Vox Populi: A Public Sphere for Politics and Poetry
I suppose we should consider ourselves lucky that our bullying, narcissistic, impulsive man-child of a president is only fighting a Twitter war against MSNBC‘s Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski and the entirety of CNN rather than a real shooting war against North Korea or Iran, even if his war of words seems to be sucking up all the oxygen in government and the media.
For a lot of folks in the media, Trump’s eruptions provide yet another occasion to explore his lack of presidential temperament and even his sanity. There is a kind of exasperation in the coverage — a how-in-the-hell-did-we-let-this-happen incredulity, as if underscoring Trump’s deficiencies will somehow disable him and snap all of us back to our senses. Good luck with that.
What I think many of us have overlooked in his latest Twitter dust-up is that Trump doesn’t really see himself as a president, despite his constant vaunting that he is. Frankly, neither do a lot of the media, which may explain why he gets the kind of coverage he gets and why everyone seems preoccupied with the idiocy he tweets.
As a candidate, Trump proudly declared himself a non-politician, a populist outsider attacking the political establishment. He wasn’t. As I wrote last year, what he was really was a celebrity who stood entirely outside the political process, and who had absolutely no interest in it or in using it to further any program. All he wanted was to be president, to grab attention for himself — which is what celebrities do, not politicians.
It bears pointing out that we have never had a celebrity president before. Sure, we have had celebrities who became politicians — to wit, Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger. But they conformed to traditional politics, albeit using their acquired fame. And of course every president is famous, but celebrity is a subset of fame. It is not so much a status one has as it is a narrative art in which one becomes an ongoing protagonist in his or her own story.
Fame is public recognition. You can even be born into it, as the royals are. But celebrity is the art of capturing attention and then holding it, which is something most famous people – say, Angela Merkel or Bill Gates or Warren Buffett — don’t necessarily feel compelled to do.
Celebrity typically entails generating episodes or adventures that keep the media engaged and the wider public entertained. That is one job of publicists. It is all about stories. Think of the Kardashians, or Joey Buttafuoco and Amy Fisher, or Tonya Harding, or Martin Shkreli, or the late Zsa Zsa Gabor.
If you don’t think of them, that is precisely my point. Once the narrative peters out, the celebrity vanishes into oblivion, like a movie that has ended. Only the very best celebrities — a Madonna or a Britney Spears or Taylor Swift or, in yesteryear, an Elizabeth Taylor — manage to unspool ongoing adventures that continue to captivate the media and the public.
Not at all incidentally, this unspooling is also an engine of every reality TV show. But even the best celebrities eventually falter, as new narratives starring new people push aside old narratives starring older ones. Indeed, a spent celebrity is a pathetic thing.
All of this has deep relevance to our current president, who made a television show out of humiliating spent celebrities vying for his favor. By traditional standards, Donald Trump is a virtuoso of celebrity. Whether it’s The Apprentice, or his very public divorces and remarriages, or his Pharaoh-like construction projects, or his running feud with Rosie O’Donnell, or his World Wrestling appearances, for nearly 30 years Trump has gotten more than his fair share of tabloid attention.
Generating celebrity and keeping it going has been his life, and it is only when you see him in this context that you realize his run for the presidency was calculated as the latest and biggest chapter in his ongoing celebrity narrative — the best way to fan his fluttering celebrity flame because that is what celebrities do. They live to be reported upon, and they die without it.
But celebrities need an accomplice and Trump understood, after all those years of collaborating with the media, that they would fulfill that role for him with wall-to-wall coverage. There is no greater co-dependency in our modern media ecology than that of media and celebrity.
Of course, Trump figured rightly that the media would take his bait. They would find him far more interesting than a Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton, whose conventional political narratives were paltry compared to his celebrity. The media not only gave him scads more coverage than anyone else; they gave him a kind of coverage they had never given any previous candidate. They gave him National Enquirer/Page Six coverage, non-political celebrity coverage, while holding his opponents to a different and higher standard.
