Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s political success is largely attributable to three factors:
the racial resentment he has mined;
the way he has used economic populism to gain support; and
his appeal as a celebrity.
The last of these factors is possibly the most difficult to understand. Celebrity is all around us, but most academics are yet to take seriously the field of political celebrity studies.
How Trump has used celebrity
In 1961 Daniel Boorstin offered up the definition of a celebrity as “a person who is known for his well-knownness”. Trump took this one step further, contending he should be famous before he was well known because he was Donald Trump.
Trump once pretended to be his own PR agent and claimed Madonna wanted to date him. He lives by the ethos that confident and dramatic assertions get attention and that such attention means people will buy into what he is selling (which is largely himself).
The 2016 Republican Party primaries were more like a reality TV show than a political process. Policies were reduced to hyperbole and symbolism. Trump’s dramatic mantra of “I will build a wall and make Mexico pay!” reeked of a bravado reminiscent of American professional wrestling, where fighting is much-talked-about but never truly engaged in.
Trump applied one of the cardinal rules of reality TV: the contestant who behaves most outrageously will get the most attention and be retained to keep ratings high. In the end everyone knows your name and you might even win the contest – because at least you were not boring.
As the primary candidate with the highest name recognition, Trump used the spotlight from the beginning to make the most incendiary comments voiced by any politician in recent memory. In a crowded field, he either kept making attention-seeking statements or simply shot his mouth off.
Maybe Trump believed some of the things he said – at least on the day he said them – but this was less important to him than being entertaining.
In the end he was right: attention led to the most votes. This brought American politics to a new low: a result constantly lamented by journalists and opponents.
The evolution of ‘celebrity’
Rather than an aberration, Trump’s candidacy could well mark the beginning of a new trend. His approach suits an internet age obsessed with celebrities as the new two-for-one royals/revolutionaries of our time.
The modern celebrity has existed as two personalities: one being the undeniable talents such as Charles Dickens, and the other being those famous for being famous – like the young Oscar Wilde, who toured the US as a cause célèbre when he was barely published.
It was clear from the very beginnings of celebrity that being around the famous did strange things to the minds of their followers.
Fans assumed a false sense of familiarity and often wanted a piece of their idols: literally in the case of Dickens, with American devotees trying to snip off locks of his hair as keepsakes. Today’s equivalent is the selfie with the hero as bestie.
Gazing back from the internet celebrity explosion of the 21st century, celebrity in the 20th century seems quaintly explicable and talent-based.
The establishment of the film and TV industries and the emergence of rock and roll from the 1950s onwards created a huge stable of celebrities whose names were widely known. The most famous tended to be those who sold the most albums, whose films were the most popular, or who were arrestingly beautiful or flirtatious.
The ubiquity of Trump and Paris Hilton – people whose families were wealthy – reflected a change. Celebrity became more about attention and gossip than unique talent.
Trump is famous for living by the dictum that bad publicity is better than no publicity, which is an apt motto to sum up the internet age of the early 21st century.
As people stopped watching and reading a narrow range of establishment media, via TV networks and well-known newspapers, and turned to the internet for information, finding out about the world became often accidental and gained via clickbait. This is part of what journalist George Packer calls the unwinding of American society.
If you make an effort, the internet is an amazing source of varied information. But, for most people, the internet is not a substitute for the consumption of informed media.
Rock music has always been significantly about shock, but this aim is becoming harder to achieve with all manners of the extreme now just one click away. In this world, confession may be replacing shock for musicians.
For politicians, shock still has plenty of value – because politics has been faux polite for most of the period since TV’s invention. This was particularly true in the US, but Trump has upended the rules about being polite and not talking dirty in American politics – possibly forever.
Trump has clearly lived his life trying to be a name, a celebrity. He has taken the low road to fame with no particular talent apart from that of gaining attention.
This addiction to attention as an end in itself has led to Trump being willing to say racist and dangerous things without concern for the consequences.
One hopes Trump is the nadir of celebrity politics. But he more likely signals the beginning of a new phase of politics – where outrage and entertainment will be more important than facts, policies or the outlining of realistic plans for how change might occur.