When I’m looking for analysis of the GOP primary race (or anything to do with either party, actually) I’ll confess that I don’t normally turn to E.J. Dionne Jr. for insight. But he’s penned an editorial at the Washington Post this week which raises some interesting questions on the subject of “celebrity” and politics in America. Should it be somehow verboten for celebrities to cross over into the world of elected office seekers? Just who qualifies as a celebrity, anyway? Dionne is taking a swipe at Trump, obviously, but since we may be seeing more of this in the future it’s certainly worth considering the subject.
“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. The weird interaction between glitz and government reflected at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner suggests how much the borderland between the two has shrunk.
But celebrity has never before been a sufficient qualification for the nation’s highest office.
Dionne recalls an instance that we covered extensively here eight years ago and which became something of a stalking horse in the 2008 election. John McCain attached the label of “celebrity” to Barack Obama and that moniker gained a lot of traction in conservative media. But to do that we needed to expand on the definition of celebrity quite a bit. Granted, Barack Obama was a senator of very modest accomplishments (to put it mildly) and had a scant resume of things he’d done before joining the upper chamber. Most of his “fame” came from a speech made at a previous convention. But did that really qualify him as a celebrity?
We were, at that time, treating the word as a pejorative, but that’s rather unfair. There are many actors and actresses who are very accomplished in their own field who are referred to in that fashion and it’s certainly not an insult. (Humphrey Bogart comes to mind.) But today we live in an era with far fewer Bogarts and many more people who seem to be famous for nothing more than the fact that they are famous. (Think the Kardashians or Paris Hilton for starters.) If one of them runs for office we may need a new term entirely, but most of the celebrities who regularly make headlines have at least done something to earn the title. We’ve heard rumors of Kanye West running for President in 2020, and even if you don’t happen to be a fan of his music you have to admit that the guy moves a lot of sales and fills up stadiums so he’s achieving success in his own field.
So is it fair of Dionne to apply that label with all of the current baggage it carries to Donald Trump? He was well known long before he came down that escalator to begin his run at the nomination to be sure. But he was famous for a variety of reasons. He started out being known for his success in the business world but later crossed over to being a television personality. And even there his show was a broad commercial success for quite a while, generating ratings and advertising revenue. With that in mind he was clearly not just famous for being famous. He’s actually done something, and arguably more than Barack Obama had by 2007.
Should we be electing celebrities to high national office? That’s hard to say since it’s never really been done. Reagan was a movie star, but he was also a governor before heading to the Oval Office. Yes, voters put Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura into governor’s mansions, but I’ll leave it up to the residents of those two states to decide how well it worked out. In the end, it seems to me that we may have overplayed the whole “celebrity” card when it comes to politicians. As soon as you’re elected President you become a celebrity anyway, so really… what’s the difference?