The only thing that has changed now that he is president is that the media can’t quite get their bearings. As we saw this past week, with the fuss and fury about tweets, the media still treat him more as a celebrity than as a world leader because it is near impossible to take him seriously, even though they know they should.
And that leads to yet another thing Trump knew from all those years of starring on the gossip pages: Celebrity is not a function of morality, or achievement, or substance, or seriousness. Celebrity narratives are all about one thing: entertainment value. So if you boast that you can grab any woman by the genitals because you are famous, you don’t suffer the same consequences you would if you were a real politician. Celebrities are immune from normal standards. (Look what Bill Cosby had to do to lose his celebrity shield.) Now that Trump is president, you can try pasting those standards on him, as the media has tried with his tweets, but the standards don’t stick. In a way, he is beyond opprobrium.
But excoriate Trump as you might, the media fixation on his tweets is not only a graphic example of his failings but also of the media’s, who were the Dr. Frankenstein in the creation of this monster. However you feel about Trump’s comments on Scarborough and Brzezinski, and I find his attacks on her especially deplorable, these two initially courted him as a celebrity in the process of fueling their own celebrity. They gave him airtime and fawning coverage. They had lunch with Trump. They visited Mar-a-Lago. And CNN was equally responsible for promoting the Trump phenomenon, handing their airwaves over to him and his cronies, only to feel buyers’ remorse now.
And so it is more than a bit disingenuous to pivot suddenly when the celebrity candidate they wooed turns out to be a vicious ignoramus as president. He was never anything but a vicious ignoramus – an old man so desperate for attention that he was going to use a bid for the presidency and the fate of the country as his latest narrative chapter. And the media let him get away with it.
I suspect that Trump isn’t as aggrieved by the negative coverage he gets, even from former “friends” like Joe and Mika, as by the fact that he feels the media have broken the rule of celebrity coverage, which is to be neutral. Instead, the political media, under compulsion to give this apolitical president some political treatment, have become judgmental. I am sure that in Trump’s eyes, this is bad form – not the way the Enquirer or Page Six operates. Still, you get the feeling that Trump isn’t anywhere near as furious as he seems. For an attention whore, coverage — whether good or bad — is all that matters.
I have written a lot over the years about the conflation of entertainment and politics. In a hyperactive society like ours, politics had to deploy entertainment or people would become bored. Trump’s tweets are one manifestation of this – short, impulsive, immediate, continuous, and generally brainless. They move instantly from the finger to the screen without being processed, which makes Twitter the perfect medium for celebrities like Trump, even as it degrades our discourse. (In a new poll, Republicans said that they found Trump’s tweets “truthful” in the first place and “entertaining” in the second.)
In his seminal book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, the late Neil Postman warned that the demise of the written word and of the ratiocination that accompanied it would coarsen our culture. Twitter is the awful fulfillment of that prophecy. And so, I am afraid, is Trump.
Those of us who believed in the conflation of entertainment and politics turned out to be wrong. There was no convergence. Rather there has been the obliteration of the second by the first. That was on full display last week during the tweet obsession. For the sad fact is this: Trump is not a celebrity politician. He is just a celebrity. The media don’t know what to do with that. They can try to pretend otherwise, to scold him as a presidential disgrace, but like all celebrities, he is incorrigible and untouchable.
Now we are stuck with him, and as the media hang on his every tweet, ignoring so much else in the areas of public policy, there is nothing we can do except wait for the next chapter of this surreal, ongoing White House reality show, wait for his promises of “big surprises,” which is the talk of a failing celebrity and not a president, and hope that fatigue sets in sooner rather than later.
Copyright 2017 Neal Gabler. First published in Moyers & Co.
Neal Gabler is the author of five books and the recipient of two Los Angeles Times Book Prizes, Time magazine’s non-fiction book of the year, USA Today‘s biography of the year and other awards. He is also a senior fellow at The Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California, and is currently writing a biography of Sen. Edward Kennedy.