In a matter of days Americans will vote on a new cohort of U.S. Senators in a midterm election cycle with significant bearing on the nation’s future. Among those vying for what is actually a tedious, bureaucratic “sausage-making” job, is a crop of celebrity-politicians whose electoral success, along with that of Donald Trump’s, is signaling what could be a fundamental change in the way political power works in America.
In Georgia, the state’s first Black U.S. Senator, a respected pastor, is being challenged by a football star who claims that Darwin’s theory of evolution is a hoax. If humans evolved from apes, he has opined, why are there still apes? Running for Ohio’s seat is a bestselling author and conservative personality who’s suggested that victims of domestic violence should just suck it up in the name of preserving the sanctity of “the family.” In Pennsylvania, one of the nominees is celebrity doctor, Dr. Mehmet Oz, known to peddle unproven health products on his Emmy-winning TV show and prescribe psychic mediums, relaying messages from the dead, to aid grieving families.
Once upon a time, in the not-so-distant past, the culture industry seemed content to play a supporting role in our politics. Celebrities surrogated for candidates, and reproduced social hierarchies through their conspicuous consumption and the characters they played. A notable exception, Dr. Oz’s mentor Oprah Winfrey helped to infuse “rugged individualism” into America’s cultural common sense, using her top-rated TV show to explain away the cruelties of Reaganism—and subsequent administrations’ bipartisan attacks on poor and working class people—as consequences of personal failure and individual pathology, putting a therapeutic face on their brutal executions of state power.
On the flipside, politicians have long been content to just dabble in the world of show business: Eisenhower appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, JFK went on late-night TV, Clinton donned shades while playing sax on Arsenio Hall, Obama slow-jammed the news with Jimmy Fallon. Today, however, the direct line between celebrity and political ascendance is altering the conventional dynamics of political power in anti-democratic ways. JFK and Obama may have used pop culture to achieve political ends, but they still employed legal-rational means, and the tools of bureaucratic administration, to govern. Trump, conversely, was a purely charismatic leader who exploited the tools of government to expand his celebrity, exercising a distinctly anti-institutional form of authority that derived its legitimacy not from laws and reason, but from loyalty and emotion.
According to classical sociologist Max Weber, charismatic leaders tend to gain traction when rational forms of government and institutions fail, when people lose faith in the establishment and desire escape from the dehumanizing and alienating effects of bureaucratic life. Unlike kings who draw power from legacy and tradition, or heads of State whose authority is vested in their role in the legal-rational order, a charismatic leader’s power is rooted in his or her followers’ beliefs and yearnings for transcendence.
Recent history bears this out. A few years before Trump was elected, pollster Patrick Caddell conducted a study of Republicans’ waning popularity and found an extraordinarily high level of discontent among voters and desires for “an outsider” to fix Washington. Similar trends could be seen in Europe, Turkey, the Philippines, and now Italy and elsewhere: reactionism was on the rise as quality of life and access to basic needs were on the decline and the contradictions of “free market” capitalism deepening. The rise of the antiestablishment celebrity-politician is a consequence of this decline—and of the gaping contradiction between political elites’ rhetoric about safeguarding freedom and democracy, and the unfreedoms and powerlessness that most people face.
Trump exploited these dynamics, playing up his celebrity and outsider status and appealing to Americans’ distrust of the establishment and desires to be entertained. The many who have tried to delegitimize his power on rational grounds – citing his grifting, nonsensical claims, embellishing of wins and distracting from failures – have ultimately failed, perhaps because his mass of supporters hold him to a different set of standards based on how they came to know him. After all, reality TV audiences know the shows are staged, and that cast members are performing images of their authentic selves, but they tune in faithfully and take pleasure in it anyway.
In this regard, the phenomenon of Trump and the celebrity-politician may be exposing some inconvenient truths about elite power and the culture industries operating on its behalf. Among them is the prospect that masses of people may be choosing emotional stimulation and entertainment over strivings for actual democratic power. Or worse, that they prefer the corruption they have come to expect to be at the hands of charlatan-entertainers rather than run through the regular, bureaucratic channels of technocratic political elites.