• Daniel Ethan Finneran

The New Polity: Celebrity

January 2018

Government comes in many shapes. The kakistocracy is government by the worst; the plutocracy, by the purse. The kleptocracy is led by bandits; the punditocracy by opinionated elites. The thalassocracy, a form known not to us but to those confined to islands, carves it laws as Cretans did the sea, while the democracy, our modern form of state, charts its course through the turbulence of popular whim. The tellurocracy, by contrast, reaps its power from the earth, while the aristocracy, also by contrast, endows itself by birth.

Still, there lies before us more than a few types of government to name. We mustn't forget the timocracy, the technocracy, nor the tyranny, whose respective possessions include some things, smarter things, and all ill-gotten things at once. Nor is our list complete without the ecclesiocracy or the theocracy, which give to us our laws from the heavens above—be they mediated or direct. Where the mandates of heaven fail, earthly treasures succeed; they replace the old religious piety with a newly-minted corporatocracy, or a government beholden to the business class—one that worships on an economic alter profits, where once the golden calf of prophets brought men to their knees.

What name, then, are we to bestow upon this newest form of government—in which actors, stars, celebrities, and charlatans vie for the highest offices in the land? This type of government in which TV personalities have created—with the strength of their smiles and the subtle comforts of their brands—strange new cults of political personality? You’d think every term had been used—every archaic, ungainly Greek prefix and suffix attached. You’d think that the fertile but dated Latin had been milked to its last linguistic drop. The last thing we need right now, you might reasonably say, is some newfangled, worthless word. After all, you might quietly hope, this rule by celebrity is just a moment, not a movement, and it’ll be over in a few short years.

And it may well be. This experiment with Donald Trump as president and Commander-in-Chief might soon pass us as quickly as it came. In three short years, we might find ourselves reflecting on how this ever came to be—how a fading yet omnipresent reality television show host, in between his moonlighting as a businessman, pantomiming as a pundit, and daydreaming as a diplomatist, shot his way up to the top of the political mountain and climbed into the world’s most powerful seat. We’ll look back with nostalgia or nausea at the exciting, fatiguing, fraught, and contentious four years that are sure to define his presidency. We’ll rejoice the economic booms and lament the many moral busts and, ultimately, we’ll be made to decide if the loss of the one was worth the other’s gain. We’ll learn our lessons from this fun but unsustainable character—this crass, vigorous, and virile man—bid him farewell as we do all presidents, and turn back to the status quo ante-Trump, to a humdrum time when attorneys, academicians, career politicians, and military personnel constituted our Executive.

Or not. Come 2020, President Trump may run not as an upstart but as an incumbent. Again, as before, he’ll likely tear through the Midwest and the southeast with his trademark and inexplicable vigor, accompanied this time by a renewed irascibility and a seasoned determination. He’ll campaign in all of those fertile, forgotten spots—those places like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Indiana—each nestled and restless along that rough and tumble Rust Belt. There he’ll find his faithful “deplorables”, bustling, all of them, eager to refresh themselves in his overflowing overtures, his incendiary charisma, and his torrential appeal.

And who, on the Left, will contest him? Who has the tenacity of spirit to withstand his charge, the resilience of skin to deflect his jabs, and the quickness of mind to keep up with his ever-agile and changing ideas? Who can galvanize a nation embroiled in anger and heal the widening, festering wounds? Will it be a Biden, a Booker, a Gillibrand, or a Gabbard? How about a Warren, Franken, Sanders, or Harris. Heaven forbid it’s a Clinton—Hillary, Chelsea, or one we’ve not yet met—but that needn’t exclude all former First Ladies: Ms. Michelle Obama, whose elegance is bested only by her eloquence, could be a strong pick. Before her, there’d be obstacles (as always there are when one hasn’t the experience of having held elected office) and above her, a centuries-old ceiling made of glass. It’s a roof that begs to be broken but stubbornly stays intact.

From this group, which includes nearly every color and gender to tick off the requisite intersectional checklist, the Democrats will choose their candidate. He or she will then be thrust upon the stage to exchange words, insults, or worse with President Trump.

