When a famous politician dies, what generally follows is not so much a paean to the fallen man but to the enterprise of politics itself, the highness and seriousness and nobility of it. Somebody will quote Teddy Roosevelt on the man “in the arena” (Pete Hegseth has a book out on that speech and its theme), and they’ll dig up some dusty old rival from the opposite party to talk about what a worthy opponent he was.
This is at odds with the reality of politics. Right now in Philadelphia, there is under way a Democratic convention in which, in the words of Vice’s Michael C. Moynihan, “the arena seems to be filled with suicidal Marxists who work at TGI Friday’s.” The Democrats deride the GOP as the party of tired, old, out-of-touch white men living in the past . . . and then introduce Paul Simon for one last warbling and off-key rendering of “Bridge over Troubled Water.” (They probably could have gotten John Legend, who began his career in Philadelphia, at half the price.) Could have been worse, though: Last time around, it was James Taylor.
The Republican convention was equally marked by a hunger for celebrity, though Republicans, with all due respect to our friend Pat Sajak, generally have slimmer pickings in the celebrity business. The GOP went full celebrity-worship this time around, forsaking 16 better presidential contenders to nominate a famous game-show host and tabloid grotesque in Donald Trump. Meanwhile, one of the little Trumps (Uday or Qusay, I forget which) already is talking about running for mayor of New York City, which, to be fair, has done relatively well sending billionaire megalomaniacs to Gracie Mansion.
Celebrity is a very strange and powerful thing. The great science-fiction writer William Gibson has considered it as an independent cultural and economic phenomenon in his novel Idoru and elsewhere, but we already are beyond the reach even of speculative fiction. Celebrity touches something deep in the lizard brain. It probably is an inevitable sensory response to encountering figures that we are used to seeing as literally larger-than-life (on cinema screens and billboards) or as omnipresent, like the Holy Spirit and Arby’s. New York City, being celebrity-ridden and geographically compact, has a fairly well-developed code of behavior for celebrity encounters (studiously ignoring them), which is fortified by the New Yorker’s default belief that he is the most important person in any room. Los Angeles has a similar though distinct code. The nation at large, however, does not have those tools, and most of us are easily gobsmacked by celebrity. Devin Friedman’s profile of Rob Gronkowski in the June issue of GQ contains a hilarious, and slightly sad, account of an encounter between the football star and an aggressive fan in a Florida steakhouse. His people run interference, and she goes away cursing him: “This is what brings Gronk low. He doesn’t understand it, really. This ownership people feel they have over him.” Presumably, he understands it a little more clearly when he cashes the checks. There is a reason jerseys and sports gear emblazoned with certain names command a premium.
It would be a mistake to think of the Democrats’ elevation of Herself as less celebrity-driven than the GOP’s embrace of Trumpism.
Consider the strange hierarchy of status symbols. Insurance salesmen in Indianapolis believe that they can raise their social status by being associated with (through ownership) certain consumer goods, for instance sports cars or expensive wristwatches. The makers of these products, in turn, believe that they can raise the status of their goods by associating them with certain celebrities. The connection can be as transparent, shallow, and tenuous as you like, but that does not mean it isn’t effective: It may very well be the case that Fernando Alonso and Leonardo DiCaprio have very strong feelings about Tag Heuer watches, though I doubt very much that Tiger Woods, at the height of his career, drove a Buick. You can hang out in the makeup aisle of HEB all day and night, but you probably aren’t going to run into Eva Longoria. That everybody knows this, and that it does not matter, is the seeming paradox at the heart of our response to celebrity.
A few years ago, I was sent to review a Broadway production of Breakfast at Tiffany’s starring Emilia Clarke of Game of Thrones as Holly Golightly. (She looked bereft without her dragons.) The play’s producers cannily inserted a scene in which Holly appears naked, briefly, before sinking into a bathtub. Out came a thousand cameras to snap photographic evidence that the owner had been in a room with an undressed Emilia Clarke. The play momentarily came to a halt. That seemed to me strange: Emilia Clarke is the nakedest woman on television. If you want to see her naked, there are six seasons of Game of Thrones to choose from. You can see her in various sexual encounters, emerging naked from not one but two different fires, etc. It wasn’t prurience that caused those theatergoers to forsake their manners and their senses — what’s an iPhone snapshot from 200 feet in a world of wall-to-wall pornography? — but celebrity, the opportunity to say, “We shared this space in the world, and I am elevated by that experience.”
There are a dozen Democrats who would have been better choices for the presidency than Mrs. Clinton, and a dozen dozen Republicans who would have been better than Der Apfelstrudelführer. But none of them carries the semi-divine investment of celebrity.
The problem with celebrity culture, and with its new ubiquity in the political sphere, is that it does not throw up very good political leaders. The skill set required to become a reality-television star is indeed rare and valuable, but it simply is a different skill set from that required to deal with, e.g., Muslim fanatics sawing the heads off people in French churches.
— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.