When Celebrities Win Elections
As the race boiled down last week to Trump versus Hillary, Megan McArdle said one of those obvious things that you never notice until someone says it.
How to explain the Trump phenomenon? “The most compelling explanation also, curiously, gets the shortest shrift: He’s a celebrity candidate, and celebrity candidates break election models. Jesse Ventura in Minnesota, Arnold Schwarzenegger in California: These people bring out folks who don’t normally vote.”
Normal voters care about policy, party and ideology, writes McArdle. Not celebrity candidate voters. They only care about celebrity. Therefore, Trump — but also, therefore, Hillary.
As Princeton’s Robert P. George put it on Facebook: “Dreadful Donald and Horrible Hillary are both products of the culture of narcissism which is the me-generation’s true and lasting legacy.”
What to expect from the campaign and the next president? Easy. The same things we expect from celebrities.
First: We lie to ourselves about celebrities.
We excuse celebrities’ faults. We assume the best when they make mistakes. We are too invested in our fantasy vision of them to want reality intrude on it.
This is how respect for Bill Cosby coexisted with rape allegations for so long. Nobody wanted to believe he was a bad guy. This is also how the Catholic priest sex abuse scandal happened — and why the teacher sex abuse crisis continues unabated.
How have Trump’s insults and gaffes not hurt him? Because his name is famous and he’s on TV a lot. And how is it that Hillary’s remarkable lack of accomplishments after a long career have barely hurt her? Because she’s a Clinton. People like the Clintons.
So, expect voters to be starry eyed about their choice this November and refuse to face facts about them.
Second: We imitate celebrities.
There is no shame in it. In the 1960s, women took cues from Jackie Kennedy and Audrey Hepburn: today, it’s Kate Middleton and Katy Perry. Men in the 1960s started looking like James Dean or the Beatles; today they adopt the beards and haircuts of their favorite athletes.
To imitate the alpha is a human trait: And it is, in fact, why Jesus made a visible Church on earth with successors to the Apostles leading it.
This is why character matters in a leader, and why bad character in a president is so toxic. If Hillary Clinton becomes president, expect more people to agree that supporting the right to life is somehow a “war on women.” If Trump wins, expect more insults and shouting to take the place of reasoned arguments — a phenomenon that is already happening even among politicians who know better.
Third: Celebrities become dictatorial.
If you read about Prince in the wake of his death, you will have come across this phenomenon. Prince’s handlers would keep callers waiting for hours to talk to him on the phone. Prince’s wishes, no matter how difficult, were his staff’s command. If someone said he couldn’t have what he wanted, he would ignore them and insist on his way.
You hear the same stories about politicians. John Edwards’ entourage say they saw their candidate change before their eyes from an ambitious public servant to a prima donna.
Add political power to a celebrity ego, and you have problems. Take a “my wish is your command” guy and make him the leader of the free world, and you have a disaster waiting to happen.
Fourth: Celebrities disappoint us.
There are websites dedicated to the disappointing encounters fans had with their favorite singers, actors or athletes. The great ones are never who we dream they are. Our fascination with celebrities is always short-lived.
They always fall from grace, and the fall is always painful. When it’s an actor falling from grace, it’s a good pain — a kind of healthy iconoclasm. But when the president falls from grace, the consequences can be dangerous. As Machiavelli put it, “It is not titles that honor men but men that honor titles.” A bad officer diminishes the weight of the office.
We quickly leap from “President X is bad” to “The presidency is bad.” The institution suffers. And that’s a shame, because the presidency can be a very good thing.
And what will the end result be? Hopelessness.
Celebrity worship always leads to hopelessness, in both the worshipped and the worshipful. The culture of narcissism creates impossible expectations. Celebrities always self-destruct, and their fans always become disillusioned.
It happened with the guy who made the Obama “Hope” poster, and it will happen in this election cycle too. Those who think having a woman in the Oval Office is an end in itself will discover that it all depends on what that woman believes. And those who expect America to be great again will find their wait in vain.
This first appeared at Aleteia.
The Gregorian Institute is Benedictine College’s initiative to promote Catholic identity in public life by equipping leaders (the Gregorian speech digest), training leaders (the Gregorian Fellows), defending the faith (the Memorare Army for Religious Freedom), and celebrating Catholic identity (the Catholic Hall of Fame).