The Celebrity Presidency
Donald J. Trump may have set a dangerous precedent, but not so much for his own party as much as for the Democratic Party. Those who supported him tended to do so because he was something different than the typical politician. He was a successful businessman and a reality show star. This sort of fame meant that his name recognition was nearly universal because he had been a part of our culture for many years. Regardless of your opinion of him, there can be no denying that he managed to translate his fame into a successful campaign. Now there is talk of Oprah Winfrey considering a run for President due to her rather politically charged speech at the Golden Globe Awards—a call to action for the liberal base of the Democratic Party.
Republicans do not have many celebrities within their ranks, so the threat of one entering the political realm is more likely for Democrats. We all know Hollywood has a rather elevated view of itself, so why would liberal celebrities not run for office? They instantly have the name recognition many politicians have to work for and the tabloids have already vetted them thoroughly. Furthermore, our film and television programs tend to alter our view of an entertainer based on how we see them on the screen. I like to joke that I would vote for The Rock because of the confidence he exudes and the kindness he shows to fans through his social media accounts, but I know that the public sees him as he and his PR agent want him to be seen. Celebrities do not necessarily have the capacity to be President—even Martin Sheen who played Jeb Bartlett on the The West Wing. We need to stop focusing on whether or not we like those men running for office. The voters can choose those who are qualified to be President. I like The Rock. I do not want him to be President because he has not demonstrated the capacity to govern as a former wrestler and current actor. I am not a fan of Oprah. I do not want her to be President because her past career does not show her having a capacity to govern, not because I do not like her.
I am not attempting to make a case for an “expert” to come from within the highest ranks of government, but there is an element of experience and certain character traits needed to assume the most powerful political office on the planet. Donald Trump may have set a dangerous precedent because he showed a celebrity could win a primary and general election over candidates who had more experience and more detailed policy positions. It could be argued that he has the capacity required to govern, but this cannot be taken for granted based on celebrity and financial success alone as his opposition is tending to do with their joy at the prospect of a President Oprah and First Man Stedman. She is a television star who is as wealthy as Donald Trump, but her success in the private space does not mean she is any more qualified to be President than Trump. Tom Hanks and the liberal elite were roused by her emotional speech because she speaks in a more eloquent and positive manner than Trump. For conservatives, Trump has governed like a rather typical Republican, despite his rather extreme personal tendencies. But what if an equally famous Democrat were to win the party’s nomination? They could win in much the same way Trump did—not based on governing ability but success in business and entertainment. They could claim to be outsiders much like Trump, but do so from a liberal perspective.
Trump and Oprah are but examples of the threat of what I call the “Celebrity Presidency”—where fame overshadows policy and capacity to govern. The American people voted for Trump because he represented something different than those more experienced politicians who have disappointed us for decades. (Read my previous post on the problem with “leadership” here.) He spoke to their concerns and they knew who he was—or at least how he was portrayed in books and on TV. Oprah—as a product of the liberal elite—is portrayed as a nearly perfect mythical being. Her press will be as positive as it always has been. People watched her show in the past and they were inspired. They look at her with a certain nostalgia and may very well be inclined to vote for her over another career politician who seems to have let them down in the past. The celebrities of the Republican Party are pretty limited to Donald Trump, Clint Eastwood, and some minor characters from the 80’s. Donald Trump showed a celebrity could win, but celebrity does not automatically make one qualified to be President. When choosing a candidate, perhaps think about which candidate is virtuous and can govern well rather than vote for the person you like to watch on television.