Here is an error I will confess: Having long expected a celebrity-driven personality-cult presidential campaign to emerge among Democrats, I did not fully appreciate how much more powerful a celebrity-driven personality-cult presidential campaign would be among Republicans.
The origins of my error are obvious in retrospect: Because Democrats have a much cozier relationship with Hollywood and the other foundries of celebrity, it seemed natural that a celebrity–political alliance would take root on the left. But I failed to account for the fact that Republicans are no less vulnerable to celebrity than are Democrats — and that Republicans are starved for celebrity. Imagine a Scott Baio–level has-been speaking before a rapt audience at the Democratic National Convention or a celebrity on the order of Ted Nugent leaving Democrats overawed. Sure, Republicans have a few big stars: Clint Eastwood and . . .
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As a cultural force, authentic celebrity of the kind enjoyed by Donald Trump and Oprah Winfrey is orders of magnitude more powerful than the ersatz celebrity of politics, journalism, and cable news. Sean Hannity’s Fox News program was the most popular thing on cable news in 2017, with an audience about 5 percent the size of that of The Big Bang Theory or Thursday Night Football, neither of which is currently at the top of its ratings game. Even with wall-to-wall broadcasting, the State of the Union address typically gets an audience far less than half the size of the Super Bowl’s.
MSNBC is for obvious reasons riding high in the Trump era, but more than ten times as many people tuned in to watch Oprah interview Michelle Obama as watch an entire day’s worth of MSNBC programming. That’s what happens when real celebrity meets politics.
Presidents come and go. Oprah is as fixed as the stars.
Of course she is categorically unqualified for the office. But have fun imagining Republicans making that case in the shadow of Donald J. Trump, Very Stable Genius™. Oprah’s formal educational attainments are modest, whatever political ideas she has seem to be largely undeveloped, and she has an obvious and regrettable weakness for quacks and cranks of sundry sorts: anti-vaccine nuts, Dr. Oz, doctors who use Tarot cards to diagnose thyroid problems, etc. She is a one-woman public-health menace.
At the same time, she more than embodies the virtues attributed to President Trump: She’s a real billionaire, a self-made one at that, a woman who started with nothing and became wildly successful with bupkis to go on but her own grit and shrewdness. President Trump loves to talk about ratings. You want ratings? Oprah has ratings.
The Democrats would do worse — a great deal worse — if they decide they need a celebrity: Sean Penn, Ashley Judd, Jerry Springer. (In the case of Jerry Springer, they did do worse: He was the mayor of Cincinnati.) And Oprah would have some potential celebrity contenders of some substance: Mark Cuban for one, Mark Zuckerberg for another.
The Democrats have a more fruitful relationship with celebrity because, unlike most Republicans, they understand the transactional nature of the celebrity–politician relationship.
But the Democrats don’t really need a celebrity. They have a great talent for making celebrities out of ordinary politicians, converting a clan of low-rent grifters and halfwits such as the Kennedys into an ersatz royal family and making the lightly accomplished Barack Obama into a kind of rock-star messiah for the Davos set. The Democrats have a more fruitful relationship with celebrity because, unlike most Republicans, they understand the transactional nature of the celebrity-politician relationship. Movie stars get into political activism for the same reason they sometimes take six months off to do serious theater: They want to feel smart, maybe even a little profound, and, more important, they want to be perceived as that, as intellectually serious. Democratic politicians connect with celebrities because they want to be seen as cool. Smart and cool is a very powerful combination for public-relations purposes, and it’s not what you get when you pair up Mike Pence with the Duck Dynasty guys. Republicans have a poor handle on the uses of glamour.
But presidential politics in the post-party era — or, more precisely, in the era of strong partisanship and weak parties, in Julia Azari’s useful formulation — is quickly devolving into pure tribalism, a form of cultural totem-jockeying. And that means that old-fashioned things such as public-policy analysis, party platforms, and even ideology are growing ever more attenuated. The question isn’t whether you belong to the free-trade party or to the anti-trade party — I defy you to say convincingly which is which — but whether you are a Bernie person or a Cruz person, whether you are Team Oprah or Team Trump.
And if it comes down to Oprah vs. Trump, Republicans should keep a wary eye on the ratings.