Is the celebrity presidency here to stay?
What The Rock 2020 says about America
With President Trump at the helm, the American ship of state yaws lurchingly when it isn't cast adrift. An increasing number of commentators have stopped warning that the captain is looting the hold or setting an absurd course — they're just terrified of capsizing at the first sign of choppy seas. We need to steady the ship. We need ballast. We need a rock.
Or maybe ... The Rock?
Last Saturday night, it became "official": Dwayne Johnson is "running" for president. The quotes are not for irony but for ambiguity; while Saturday's "announcement" was a stunt, it's possible that Johnson genuinely harbors presidential ambitions. And there's a certain central-casting logic to such a candidacy. Johnson is a kind of perfect synthesis of the current and former president. He has Obama's cool and gentlemanly manner, and his similarly post-racial profile. And his version of hyper-masculinity is both less-threatening and far more convincing than the current president's braggadocio.
Of course, it's also possible that he has no intentions of the kind, but is just enjoying the effect of stoking speculation. Then again, that's what we once thought about Donald Trump.
Nor is Dwayne Johnson the only pop culture sensation who might throw his hat in the ring. Kanye West has repeatedly declared his intentions to run for president, possibly as soon as 2020 or 2024. And in some corners there's a palpable yearning for Oprah Winfrey to launch a campaign. After all, she polls better than a generic Democrat and considerably better than Elizabeth Warren, the politician currently considered the odds-on favorite to win the Democratic nomination.
You'd think that the manifest incompetence of the Trump administration would be souring Americans on the idea of electing neophyte celebrities — and cautioning those same celebrities that they may want to leave the job to the professionals. But so far, that's not what's happening. On the contrary, "normal" politicians are less popular than ever. While President Trump has an abysmally low approval rating for a modern American president at this point in his tenure, he still far outpolls the Republican Congress, and the Democratic Party's favorability is dropping faster than Trump's is.
Is Celebrity Apprentice the future of the American presidency?
If it is, in a sense it would be a return to its roots. The American presidency is a quasi-monarchical position, and was not originally conceived in partisan terms. While America's Constitution does not contemplate parties at all, James Madison in Federalist No. 10 did address the role of "faction" in a republic, arguing specifically that in a large republic factions would be numerous enough to offset one another rather than tear the republic apart. Whether he was right or not, the argument suggests an awareness that parties might develop in the legislature.
The president, though, was supposed to be above party or faction, and represent the nation. George Washington was the man for whom the presidency was originally designed, and his defining characteristic was the universal respect he garnered, from every region and class.
Since 1796, presidential contests have become overtly partisan affairs, but presidents were still expected to stand above mere partisan loyalties — and they've postured as such both on the campaign trail and in office.
In an era of rabid partisanship such as ours, such posturing is decreasingly effective, while the hunger for someone who can represent America as a whole only grows. That hunger was a crucial part of Barack Obama's appeal in both his primary campaign and in his first general election contest; he triumphed in part by creating a brand and a personal infrastructure that was independent of the Democratic Party, and appealing to independents rather than partisans. It was also, in a very different way, part of Donald Trump's appeal — after all, he ran (though he has not governed) as a populist, a tribune of the American people against the infrastructures of both parties and America's ruling class more generally. If both presidents' appeals wound up being far more divisive than unifying, it's in part because their respective visions of a more united America called for coming together in terms that read to the opposing side as surrender.
Figures like Dwayne Johnson and Oprah Winfrey are appealing precisely because they transcend those tribal divides. They are celebrities with fans in both "red" and "blue" America — unlike Clint Eastwood or Sean Penn (or former actor Ronald Reagan), they are not identified with a particular political disposition. Their inexperience — which goes far beyond merely being "outsiders" to Washington — is also essential to their appeal, because experience would necessarily mean taking sides in controversies that send our increasingly tribal parties to their respective tents.
Americans want a head of state who can bring the country together even as ordinary politics pushes us further and further apart. We want a rock to keep us stable, so that we all know who we are, and what we share together. And that's a reasonable thing to want. The problem is that we also need a head of government: Someone to steer the ship and manage the crew.
Our elected king has the powers of Elizabeth I rather than those of Elizabeth II. The president not only has the constitutional responsibility for executing and administering the laws, but oversees a vast permanent bureaucracy that the Constitution never envisioned but which no modern state can function without. And, as the legislature abdicates more and more responsibility, the president has an ever-freer hand to make war and peace at will and to rule by executive order. Putting that kind of responsibility into the hands of an inexperienced celebrity, even one with a vastly more presidential temperament than Trump, is a recipe for foolish decision making or usurpation of power by the permanent bureaucracy at home and the military abroad — or both.
If tribal partisanship is here to stay, then we need to adapt our political institutions to function with it. If the plebiscitary presidency is what holds our country together, then we should expect more and more candidates who are better suited to that function than to running the country. If we also want the country to be run well, then we need to invest more of the functions of head of government in another office, one either directly or, via the legislature, indirectly accountable to the people, and therefore capable of being held accountable for the inevitable screw-ups, fiascos, and corrupt bargains of politics.
The alternative may be a political shipwreck: A government led by people without the knowledge and ability to do the job, but effectively controlled by people who cannot be held accountable — and a populace increasingly inclined to mutiny.