Fascination with fame

At one point in the 2008 United States presidential campaign, Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) gave a speech before a massive crowd in Berlin. Shortly thereafter, his opponent, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) released an advertisement bemoaning the Democratic Senator’s celebrity.

I remember thinking that this was an interesting tactic, especially considering nobody outside of the state of Illinois had even heard of Obama prior to 2004, and considering that McCain was as much of a celebrity as anyone in politics at the time.

But one other thing that I thought — and was surprised that I didn’t see this coming from any other pundits — was that McCain might have done Obama a favor by running that ad. After all, if there’s one indisputable truth to American history, it’s that (with apologies to Carl Sagan) we are starfuckers.

It kind of goes without saying, that there is a degree to which a presidential election is a popularity contest. While the calculus of either the apportioning of delegates to a nominating convention or the electoral vote, does not correlate exactly to the popular vote counts, a candidate still needs large numbers of people voting for him or her in order to win.

But if you look at the history of the American presidency, it’s clear that the winners more often than not, were able to exploit their celebrity and turn that into votes.

We can start with George Washington. Celebrated General from both the French-Indian War and the Revolutionary War. Probably the biggest celebrity in the 13 colonies. And the voters who elected him, were starfuckers.

His four immediate successors were founding fathers who helped shape the country in the run-up and follow-up to the revolution. One of them wrote the Declaration of Independence and another wrote the Constitution.

By the time we elected John Quincy Adams (the son of a prior president) in 1824, our reputation as starfuckers had been fully grounded in reality.

Of course, over time and especially with changes in technologies, what makes a person a celebrity has evolved. But it’s safe to say, for example, that the election campaign of 1840 was won at least partially because of the victor’s celebrity from the Battle of Tippecanoe. After all, William Henry Harrison’s slogan was “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too”.

We are starfuckers.

You can sift through all American presidents and find what made them famous enough to be victorious. Lincoln became famous because of his debates with Stephen Douglas. Grant was a celebrated Civil War general. Benjamin Harrison was the grandson of Tippecanoe. FDR made a name for himself with a long political career and being related to Teddy Roosevelt didn’t hurt. Eisenhower was a celebrated World War II general. Kennedy followed Lincoln’s path to celebrity. Ronald Reagan was an actor. George W. Bush’s father was president. And that’s not getting into the people who had already served as vice president (like Nixon or George H.W. Bush) or who ascended to the presidency after the sitting president died (like Teddy Roosevelt).

We are starfuckers.

I bring this up because of the blindness of the punditocracy to the phenomenon that is Donald Trump, the business mogul seeking the Republican nomination for the presidency in the 2016 campaign. More than two years ago I posted about how Hilary Clinton’s pre-existing fame could be a problem for her if she should secure the Democratic nomination for the election. That was before I knew that Trump would be saying and doing what he’s saying and doing.

Donald Trump has long been a symbol of the powerful businessman-as-celebrity. A lot of extremely wealthy individuals have large-scale name recognition because of the companies they lead. (Or at least used to lead. I’m sure everyone knows of Bill Gates, but how many people can name the current CEO of Microsoft? Hint: it’s Satya Nadella.) Trump may be one of the first moguls to turn his wealth into celebrity, back in the 1980’s.

And he refined his talents at playing the media when he became a reality television star. I even admit it: I enjoyed the first few seasons of The Apprentice, but I stopped watching it when it became Celebrity Apprentice. It felt better watching ordinary people use their skills to get powerful jobs within the Trump organization. And I’ll even admit it: someone watching the show could have walked away with some pretty decent business skills if they paid attention and made notes of it.

I’m not saying that he’d be a good president or a bad president. And I don’t fault the leaders within the Republican Party who thinks that he’s doing more harm than good to their brand, so we can’t be surprised that they’re scared of him and the way he’s polling right now. But we are starfuckers.

For voters that don’t pay close attention to the issues — and there are too many of them in each election cycle — the fallback is voting based upon celebrity. And that absolutely could be Donald Trump.

I’ve said before that I haven’t been able to vote for the Republican Party in good conscience since 2003. And I do consider that a damn shame. The party needs to wrest control away from the evangelicals and the Tea Party, and I don’t know what it would take to do that.

As someone not beholden to the money the party spends, maybe Trump could do that. Even if — as many people who care about the issue will attest — he would probably lose the general election. So even if he himself doesn’t become president, I do see him as having a net positive impact on a political party that, for the better part of the last half-century, has spent too many resources by being regressive and antithetical to the things that makes America great.

Including the fact that we are starfuckers.

