I thought we'd at least get Oprah.
President Trump's victory was supposed to be the start of a new era of celebrity politics in America. He proved that a candidate with no political experience but substantial name recognition can win — that fame is, for many Americans, reason enough to give a campaign a serious hearing. For 2020, I anticipated the Democratic Party would respond in kind, and I don't think I'm alone in that expectation. My colleague Matthew Walther made the case this past spring that a celebrity challenger might well be Democrats' strongest tactic against Trump, and he's not the only one who thinks so. Lists of celebrities who could plausibly run abound. Oprah, Kanye West, the Rock, and Alec Baldwin are perennially popular suggestions.
But now it's September. We're several debates into the Democratic primary and zero debates into the still-sputtering Republican primary, and there's nary a real celebrity to be found. (Yes, Marianne Williamson is kind of famous, but she's not Hollywood famous. I'd certainly never heard of her before her campaign.) Why aren't more celebrities running for president?
I ask that not because I want a celebrity president. I do not, as the celebrification of the presidency is part and parcel of the dangerous and continuous expansion of the powers of the office. Yet I am legitimately surprised there isn't another one on offer. Here are six possible explanations.
1. Trump ruined it. "Maybe Trump's election does change things a little," suggested FiveThirtyEight senior political writer Clare Malone in a discussion of this very subject two years ago. "Trump had virtually nothing to qualify him for the office, so why can't any old schmo run? [B]ut there's also the flip side of this, which is that Americans might, by the end of four years of Trump, want someone who exhibits a modicum of experience." A bad taste of celebrity presidency may have turned many against the concept altogether.
This is plausible, but not entirely convincing. Crucially, I'm not sure "inexperience" is the chief objection to Trump for most of his critics. If anything, Trump's lack of governing experience has, from his opponents' perspective, probably helped blunt the damage he can do. The problem is not his lack of political record but his view of himself and the world — which means Trump's celebrity wouldn't necessarily be a mark against other celebrity contenders if they have substantially different politics.
2. Celebrity candidates are a Republican thing. It is strange that the most successful celebrity candidates — whom I'd identify as Trump, former President Ronald Reagan, and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger — are all Republicans. And yet when it comes to endorsements, or really any form of non-candidacy involvement with politics, major celebrities are overwhelmingly on the blue team. Democratic politicians like former Presidents Barack Obama and John F. Kennedy may develop a sort of celebrity status, of course, but that's not the same as entering the political arena a creature of the entertainment industry.
2b. Democrats think they're too good for celebrity candidates. Why would celebrity candidates be a Republican thing when Democrats have so many more politically friendly celebrities? Perhaps the Democratic Party fancies itself too serious for this frippery. The success of comparatively wonky contenders like Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who have not edged out former Vice President Joe Biden but remain near the front of the 2020 pack, supports this theory that Democrats want to be the party of serious policy ideas with a smarter, more substantive pick than Trump.
"Credentialism has deep roots in the Democratic Party, which has a tropism toward technocratic wonks," wrote The New Republic's Jeet Heer of actress Cynthia Nixon's failed gubernatorial bid in New York in 2018. "Many elite Democrats think of politics as a profession with a fixed career path. You're supposed to work your way up the ladder, working on political campaigns and in legislative offices, running for local elections and then statewide elections, gaining experience along the way." A celebrity candidate, in this perspective, is an unserious line-cutter whom Democratic credentialists (or, in the less sympathetic phrasing of Kevin Williamson at National Review, "snobs") cannot countenance.
3. The non-celebrity options are actually appealing. There are approximately a gazillion people running for the Democratic nod already, plus a handful of GOP alternatives to Trump who are being studiously ignored by their own party. Maybe these choices are satisfactory for most voters — appealing, even. Maybe no real celebrity candidate has arisen because there simply isn't demand for one.
4. Potential candidates fear the job. Were I Oprah, I sure as hell wouldn't run for president. Ditto pretty much every other celebrity whose name is floated for the job. As Trump himself is fond of pointing out, he "could be having a very nice life right now" instead of being "with you people, ranting and raving." This is equally true of other celebrities. Being president cannot be pleasant, and it is more than understandable that celebrities would not seriously seek the Oval Office, even if they occasionally toy with the idea in long magazine profiles to affect an air of public spiritedness.
5. Potential candidates fear the race. Running against Trump ensures a brutal slog of a campaign. He'll marshal venomous chants at his campaign rallies. He'll trot out petty nicknames. If his rival is a woman, he'll make sexist cracks about her appearance. If it's a man, he'll impugn his masculinity. If it's anyone less white than Biden — well, you know how ugly Trump's rhetoric will be. It's easy to see why anyone, celebrity or not, would want to skip this race.
6. It's still too early. Yes, it's September, and most presidential candidates these days announce their campaigns at least 18 months ahead of the general election. But the filing deadlines to get on many states' primary ballots have not passed. Maybe a celebrity candidacy is still on its way, and the candidate is simply staying out of the spotlight — and Trump's scorn — as long as possible. Let a few also-rans drop out; see who emerges at the front of the pack; avoid making the public sick of you through months of overexposure. It's not a bad strategy. Maybe I'm just calling this a little too early.
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