Welcome to American politics in 2018: On Thursday, the nation's top political story was a televised meeting between a rap musician and a reality-TV star. In this case the rapper was mega-media star Kanye West and the reality TV guy now has a gig as president of the United States.
Two nights later, that televised celebrity encounter was re-"televised" on Saturday Night Live, with movie and TV star Alec Baldwin playing the role of President Trump.
The next night, that same Alec Baldwin was standing in front of 800 Democratic activists in New Hampshire — home of the "First-In-The-Nation" presidential primary — declaring "Let's 'Make America Great Again' by making Donald Trump a failed casino operator again!"
The number one topic of conversation around the Manchester, New Hampshire hotel when Baldwin was done was, "Will he be the next TV star to become president of the United States?"
"Do I think Alec Baldwin is likely to be the nominee? No. But will he run? He may. Will [Stormy Daniels' attorney] Michael Avenatti run? He probably will," veteran Democratic strategist Bob Shrum told the Washington Post. The subject of the article was the spike in the number of celebrities with no political experience who are making the list of potential 2020 candidates. Also on the list:
- Reality TV star and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban;
- Actor Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson;
- Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg;
- and (of course) Oprah Winfrey.
Not to mention political "celebrities" like Michelle Obama or billionaire and environmental activist Tom Steyer.
Is this the future of American politics? Reality TV stars and media-savvy CEOs? Just a few years ago, Kanye West vs. Alec Baldwin in a battle for the White House would have sounded like a sketch rejected by SNL because it was implausible.
What sounds crazy today? Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker vs. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Not that celebrity politics is anything new. The obvious example is Ronald Reagan, though by the time he ran for governor of California, his (modest) Hollywood career was a distant memory. Gen. Eisenhower was a celebrity in his own way, too, having just won WWII (with a little help).
And the story of the Kennedys is far more a story of celebrity and glamour than politics and policy.
But these examples from the past illuminate the problem with the current crop of celebrity-politico wannabes: All of them had some level of public service before they became president. Reagan was governor of California and the head of the Screen Actors Guild. Eisenhower had the management experience of being a general who had to navigate the political world. Jack Kennedy worked his way up through Congress.
But a president Kanye? Or Oprah? Or Trump, for that matter? The most pro-Trump partisan has to admit that his presidency has been hurt by his lack of experience playing on the field of politics. Many Trump advocates will tell you they're just fine with that. They don't want Trump to play the game. The want him to burn down the stadium.
And that seems to be the spirit of the celebrities getting the most attention. TV attorney Michael Avenatti makes no bones about the fact that he believes it's his relentless combativeness that makes him the best nominee for the Democrats.
[The nominee] is gonna have to understand the media age in which we live and operate," Avenatti says, because Trump is "in many ways is a branding and marketing genius who knows exactly how the media works."
But how the media works isn't how governance works. Kanye dropping "F-bombs" in the Oval Office is going to get media coverage. Alec Baldwin repeatedly saying "We must overthrow the government of Donald Trump" is an attention-grabber (though he carefully added that he means "overthrown" at the ballot box).
Unfortunately, all this attention-grabbing comes at the expense of alliance-building. Bipartisan cooperation and consensus don't get a ton of media coverage, and they're certainly never the subject of a "Saturday Night Live" bit. Politicians see the encroaching celebrity standard and they play along. It's no coincidence that Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, another potential 2020 candidate, felt the need to tell the cameras that he was having an "I Am Spartacus" moment — a moment from a movie, by the way.
There's a lot of political work that can be done by people content to work outside of the limelight. There are moments when the best thing a leader can do for her country is cut a deal that's complicated, detailed and difficult to explain.
That's not what celebrities do. They make entrances. They made drama. And then they head to the dressing room for a rubdown and an overpriced bottle of designer water.
Donald Trump's celebrity helped make him president, absolutely. But does anyone honestly think it's helping him with the hard work of actually being president?