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Reagan, Trump … Kanye? How Entertainers Hijacked American Politics

on January 02, 2017, 12:00am

The western front of the US Capitol, which has played host to all outdoor presidential inaugurations since Ronald Reagan took the oath of office in January 1981, is a stage unlike any other in America. A president-elect who stands on the west front terrace stands in the presence of giants both figurative and literal. There are the ghosts of prior national leaders swarming and encircling the dais, surely, but there’s also the Washington Monument towering over the National Mall in the middle distance and, beyond that, a 19-foot marble statue carved in the likeness of Abraham Lincoln. Add in the roughly one million people who descend on the Mall to witness the inauguration firsthand, and the scene begins to take on a sublime, almost surreal significance. Presented on a stage like this, the inauguration ceases to be merely an inauguration. It becomes something more: a self-mythologizing statement meant to resound for the next four to eight years and beyond.

Though it was not his decision (contrary to popular belief) to move the inauguration from the Capitol’s eastern front to its more dramatic western side, Reagan understood the power of the right kind of stage. The former Hollywood actor called attention to it in his first speech as president, noting its grandeur and drawing on it to imbue his words with gravitas. It helped that Reagan already possessed his own kind of grandeur. His star began to rise in the 1940s thanks to roles in films such as Knute Rockne, All American and Kings Row, and by the mid-‘50s he was a household name and beloved host of the General Electric Theater on CBS. Before officially entering the political ring as a conservative spokesman for Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign, Reagan had already been in the public eye for more than two decades. Though he wasn’t the first entertainer to successfully transition into national politics (that honor probably belongs to former song-and-dance man George Murphy, who served as a US Senator in the ‘60s), “The Gipper” represented a new breed of politician bred and groomed in the entertainment industry.

Timing was as much a factor here as Reagan’s innate charm and ability to captivate an audience. Throughout the 1940s and ’50s, America’s popular culture began to swiftly coalesce around film and television. The number of homes with TVs could be measured in the thousands before 1947; by the mid-’50s, that number had grown to encompass more than half of all US homes. Those tiny black-and-white sets presented a stage far less grand in scope than, say, the steps of the Capitol building, but it must have seemed no less magical at the time. Thus Reagan came of age, first as an actor and then as a politician, during an era in which the public’s relationship to celebrities of all stripes dramatically shifted. No longer were these people whose faces only appeared on posters and on the silver screens at the cinema. They were the people you ate dinner with, the people you came to know and learned to trust almost as friends, despite the fact that you had never (and probably would never) had a real relationship with them.

Reagan won the governorship of California and then the presidency of the United States based in part on his actual policies, but perhaps in larger part on this artificial, one-sided relationship between fan and entertainer. Film and television had made him a larger-than-life figure, and he happily played up that role during his political campaigns, during which he spoke in grand terms of America as a “shining city on a hill” and promised that he was the hero sent to make it great again in the wake of economic downturn. Though his own “trickle down” economic policies proved, along with plenty of other aspects of his agenda, to be disastrous, Reagan unceasingly presented himself as a patriotic and pragmatic politician who thrived under the harsh glare of the national spotlight. He was, after all, an entertainer — the spotlight came naturally to him.

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On January 20th, 2017, another former entertainer will take to the dais in front of the Capitol and look out on a scene similar to the one Reagan saw back in 1981. President-elect Donald Trump may lack the ideology, dignity, demeanor, and other qualities that made Reagan such an effective politician, but he represents the same modern tradition of entertainers rising to high political office against all odds. Though Trump’s path to the entertainment spotlight followed a prominent career in business and differed from Reagan’s in other respects, neither man would ever have made it as far as they did without first introducing themselves to America through the lens of celebrity. Indeed, those who are horrified by Trump’s unlikely rise and searching for answers should look no further than the rise of entertainment as a persistent, inescapable, and culturally pervasive force that can no longer be separated or even distinguished from the “real life” concerns of politics and global affairs.

Whereas roughly half of American households owned TVs in the 1950s, today that number has surpassed 95 percent. (It would be closer to 100 percent if not for the rise of internet streaming, which has led many to replace their television sets with laptop computers or mobile screens.) The point is that entertainment mediums, and thus entertainers themselves, have never been more ubiquitous, and Americans have never been more captivated by their every deed and movement. As we spend more and more time with our celebrities, the line between entertainment and reality has naturally blurred. Whereas politicians of years past needed only to hold the public’s attention for the length of a speech or a fireside chat, today’s politicians are tasked to connect with their base via a constant stream of tweets, televised interviews, vlogs, and other forms of rapid-fire, easily digestible communication. Nobody is better suited to fulfill these demands, arguably, than those already familiar with the business of entertainment.