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This might be my oldest blog entry

As an undergraduate, I attended Georgetown University, from 1990 to 1994.   I spent one semester abroad, in the fall of 1993, at the St Petersburg (Russia) Gorny Institut.   

This past weekend I was looking through some of my stuff that still remained in my parents’ house and took two overflowing boxes of books, papers, and other things home with me.  One of those things was a copy of the campus newspaper, The Hoya, dated March 4, 1994.   

As soon as I saw it, I knew why I had kept that paper.  I had an op-ed piece in there about what was at the time the emerging situation between Russia and Ukraine in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union.  I think that this 21+ year old article provides more than a little bit of insight into events in that region over the past couple of years.   Enjoy!

Russian Nationalism in Crimea Threatens Ukraine

The small, semiautonomous republic of Crimea has become the focal point of a debate between Russia and Ukraine.  The republic held elections on Jan. 30, in which Russian nationalist Yuri Meshkov won about 75% of the vote.  While a three-fourths majority may seem high to Americans, it comes as no surprise to those familiar with Crimean politics and economics.  

The United States recently convinced the Ukrainian government to begin dismantling the nuclear arsenal it inherited after the break-up of the Soviet Union and promised financial and military protection for Ukraine. Despite U.S. promises of protection, Ukraine is in a precarious situation: it faces the potential threat of a Russian invasion, which, under the leadership of recently elected ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, seems quite possible. 

Crimeans feel few cultural ties to Ukraine, and therefore, with reason, would prefer to be part of Russia.  Although most Crimeans agree unification with Russia would improve their situation, Ukrainian opposition to such a union is fierce. 

I visited Crimea last September as part of a study-abroad program in St. Petersburg, Russia.   I was initially afraid to speak to the citizens: I speak Russian, not Ukrainian, and resentment among the Ukrainians towards their Russian neighbors runs high.  I soon discovered almost 80 percent of Crimea’s residents are ethnic Russians, and so my fear of speaking in that language dissolved quickly.  Nikita Khrushchev gave Crimea to Ukraine in 1954 as a goodwill gesture following Stalin’s purges of the 1930s and 1940s.   Despite 50 years under Ukrainian rule, most Crimeans still feel strong ties to Russia. 

Ethnic ties, however, are not the only reason many Crimeans support reunification.  Ukraine’s economy is, simply put, a mess. When I arrived in Crimea on September 27 of last year, the exchange rate was 14000 karbovanets (commonly called the coupon) to the dollar.  When I left a week later, the rate was 16000 to the dollar.  It doesn’t take an economics major to realize the situation is disastrous.  

When the Ukrainian government first minted coupons in 1991, one coupon equaled one ruble.  The week I was in Crimea, the Russian ruble was more-or-less stable at 1140 to the dollar.  A loaf of bread cost about 1000 coupons.  Although bread is less than a dime, the average pay for Crimeans was 50,000 coupons a month.  A cab driver told me that he gave some of his pay to his parents, who are pensioners, because they only receive 30,000 coupons a month.  On Feb. 23, 1994, the Washington Post quoted the exchange rate at 36000 coupons to the dollar.  Anyone with dollars feels like a millionaire in Crimea. 

I asked the Crimeans I met what they thought of their peninsula’s future.  Most of them expressed a desire to rejoin Russia, to increase both political and economic stability, as well as to regain cultural unity.  

Russia, Ukraine, and the United States are now in an interesting diplomatic position.  With nationalism on the rise throughout Russia — as evidenced by the overwhelming victory of the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, led by Zhirinovsky, who has talked of reclaiming lost territories including Poland, Ukraine, and Alaska — Ukrainians should be concerned about their own sovereignty. 

Ukraine has only been independent from Russia for part of this century and if one looks at a map of this area and imagines Crimea as a part of Russia, the image bears a striking resemblance to the map of Germany and Czechoslovakia before Germany’s 1938 invasion.  Russian territory would completely surround Ukrainian territory.  Without nuclear weapons, Ukraine would be powerless to protect itself against a Russian invasion. 

At this stage in the development of the former Soviet Union, the wisest move is to allow Russia and Ukraine to chart their own respective courses on the sea of change.  It appears to me that Vladimir Zhirinovsky, with his overtly nationalistic talk, is bluffing.  Part of the terms of the nuclear non-proliferation agreement would be that Ukraine would be protected in the event of a hostile invasion. If nobody calls Zhirinovsky’s bluff, should be prepared to react with whatever means are necessary.  To avoid creating conflict where there is none, all Western actions in the area should be reactions.