They could do this, and they very likely will, but there’s a growing possibility they’ll look beyond the entrenched political elite and intelligentsia for a new face in the crowd. Much as the Republicans did, whether willingly or not (one could claim the party was commandeered), the Democrats appear to be entertaining the idea of having a celebrity lead them forward into the second decade of this century. As it stands, theirs is a listless party in desperate need of a pulse, and in Oprah Winfrey, the TV, magazine, literary, and cinematic star and quintessential rags-to-riches and then riches-to-more-riches success story, it thinks it’s found just what it needs.

Winfrey has flirted with the idea before, albeit less seriously than did President Trump. You’ll recall that he, with a small but enthusiastic group of supporters, tried to break into national politics on more than one occasion. He did so as a Reform and then Republican Party nominee in the late 1980’s and early 2000’s. Though unsuccessful, he was intoxicated by the air in the political arena—that last frontier awaiting his arrival and conquest. Between his hesitant attempts in the 80’s and 2000 and his bold capture of the RNC in 2015, he took time to sharpen his attacks, blunt his edges, and amend or muddy almost all of his positions.

Oprah, on the other hand, has done none of these things. Aside from an off-handed comment here or there, she’s given little indication that she’s politically ambitious. At the most, she’s lent her name, her celebrity, and her purse to other prominent Democratic candidates running for high office, but she’s not personally been involved in an elective race.

What she did though, was deliver a rousing speech at the Golden Globes award show. She was the honored recipient of the Cecil B. DeMille award, a bronze statuette bestowed upon the year’s most outstanding contributor to the fickle world of entertainment. In her acceptance speech, which lasted just shy of ten minutes, many heard the incipient sounds of an Inaugural or State of the Union Address. As only Oprah can, she spoke with the passion of an orator and the candor of a confessor. In brief, she recounted her frightfully tragic but inspiring upbringing, her skin color, her sexuality, and her fierce femininity. She did so with a pathos that’s unknown, or better yet, anathema to the garden-variety politician in today’s day and age. She was forceful in her sincerity, graceful in her delivery, and wholly unapologetic. America took note.

As is its habit, after her speech finished, Twitter was in a tizzy. Millions of Oprah’s followers and fans had in a moment become her unflinching political apostles. The tagline “Oprah 2020”—much like that of ideal eyesight—became clear as day in the midst of a darkening sky. She alone became a political savior and revelation. Her name and the year bounced around every nook online and gathered an avalanche of support. Pundits took note and joined in the wishful thinking. They took to the airwaves to entertain or expound upon their dreams of one nation, under Oprah, indivisible and with audience hand-outs for all. Everyone was abuzz, as always they are, for the arrival of Oprah, for the coming of her age and her revolution and, ultimately, our national redemption from this age of Trump.

This is how Democrats see the prospect of Oprah Winfrey as their party head, but they fail to see the danger therein. It’s a danger they’re quick to point out in the person of Donald Trump, but slow to acknowledge in the equally unqualified Oprah Winfrey. She, like he, is a political tyro—untried and untested—and perhaps to an even greater degree. The difference is that he at least dabbled in running for office before taking it seriously and committing himself to the task. She hasn’t even done this.

More than anything, this situation reveals how far the lofty demands we once placed upon our political candidates have fallen. We’re witnessing, strangely but rapidly, the unprecedented shift in which Hollywood supplants Capitol Hill and celebrity replaces the polity. It’s a transition, I don’t think, history has yet seen and therefore, hasn’t appropriately named. So, I ask, with what little creativity we can spare, what are we to call this new form of government—this new type of ruling class in which showmen, stars, and actors reign supreme? In which the time-honored science, practice, and art of statecraft is but a speck of dust, an unseen superfluity in the grand multi-verse of celebrity? Not one of those types of government I listed above quite fits the bill. So, at the risk of throwing into the verbiage another pretentious portmanteau, I’ll propose this: let’s call it a thespiocracy—or, a rule by the thespians. Whether we acknowledge it or not, it’s they, after all, who really do rule us. Their patron saint is the stage and their captured audience (namely, us) can’t escape. Trump 2020, Oprah 2020—a new era in governance has officially begun. Dim the lights…cue the camera…everyone in place…let the political theater begin.

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