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The Cult of Celebrity

To practice their craft, lawyers must pass the bar, diplomats take a series of exams, and senior military commanders undergo 20 to 30 years of specialized training and leadership. These jobs––lawmaker, diplomat, and military commander––are all contained in the role of the American president. Yet, this position, arguably the most powerful job in the world, has no base qualifications, other than US citizenship and a minimum age. Thus, the attention, power, and prestige that come with holding public office, especially at the highest level, holds attraction for celebrities who already bring name recognition and a following to the race.

Celebrities come across as trustworthy candidates to many Americans due to their familiarity and freedom from the negative perceptions of politicians. But ultimately, the prominence of unqualified celebrities in politics presents three main and interrelated issues: It uplifts candidates with a fundamental lack of expertise and ability to govern, erodes public norms, and promotes misguided motives for running for office. The cult of celebrity thus risks turning an already circus-like political spectacle into even more of a game show, undermining respect for government institutions. 

The power celebrities wield to influence people is termed “epistemic power.” The Cambridge University Press defines epistemic power as the influence a person has over what other people “think, believe, and know.” Celebrities use this power in a variety of ways, including starting trends, promoting brands and companies in advertisements, and supporting social causes. Where they go, people follow. While more traditional politicians need strong policy positions, campaign strategy, and debate skills, celebrity candidates generate news coverage and public discussion with their epistemic power. Their status also allows them to raise money, collect endorsements, and attract public support more easily than traditional candidates.

Additionally, the fame of celebrities legitimizes their candidacy in the eyes of many Americans, making them appear more genuine and trustworthy than a traditional career politician. According to researchers at the Tilburg Center for Logic, Ethics, and Philosophy of Science, people who exert greater amounts of perceived credibility––a phenomenon termed “credibility excess”––also exert “a greater degree of epistemic power than is warranted by their epistemic abilities and expertise.” 

Celebrities using their epistemic power to dip their toes into the political arena is nothing new. Ronald Reagan, a former Hollywood actor and president of the Screen Actors Guild, made a transition into politics, eventually becoming the 40th president of the United States. In 2016, businessman and media personality Donald Trump entered the political arena with a presidential run. Unlike Reagan, who had served for two terms as governor of California prior to winning the presidency, Trump had no political or military experience. Trump exemplified the phenomenon of candidates with perceived credibility who lack substantive governing experience. Thanks to his entrepreneurial accolades, “billionaire” persona, and role on The Apprentice, many Americans expected his business background to make him a successful president. In actuality, his “Art of the Deal” skills did not translate to the Oval Office. 

While Trump managed to put three justices on the Supreme Court––mostly by means of good timing and with significant help from then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell––the majority of his term was marred by political infighting, incompetence, and an ineffective response to the Covid-19 crisis. His first 100 days in office, tarnished by high-profile members of his team quitting and failed policy objectives, created an on-the-job training atmosphere, breeding chaos and confusion. Many of his executive orders did not hold up in court, and attempts at legislative bipartisanship were few and far between. Although divisiveness may be a successful campaign strategy, tact and collaboration are necessary to govern, meaning celebrities like Trump often do not come to office with the necessary expertise.

In addition to demonstrating celebrities’ potential lack of skills, Trump’s presidency also illustrates how those who are used to being “yes-manned” may not respect the ongoing traditions of public office. While most presidential candidates have been vetted repeatedly by voters through previous runs for office, Trump’s celebrity status enabled him to skip this litmus test, propelling him immediately to the highest office. As a result, he ran the country in the same manner he ran The Apprentice and the Trump Organization: He played by his own rules. Some prominent examples of this include not releasing his tax returns, directly interfering in the Mueller investigation, and attacking the news media. Trump’s disregard for presidential norms eroded an integral part of a functioning democracy that is necessary to uphold the respect of political institutions. 

Celebrities’ lack of preparation for public office and its responsibilities is unsurprising given that the conflation of celebrity and politician affects the motives of those running for office. When the primary currency becomes attention, not qualification, our democracy becomes more about show than substance. The former CEO of Fox News, Roger Ailes, had a saying: “If you want a career in television, first run for president.” Trump took his friend’s words to heart, and according to reports in journalist Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, Trump and his team were “disbelieving” and “horrified” that he had actually won. If the reports are accurate, then Trump’s primary motive for running was fame, not a desire to govern. 

An unqualified president tarnishes the seriousness and respectability of the Oval Office, both domestically and internationally. Pew Research polling conducted in 2021 finds that of 16 nations polled, only 17 percent believe that democracy in the United States is a good example for others to follow, and 57 percent say it used to be a good example but has not been in recent years. Thus, Trump’s legacy lingers, contributing to decreasing respect for American democracy on the international stage. 

On the other hand, being a celebrity of course does not disqualify someone from being a good president. Reagan’s charisma and effective Cold War dealings earned him the title “the Great Communicator.” In Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zolensky also made the transition from actor to politician, but has been successful in governing, especially as Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. If experience is gained, norms are upheld, and the motives are genuine, then a former celebrity has the potential to govern effectively and popularly. However, we ought to collectively remember that celebrity status is not a qualification for office and, if anything, it should give us reason for skepticism. 

As candidates begin to announce their bids for the 2024 election, we must avoid feeding into the cult of celebrity. People have proposed that well-liked celebrities like Oprah, Tom Hanks, or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson should run as Democrats if Trump is the Republican nominee. Instead of fighting celebrity with celebrity, Democrats (and Republicans) must bolster qualified, competent, and inspirational politicians, not the most click-baitable candidates. Biden’s presidency has temporarily restored a sense of political normalcy, and reverting back to starpower over substance would be disastrous for both parties.

The presidency must be more than a popularity contest if we are to fix our democracy and move away from spectacle-driven politics. The trend of celebrity politicians is dangerous and degrades respect for democracy. A presidential candidate’s appeal should be based on the impact they have already made governing, as well as their policy proposals and vision for America in the future. In 2024, politicians must be policymakers, not influencers.