An awful enthusiasm: Separating celebrities from politics

Politicians and those in their orbit have a weakness for celebrity for the same reason they have a weakness when it comes to men of great wealth: They get a taste in the course of their careers, but not the whole Happy Meal. Politicians and pundits get to be a little bit famous; most Americans don’t know what John Boehner does or why they ought to care about the wreckful career of Barbara Boxer, but they are on television, and that’s something. A great many of the wise men on television know very little about the subjects about which they make pronouncements (I myself have been invited onto cable-news shows to speak about events with which I have almost no familiarity), and television is its own power and its own advocate. But cable-news celebrity isn’t very much like real celebrity — the lightning bug and the lightning, to borrow from Mark Twain. Similarly, politicians and ex-politicians don’t generally starve to death, and some, such as the Clintons, cash in on their political connections with extraordinary success and rapacity, but political-guy money for the most part isn’t very much like genuine rich-guy money: the hundreds of millions to billions enjoyed by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and the cleverest Wall Street players. That’s one reason for Trump’s political pungency: His wealth and his celebrity constitute the two commodities that the political operators covet most intensely. If you naively believe that Trump’s campaign is somehow independent of the usual political operators, take a look at who is working for him and who has taken his campaign to heart.

In this way as in so many others, the obsessions and the interests of those who make policy are far removed from, even alien to, those of the constituents on whose behalf they allege to act. New Yorkers don’t need subway stations that are architecturally noteworthy so much as they need clean and safe stations that are not used as toilets by vagrants or as staging grounds by vast rampaging rodent hordes. Sight-seeing tourists be damned, New York City needs trains that run on time with a good deal less human stink. Americans need basic civics and economic education and a reinvigorated appreciation of our constitutional order, not the dotty and destructive enthusiasts of Whoopi Goldberg or Sean Penn. Barack Obama’s model of executiveship — president as celebrity — has proven unproductive, and the answer isn’t a bigger and different kind of celebrity.