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Celebrity power could transform our politics

Celebrity power could transform our politics

This week, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson joined the collection of celebrity heavyweights threatening to run for President. As I’ve mentioned in several pieces, I think Trump has broken down the barrier between celebrity and politics in way that has dangerous implications. In a piece at Forbes today I digest several of these ideas down into a single theme.

Unlike Trump, Johnson seems like a decent human being. That doesn’t help much. The Presidency has evolved into an incredibly complex job with power our founders never imagined. If we lose our capacity to place qualified governing professionals in that role, we will have to rethink the shape of the Presidency. More than that, we may have to look beyond government for ways to solve collective problems.


  1. Because AI has been discussed here, I offer this article from the Stone, which makes the case that 45 is our first AI president.


    “When we strip away all moral, ethical and ideological considerations from his decisions and see them strictly in the light of machine learning, his behavior makes perfect sense.”

    “It isn’t saddled with any confounding principles such as what constitutes socially acceptable or unacceptable behavior or which decisions might result in negative downstream consequences.”

    “If any one quality could be ascribed to A.I. neural networks, it would be relentless “single-minded” self-interest.”

    It’s a tidy analysis.

  2. I am sure I have already been labelled a crackpot and extremist, but I will ask the question anyway.

    At what point it is patriotic, even required of rational thinkers, to actively plot to overthrow an existing regime, by any means necessary? If some group managed to kill the Dear Leader in North Korea, and replace that existing regime with one that was sane, would anyone complain about the rule of law?

    At what point does the Western world say “whoa there buddy, you are too ill-informed to have a say in running a country, or the planet.”? How many of us have thought “Man, unless you can demonstrate some basic understanding of global economics, geography, and religion, you are not allowed to vote.”?

    Yes, I am fully aware that my views lead down the path of despotism, But truly, most of us, in our heart of hearts, have thought, “that person is criminally stupid, or so willfully ignorant, they should have no input that affects my life.”

  3. I have to disagree with you again, Chris. For several reasons:

    1) This is a uniquely Republican (not necessarily conservative) problem. Just like self-professed freedom lovers and patriots have a secret crush on authoritarian Putin, those who profess to hate liberal elite Hollywood vote for them in droves when possible. The vast majority of successful celebrity politicians have been Republican, despite the vast majority of celebrities being Democratic. Reagan, Fred Thompson, and Arnold Schwarzenegger were all Republicans. While Reagan was a governor before, what govt credentials did A.S. have? The only Dem celebrity I can think of is Al Franken, and I’d argue what propelled him to victory wasn’t his Stuart Smalley SNL pieces, but the fact that he was a Harvard-educated liberal who wrote several popular books exposing Rush Limbaugh and the far right.

    The celebrity wall was breached long ago on the Republican side. They just never had any celebrities to take advantage of it. I believe there’s a reason for this: Republicans at least since Reagan have campaigned that govt is always the problem, never the solution. That means in the Republican worldview, govt is *always* incompetent, almost by definition. If you believe that, then of course, it makes no difference whether the President is smart and serious or a dumb clown. Neither ever gets anything done. And at least the clown is funnier.

    Democrats believe that govt is the solution for at least some problems we face, so as much as we might adore Katy Perry and follow her twitter feed breathlessly, most of us look for someone competent when election time comes around.

    Republican politicians have been digging their own graves for decades, essentially campaigning that they are incompetent at running govt well. As P.J. O’Rourke joked, “Republicans campaign that government is incompetent, then get elected and prove it.” Is it any surprise now that people take them at their word, and go looking for someone else?

    2) Trump’s appeal wasn’t his celebrity. It was his being a “successful businessman”. Yes, he had the Apprentice, but even most Trump supporters hardly consider that enough to make him more than a D-list celebrity. IOW, another Republican meme has come home to roost. Republicans have idolized business and free markets as the answer to everything, that every problem in the world can [only] be solved by unleashing the power of capitalism, and nothing else. Is it any surprise then that people decide to elect a businessman rather than a politician?

    My ears bleed every time someone says “if only the government ran like a business”, because I understand the difference between macro- and micro-economics, or a central bank vs. a private bank, or public debt vs private debt. Yet Republicans have spent decades erasing those distinctions in the public mind, so that when they sell out their constituents to private interests, they’ll believe it was for their own good. But if capitalism and business is the answer, and we’re going to be sold out anyway, why not hire someone who wrote the book on the art of the deal?

    FWIW, this started before Trump. GWB was a lousy governor and a lousy businessman. With his daddy’s connections, he started an oil investment firm (seeded by the BinLaden Group, incidentally) and lost his investor’s money. Then, again with daddy’s connections, he buys a baseball team, thus fleeing capitalism’s red tooth and claw and entering a business domain so socialist it would make the Soviets blush. Yet he campaigned for President as a successful businessman thanks to his Harvard MBA and his record of “success” as a businessman. And wins against Gore by painting him as that smart teacher’s pet that you always hated in class.

    Again, this is a unique pathology of Republicans. Democrats view the role of government as taming the capitalist beast (but not killing it 🙂 and ensuring that its energy goes to improving society. We view government as both a partner and sometimes a necessary adversary to business interests. Which is why despite having plenty of successful businessmen in our party, very few of them have become successful politicians.

    At the end of the day, this has nothing to do with the zeitgeist of today’s society and everything to do with the Republican platform and messaging for the past few decades. If Republicans have convinced their electorate that the best thing to do with government is drown it in a bathtub, and let private businesses pick off pieces of the carcass for fun and profit (hello charter schools, “public/private” infrastructure, BlackWater mercenaries, etc, etc.), you hardly need a pointy-headed Harvard law professor to do it. Far better to choose a “successful businessman” who can at least sell our public assets for the highest price.

