The best book about American presidential politics is a book that isn’t about America, or presidents, or politics per se; it is The Golden Bough by James George Frazer, a work of comparative religion exploring the roots of ancient fertility cults and the priest-kings who reigned over them. As the scientist Robin Hanson says, “Politics isn’t about policy,” and The Golden Bough is about what it’s about.
Frazer’s work is timeless, but the book that may be the most relevant to this year’s presidential campaign is Idoru, a science-fiction novel by William Gibson. It is not a book about American presidential politics either. It is about what American presidential politics are about this year, especially on the Republican side: celebrity. Idoru, set in a world that is futuristic but familiar enough, concerns a rock star named Rez and his courtship of an even bigger celebrity, Rei Toei. The object of his affection is a synthetic personality, a pure media creation built by animators, computer programmers, and artificial-intelligence engineers. Because rock stars are the centers of vast networks of complex and subtle business interests, financial and economic relationships, and even political power, Rez’s decision to pursue love with a non-human entity is of acute concerns to his handlers and business partners.
What is most interesting about Idoru is its keen sense of the relative scales of different kinds of cultural undertakings. A nightclub flashes into existence, is the scene of a significant event, and then disappears into Tokyo’s hyperkinetic nightlife ecosystem; several personalities with important online lives are what we would call “Internet famous”; but Rez, as a genuine global celebrity, is something bigger than a corporation and more dynamic than a state.
In our own time, the phenomenon of genuine celebrity — Beyoncé-level celebrity, or Amitabh Bachchan–level celebrity, or Cristiano Ronaldo–level celebrity — already is inflated to such a scale that it can subsume politics entirely, and in the 2016 Republican presidential campaign has done so, like a great white swallowing a seal.
If you are in the punditry business, you have a nice view of exactly how this works. Nobody knows who writers are, of course. I have a friend who is a very famous writer, a writer of global reputation, in fact, a winner of prestigious awards and a seller of very many books. But he could walk into a grocery store without anybody knowing him. Television is simply a much larger and more powerful cultural phenomenon than is print or the written word online; my colleague David French has written about the way in which appearing on Fox News changed people’s perceptions of him, and it can be dramatic — not just people who read your work or follow political journalism, but your friends and family. And as you make the rounds from, say, the Lou Dobbs show to the Bill Maher show, the difference in scale — financial and cultural — between what goes on at Fox News and what goes on at HBO and the like shows itself dramatically. There are a few genuine celebrities in the punditry world, people like Bill O’Reilly and Megyn Kelly. But if Kanye and Kim were having dinner at a Chili’s in Wilsonville, Ore., nobody would notice Sean Hannity two tables away (*). There are GOP-specific conclusions to be drawn from the Trump candidacy, some of them genuine questions of policy and priorities. But the main conclusion is that Republicans and conservatives are just as vulnerable to celebrity as Democrats and progressives.
Conservatives may even be a little more vulnerable, there being so few genuine celebrities who are open Republicans that the Right often isn’t choosy enough about which of them we embrace. Ted Nugent is an example of that. Donald Trump, alas, is another.
But Democrats are hardly immune to this sort of thing, and probably should not get too smug about Republicans’ currently excruciating circumstances. If you are looking for a guy with loopy political ideas, very little knowledge of how the real world operates, and a horrible record when it comes to how he treats women, I give you Sean Penn — and if you do not think he could make a credible run at the Democratic nomination, you haven’t learned the lesson of 2016. How many celebrities with truly insane ideas — about vaccines, about 9/11, about conspiracies of international bankers — can you think of off the top of your head who could use the Democratic party the way Trump is using the GOP? Sixty? Eighty? How many degrees of separation do you imagine there are between Hollywood bigs and the murdering, torturing, socialist regime in Venezuela? Alec Baldwin does a good Trump impersonation. It’s funny. Alec Baldwin could also be a Democratic political candidate, if he were halfway interested in doing so, and his personal history makes Trump look like — well, an awful, embarrassing excuse for a human being, but one who is not obviously worse than Alec Baldwin.
Those of you joking about voting for Kanye in 2020 shouldn’t be laughing too hard. You might very well get the chance.
The Paper is a wonderful movie about the world of newspapers, and there is a great scene in which the managing editor of the New York Post stand-in gets refused a raise and is informed by her crusty old boss: “The people we cover — we move in their world, but it is their world. You can’t live like them. You’ll never keep up, ’cause we don’t get the money. Never have, never will.” For the longest time, the relationship between the world of celebrity and the world of ordinary journalism was pretty straightforward: We envied them, and they tolerated us, because the suits in marketing made them do interviews when there was a new movie out. Other than glowing reviews and red-carpet photos, there was nothing they really wanted from us. If you were a major celebrity, you went to Hollywood to earn your money and fame, and then you went to do Sam Shepherd plays in New York to earn a little artistic respect, and that was that. Maybe you took up a political cause, to make yourself feel important.
But if taking up a political cause is not enough, then you might be tempted to take up a political career as a way of feeling important. It seems to be working for Donald Trump, who has gone from game-show host and peddler of cheap ties at Macy’s to figure of worldwide importance in a remarkably short period of time. Those of you joking about voting for Kanye in 2020 shouldn’t be laughing too hard. You might very well get the chance.
#related#If politics is to defend itself against incursions from the world of celebrity-as-such, then it probably is going to need to end up relying on the very thing that Trump et al. have made so much hay railing against: party machines, party elites, and party establishments, powerful gatekeepers who can laugh Sarah Silverman out of the room when she announces her Senate campaign and bring to heel those opportunities and starry-eyed moneymen who might go along with such a nonsensical escapade. That means more closed primaries, more party control over campaign funds, and a stronger party hand in coordinating (which never, never, ever, ever happens!) with outside groups raising money and producing campaign communications. It means more partisanship rather than less, and never mind all that happy horsepucky about the virtues of bipartisanship and post-partisanship.
Like the anti-democratic Senate and the anti-democratic Bill of Rights, parties help to channel popular passions — and celebrity is nothing if not a popular passion — into productive political activity. We have parties for a reason. If anything good comes of the Trump campaign, it will be reminding us of that.