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.