    1. Um…do you think that might be just a tad self-congratulatory? Dwayne Johnson, Oprah and Kanye will all run as Democrats if they decide they need a party at all. There’s another, much simpler explanation for why Democrats have had fewer celebrity interlopers over the years – patronage.

      Democrats run a very large patronage organization. The power of that patronage engine has been weakening ever since JFK broke it in 1960, but it isn’t dead yet. That patronage engine explains why the still reserve a huge chunk of convention delegates for insiders instead of letting primary voters choose their nominee.

      If you think the tattered remnants of that machine could allow some boring party shill like Warren or Booker to beat Dwayne Johnson…well, that’s a bet I’d be happy to take.

      1. Chris-

        Is the Republican patronage machine any smaller than the Democratic one? Everyone who gains power uses it to send spoils to their supporters. True patronage “machines” only exist in a few cities (and much weakened at that) like Chicago. Admittedly, in the 70s, Dems had dominated government for so long (at least since FDR) that their patronage networks were extensive. But now, Dems are the minority party at every level except city govt. There is no patronage unless you have power. Illinois is instructive: both R & D governors are currently sitting in jail for essentially patronage operations they carried out while in power.

        Do you think that long-time (i.e. at least the last few decades) Republican strongholds like Texas, the deep South, etc. run less on patronage?

        Regarding Dem superdelegates, there’s a great history of how they came about to be at

        Short answer: it was a result of the disastrous election results the Dems faced since 1968 (indeed, Carter ran the first modern insurgent campaign, defeating the Dem establishment candidates), and nothing to do with patronage. Regardless, in their history so far, superdelegates have never thrown an election to a candidate that didn’t also win the majority of elected delegates.

        If someone like Johnson, West, or Oprah runs *and* gets the Dem nomination (or at least significant popular support) in 2020, I’ll happily eat my words (although I’d point out that IMHO, at least Johnson and Oprah would likely be better Presidents than Trump…) . I just don’t see that happening. Heck, I still submit that Trump didn’t campaign on his celebrity, he campaigned on the illusion of being a great businessman, which definitely plays better with Republicans than Democrats.

      2. The Republican patronage machine was strangled to death during the Roosevelt years. Democrats were in power too consistently at too many levels for too long. Republicans simply lost all the capital it takes to run a patronage machine. That’s why you see the last Republican mayors in many big cities like Chicago and Philadelphia about that time.

        Republicans didn’t become the party of ideology because they wanted to. It was forced on them. And it left them in the wilderness for half a century while they figured out how to do it.

        We are coming to the end of an era of patronage democracy, mostly just because of rising standards of living. The wider environment now favors a party structured like the GOP rather than the old machinery of the Dems. The Berniecrats are a harbinger of what’s to come for the Democrats.

    1. There will always be powerful people doing consequential things. Across a certain era of American (and human) history, an elected President, constrained by powerful rules and norms, was among the most powerful of those people. That nexus of power, through which a population used democratic machinery to concentrate their capabilities, produced some remarkable human achievements. That era may be ending.

      There will still be powerful people doing consequential things, but by turning the Presidency into a gonzo entertainment spectacle, our most powerful representative may no longer be among them. I think that possibility is very real.

      It brings me back to that piece I wrote about the movie, Idiocracy. In the world of that story, someone was still out there, off-camera, living a pretty decent life. The misery was concentrated among those who still depended on a failed democracy.

      1. I can see that happening, at which point the Presidency will be like the British monarchy: a mildly interesting form of reality TV but o/w completely inconsequential to the daily functioning of the nation.

        The real question is: who will be the new positions of power? And will they be elected? Does the appointed cabinet become the true source of power, with the President a mere rubber stamp? Or does the Speaker of the House finally become what the Founders envisioned him/her to be: our version of a Prime Minister?

  4. Much as a President Rock would spawn what would assuredly be a golden age for Twitter and memes (“Rock the House”, anyone?), it’s important to take things in a broader context before we start decrying the fall of the professional presidency. I’ve argued this before, but if the celebrity barrier has indeed been broken in politics, Trump was the absolute worse person imaginable to have done that, and not just in the obvious ways.

    First impressions matter, and we are seeing the unmitigated chaos and sheer lunacy of a celebrity with no experience in public service or government in such a way that even the public’s notoriously short memory will have it stick. It’s not a difficult concept to grasp; if you’re going to serve in the highest levels of government, you need at least some minimum level of experience and know what the hell you’re doing.

    Furthermore, surely the experience of Trump will have any aspiring celebrities think twice about just what the hell they’re getting into. As goes the old saying, you have to be a little bit crazy to run for the presidency. No one’s jumping in thinking they can just run a campaign just for kicks and publicity anymore. If Trump can win, anyone can win.

  5. Good timing on your Forbes piece:

    “after years as the undisputed king of cable news, Fox News ranked third in prime-time this week among the 25-54 age group most important to advertisers, finishing behind its rivals MSNBC and CNN. In total audience, MSNBC edged out Fox News in prime-time on three nights, an unsettling sign for an evening schedule scrambled by last month’s exit of Bill O’Reilly.”

    And this line, which could also have been written to describe the White House:

    “The drumbeat of tough headlines has taken a toll on morale at Fox News, with employees on and off camera describing a feeling of being under siege.”

    Interestingly enough, this was also how employees described working at Breitbart under Bannon:

    I guess working under extreme right wing nut jobs is stressful and over time results in a snowball of mounting crises.

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