We’ve pretty much hit rock bottom with Donald Trump, so why do we still believe celebrity politicians are the answer?
As it turns out, Kanye West isn’t the only celebrity planning on making a bid for the 2020 presidency. Barely 7 months into his tenure as President of the United States, Donald Trump has already launched his reelection campaign, even as the Democratic Party is in disarray and on the retreat around the country. If anybody can save them, surely it’s Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, fresh off the (rather disastrous) Baywatch reboot?
Nope. To top it off, Kanye has pushed forward his ‘bid’ to 2024, meaning we’ll all have to wait a while longer to see POTUS deliver his State of the Union speech in rap. As Mr. Trump would put it: Sad!
Past the Yeezys and Twitter rants, however, there is a question that needs to be asked: when did the celebrity politician, whose only claim to fame is not public office but the limelight of the tabloid press, become a credible alternative to leading the country as opposed to career politicians who have served their entire lives in the arena? In other words: does the Democratic party really need a media darling to take on Mr. Trump?
Et tu, Kanye?
Those familiar with American politics know that the phenomena of celebrity politicians is not a new one; the 40th President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, was an actor prior to becoming the near-mythological figure in Republican history he is today, and various other minor celebrities have dotted the Democratic and Republican parties in lesser positions (think Arnold Schwarzenegger, former Governor of California).
Celebrity politicians in the past year, however, have ridden the wave of populism that has upended the balance of power in many Western democracies: Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron were both insurgent candidates who banked on the perception that they were not part of the political establishment, and the same can be said of Beppe Grillo of the Five Star movement in Italy, or Marine Le Pen of France’s National Front. It is important to note, however, that not all populists are celebrity politicians – but most (if not all) celebrity politicians are very much all populists: their very power stems from the fact that they appeal to wide swathes of the public.
Surprisingly, in most of these cases, these ‘outsiders’ have all had, to varying degrees, some involvement in politics before – Mr. Trump has considered a run for the presidency since 1987/88, and will likely always be remembered for his shameless propagation of the rumour that President Obama was not in fact a U.S. citizen; Mr. Macron is a scion of the French elite, having been educated at the elite École nationale d’administration school, and served as the Minister of Economy and Finance under Prime Minister Manuel Valls. Beppe Grillo has had a long-running feud with the Italian political regime due to his caricatures of them on live television going back to the late 1980s, whilst Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, led the National Front party until he was ousted by his own daughter.
Contrary to the tickets that they ran on, these figures have generally harboured some form of political aspiration for years, and the outsider card they have played is merely the most convenient way to get there while also attacking the entrenched political system as being corrupt and inefficient. Cries of ‘drain the swamp’ supercharged Trump’s campaign, but as he has discovered since coming into power, Washington ‘The Swamp’ D.C. and the political system it houses have been around for some 200 years, and with good reason.
The Good, The Quiet, and The Hardworking
Unsurprisingly, the ability of celebrity politicians to generate and maintain attention is a public relations coup in itself. Mr. Trump’s never-ending battle against the ‘mainstream media’ continues on Twitter, with his latest bashing of MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski only the latest installment in this 4-year adventure (may there be no second presidential term); meanwhile, just across the border, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau continues to be the media’s darling, marching during the Toronto Pride celebrations with a pair of Ramadan-themed socks.
Politics, however, runs far deeper than superficial actions such as this. All the publicity stunts in the world simply cannot make up for true, fruitful work – legislative work that is done behind the scenes, and which may seem dull, but which is all the more important for it. And there is no greater champion of the silent, uninspiring but studious worker, than Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany. Her rise to power as catalogued here provides the counterweight to the very story this article is trying to tell, and it is as inspiring as it is long.
Under her calm, measured hands, Mrs. Merkel has steered Germany and Europe as a whole for the past 12 years, and she looks set to win yet another term as Chancellor. As Mr. Trudeau showed off his colourful socks, Germany legalised gay marriage overnight – largely due to Mrs. Merkel dropping her personal stance on the matter, and in the process denying her opponents of another critical matter to press her upon in the coming elections. Such has been the story of Mutti’s 12-year reign: quiet, efficient, and inevitably: boring, except for when it isn’t.
What is Mrs. Merkel’s crime, then? How have career politicians much like herself inadvertently helped people like Mr. Trump reach the world stage? The answer, I venture, is in the very essence of her approach to politics, or bluntly put: Mrs. Merkel and the people like her don’t make politics attractive.
Buried by the black and white paperwork of running a country, it seems inevitable that people turn to celebrity politicians who simply speak their mind (Donald Trump, George W. Bush) and offer simple answers to complex questions (UKIP during the Brexit referendum). Time and time again, however, we have seen that voting for the simplest solution often isn’t the best answer. After all, from the 3 examples above, we have the Iraq war, the UK leaving the EU, and the Trump presidency as evidence of overwhelming failures.
It seems largely inevitable that as these celebrity politicians come to power and make the same (or worse) mistakes that career politicians do, the public will (I hope) eventually wise up to the wisdom of electing celebrities into public office, and the tide will ebb. While there is an incentive in electing outsiders who offer fresh perspectives on old issues, it is imperative that we judge them on the same basis that we judge our politicians: are they trustworthy, knowledgeable, and wise? Do they have the best interests of the larger community at heart? Are they willing to listen to our concerns, and not likely to abuse the power that has been entrusted to them?
If the answer to any of the above questions is no, then perhaps your celebrity politician shouldn’t get your vote after all.