Politics & Policy

How Trump’s Celebrity Hacked American Politics

(Carlo Allegri/Reuters)
As long as pop culture dominates politics, others will try to follow in his footsteps.

I’m old enough to remember when Republicans could mock Democrats for their celebrity-worship without hypocrisy. Every four years, the Democratic Convention featured a cavalcade of stage and screen stars, and every four years conservatives would point and laugh at the inane idea that comedians, musicians, or actors had anything interesting or meaningful to say about politics. “Does anyone care what these people think?” We’d ask.

Well, yes. Millions of people. And Republicans should now understand that fact better than anyone. It’s a simple reality of modern life that celebrities validate politicians far more than politicians validate celebrities.

To understand how this works, you have to understand that politics is a subculture of American life. Only 36 percent of Americans can name the three branches of government. Only a small minority of citizens even know the names of their senators and representatives. Most are unaware that Republicans control Congress. In a 2011 survey, more than twice as many Americans could identify Randy Jackson as a judge on American Idol as could identify John Roberts as the chief justice of the Supreme Court.

It’s a sad reality of our civic ignorance that when GOP candidates ran on the platform of repealing Obamacare, millions of their voters had absolutely no clue that they’d fail absent a veto-proof majority. They don’t even know what “veto-proof majority” means.

This isn’t elitism or condescension. It’s fact.

RELATED: Presidential Politics in an Age of Celebrity

If you talk to anyone who knows even a little bit about the process of winning elections, you know that one of the first and biggest challenges is getting voters to recognize your candidate at all. Ordinarily, the process works like this: A candidate or potential candidate who possesses a decent amount of name recognition within the political subculture puts himself forward as a candidate. Immediately, he goes about finding endorsers and other “validators” — people who can use their own networks to increase his visibility and carry his flag in as many locations as possible. The media uses these validators in part to learn about the candidate and to determine his seriousness. The combination of validation and media coverage helps the candidate then raise money to buy more public awareness through commercials.

Celebrities, given their unparalleled penetration of the public consciousness, can be excellent validators. Their mere presence can draw people to rallies, donors to dinners, and voters to the polls. When a person a voter trusts and likes says, “This is my guy,” that makes a difference. When that person has millions of followers on Twitter and Instagram, it makes a big difference.

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The goal of the process is to first get the public to recognize your name and face and next to get them to learn just a few favorable facts: He’s a war hero; he’s a successful businessman; he’s a man of integrity; he’ll bring change. This is why you’ll often hear of the race to “define” a candidate, because most politicians are blank slates to the mass of voters. This is why gaffes are so fatal and campaigns so cautious. They know that bad news travels farther and faster than good news, and even one slip can easily become the thing they’re known for.

#share#But what if a candidate doesn’t need to be known or defined? What if he’s spent decades building his name into one of the most well-known brands in American history? Donald Trump has been famous since the Reagan administration. His reality-television show was one of the last “water cooler” shows on network television, the kind of show that everyone seemed to be watching. And it was built entirely around the notion that Trump is uniquely successful, tough, and entertaining.

Trump’s ‘gaffes’ don’t define him, they just give him hours’ more media exposure.

This brand obviously endures. A few months ago, I had the pleasure of buying a new truck. My salesman happened to be a hard-core Trump supporter, and I asked him why he supported the man who subsequently became the GOP nominee. He gave a version of the same answer I’ve heard again and again from friends and neighbors: “Because he won’t apologize for America, and he kicks ass.” Sure, he’d heard of a Trump gaffe or two, but he felt like he’d known Trump for years. Trump had defined himself, and it was going to take more than a few controversial comments to undo the work of a celebrity lifetime.

The Democrats are about to learn the same lesson that the GOP learned: Trump’s “gaffes” don’t define him, they just give him hours’ more media exposure. He gets to call in to show after show, adopt the persona that earned him such an immense following in the first place, and belittle his rivals with pithy nicknames like “Little Marco” and “Lyin’ Ted.”

RELATED: Democrats’ Hysterical Rhetoric Could Help Make Donald Trump President

But taking down Hillary won’t be quite as simple for Trump, because she’s a celebrity in her own right, and she has her own army of celebrity validators to match.

To be clear, celebrity hasn’t made Trump or Clinton well-liked. They’re two of the most-despised politicians in American political history. But they are known. And that makes them impervious to many of the standard attacks that dominate modern campaigns. Clinton’s political career should have ended long ago. Trump’s never should have gotten past the launch phase. But here we are.

#related#The power of Trump’s celebrity helped demonstrate that many millions of Republican voters weren’t quite as conservative as most pundits and politicians thought. But that same power is causing pundits to overreact to Trump’s perceived ideology. Is it really the case that big-government, protectionist, “America first” policies are driving his support, or is it the case that Trump’s brand is driving his support, and he’s adding on those few, vocal voters who are genuinely attracted to those policies? Given the total failure of previous GOP candidates who’ve tried a Trump-like message, it’s almost certainly the latter.

American politics is going to remain vulnerable to the Trumps and Clintons of the world — and to the heavy weight of Hollywood’s thumb on the scales — so long as it remains subordinate to popular culture. It’s why we need virtue in our cultural elite, and it’s why the absence of that virtue has disproportionate impact on our nation. Who cares what celebrities think? Americans care. And so long as they care, we will need a better class of celebrity in politics. Trump and Clinton just won’t do.

— David French is an attorney, and a staff writer at National Review.

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