Michael Gerson: How celebrity culture infected our democracy
From the beginning of the American republic, its founders obsessed about how it all would end. “Democracy never lasts long,” said John Adams. “There never was a democracy yet, that did not commit suicide.”
George Washington used his farewell address to warn that partisan “factions” could tear the country apart. The Federalists worried that domestic disunity could be exploited by hostile foreign governments. James Madison in particular feared that liberty might be lost by “gradual and silent encroachments of those in power.”
Check. Check. Check.
But there is one factor in our politics that the founders could not have predicted: the debilitating infection of celebrity culture.
Were Washington to be resurrected, it would be difficult to explain how history’s most powerful nation, after surviving civil war and global conflict, turned for leadership to a celebrity known for abusing other celebrities on television. It is the single strangest development in American history. And we have only begun to process its consequences.
It is not that American leaders have never been famous. Dwight Eisenhower was one of the most famous men in the world for organizing victory in World War II. Ronald Reagan was famous for his acting career, but also for being governor of California and an articulate conservative.
Fame usually has some rough relationship to accomplishment. Celebrity results from mastering the latest technologies of self-exposure. Ingrid Bergman was famous. Kim Kardashian is a celebrity. Franklin D. Roosevelt was famous. Donald Trump is ... not in the same category.
Within its proper bounds — confined to stunts on a desert island or in a fake boardroom — the ethos of reality television is relatively harmless. Transposed to the highest level of politics, it is deeply damaging.
This is not only a matter of preferring a certain style of politics (though I think we should do better than the discourse of unhinged tweeting). The problem is a defect of spirit. The founders generally believed that the survival and success of a republic required leaders and citizens with certain virtues: moderation, self-restraint and concern for the common good. They were convinced that respect for a moral order made ordered liberty possible.
The culture of celebrity is the complete negation of this approach to politics. It represents a kind of corrupt, decaying capitalism in which wealth is measured in exposure. It elevates appearance over accomplishment. Because rivalries and feuds are essential to the story line, it encourages theatrical bitterness. Instead of pursuing a policy vision, the first calling of the celebrity is to maintain a brand.
Is the skill set of the celebrity suited to the reality of governing? On the evidence, not really. Our celebrity president, as on North Korea, is prone to take credit for non-existent accomplishments. As on the border wall and the travel ban, he deals in absurd symbols rather than realistic policies. As on Russian policy, he is easily manipulated by praise. As on the revoking of former CIA Director John Brennan’s security clearance, he uses the power of his office to pursue personal vendettas. Instead of yelling at the television when people displease him, he now has the power to hurt them in practical ways.
When a real estate developer attacks an enemy in the tabloids, it is a public relations spectacle. When the president of the United States targets and harms a citizen without due process, it is oppression.
But the broader influence of celebrity culture on politics is to transform citizens into spectators. In his book “How Democracy Ends,” David Runciman warns of a political system in which “the people are simply watching a performance in which their role is to give or withhold their applause at the appropriate moments.” In this case, democracy becomes “an elaborate show, needing ever more characterful performers to hold the public’s attention.” Mr. Madison, meet Omarosa.
Donald Trump is sometimes called a populist. But all this is a far cry from the prairie populism of William Jennings Bryan, who sought to elevate the influence of common people. Instead, we are seeing a drama with one hero, pitted against an array of villains. And those villains are defined as anyone who opposes or obstructs the president, including the press, the courts and federal law enforcement. Trump’s stump speeches are not a call to arms against want; they are a call to oppose his enemies. This is not the agenda of a movement; it is the agenda of a cult.
Will the republic survive all this? Of course it will. But it won’t be the same.