonation over Albany could convince them they’ve made the wrong choice, and even then, I can hear them in the rubble: “Well, this sucks, but at least those liberal perverts can’t go into my daughter’s bathroom at school.”

I’ve got no idea how to extract celebrity from politics. It may not, in the larger context of 2017 America, even be possible — at least not before the aforementioned nuclear blast wave knocks us back to our senses. But make no mistake: if we continue to value — and vote for — the dopamine rush of communing with fame, the hysterical mess we’re seeing at the dawn of the Trump era is going to get far worse.