Whereas Reagan’s transition from actor to politician owed more generally to the rise of popular culture, Trump’s ascendance to the presidency can be traced back to two specific aspects of modern American culture: the advent of reality television and the 24-hour news cycle. The former places a high value on unscripted moments and thus on celebrity figures who can perform with or without a teleprompter. In many ways, reality TV is the culmination of the strange relationship that began when televisions first brought well-known personalities into the home in the 1950s.

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Viewers have always related to the characters on their favorite scripted sitcoms — it’s what makes those sitcoms so successful in the first place. From I Love Lucy in the ‘50s to Modern Family in the 2010s, scripted television shows offer an amplified, comedic, sometimes absurd, but utterly relatable glimpse into our own domestic lives. Reality TV, which blossomed in the late 1990s and early 2000s with shows like Big Brother and Survivor, offers something different but equally intoxicating: the prospect that we’re watching something real and authentic but also exceptional, a kind of truth that has nothing to do with our own domestic experience.

We don’t necessarily recognize ourselves in the characters, but we recognize some crucial aspect of our own reality in the off-script messiness. We come to know and understand the characters in these shows in the same way we “know” and “understand” their fictional counterparts. People affectionately referred to Reagan as “The Gipper” after a character he played onscreen, but nobody ever actually thought they were one and the same. Donald Trump, on the other hand, is literally the same Donald Trump who played the tough, no-nonsense boss on the hit reality game show The Apprentice.

Therein lies the unique ability of reality television stars: They can walk off screen. They can attend real-life parties, perpetrate real-life scandals, even run for real-life political offices. It’s probably not a stretch to say that many of those who voted for Trump in the recent election based part of their opinion of him on his portrayal in The Apprentice. Similarly, it shouldn’t be ignored that the same talents it takes to be a reality star — the ability to work off-script, a penchant for stoking controversy, a distinctive physical appearance, and a reliance on simple catchphrases like “You’re Fired!” or “Make America Great Again” — played to his massive advantage as a political candidate.

Credit is also due, of course, to the 24-hour news cycle perpetuated by networks like CNN and online publications like, yes, this one (among countless others). These outlets lean heavily on dramatic personalities to fill out the nooks and crannies of their content, which audiences demand to be not only available but refreshed on a constant basis. Entertainers like Trump and possible future presidential candidate Kanye West have proven the time-tested adage that no press is bad press, and they have seemingly gone out of their way to do and say things the media deems newsworthy. More “traditional” candidates in this last election cycle — the Jeb Bushes, the John Kasichs, the Martin O’Malleys — were drowned out or pushed to the side while the Trump campaign self-consciously gobbled up the headlines. While exhausting and beyond cynical, this was nonetheless a shrewd move that recognized exactly how modern news consumption works and exploited it to the logical extreme.

Kanye West

Though Reagan was among the very first entertainers to break out onto the national political scene and thus paved the way for the political careers of Jesse Ventura, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and others, he would probably have been horrified and appalled by the mechanisms that catapulted Trump into power, as well as by the complete lack of dignity and distinction with which his successor holds himself. He may well have joined the chorus of voices in the media and elsewhere calling out Trump’s practices as “not normal,” but that cry seems to be missing the point.

There is, in truth, no such thing as “normal” or “not normal” within the context of our current technology and pop culture. The rise of a character as vile and as outrageous as Donald Trump would have indeed been impossible in the ‘90s or even the early 2000s, but it has been made possible by the way Americans consume and respond to entertainment in the 2010s. There’s no telling how culture will continue to shift as we approach the 2020s and, thus, no telling how far the axis of normality will shift. If anything, this past year has taught us that we are not particularly good at the art of prediction.

That is why it is irresponsible at best to scoff at the notion of a celebrity figure like Kanye West successfully running for president in 2024 or beyond. We ridiculed the notion of Trump accomplishing the same task just several years ago, but reality bent in such a way as to make it not only probable but, in hindsight, perhaps inevitable. When Trump takes the inauguration stage on January 20th and takes the oath of office, he may well be ushering in a new era in which the crudest aspects of American pop culture and the most hallowed aspects of American politics are inextricably linked, the former subsuming the latter.

Many in the media have latched onto the fact that Trump can’t find anyone of note to perform at his inauguration, but this is again missing the point. An entertainer of Trump’s magnitude was always going to be the main attraction. Whether they come or not, he doesn’t need any other performers to steal or share a bit of his spotlight. If Trump had it his way, he would probably also raze the Washington Monument and remodel the Lincoln Memorial in his own image — anything to draw the public’s attention away from any possible historical distractions. Though he wraps himself in the colors of the flag and frequently invokes America’s former greatness, Trump really has little use for the lessons and traditions of the past. His candidacy — and, most likely, his presidency — concerns itself less with realizing the Republican values upon which America was originally founded than with replicating the hollow spectacle of a modern Hollywood blockbuster.

The worst thing we can do is sit back and enjoy the show.

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