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Can We Stop Electing Celebrities, Please?

Al Franken resigned from the U.S. Senate — good riddance! Wait, why was he a senator at all? Most of his political activism preceding a successful congressional campaign in 2008 came in the form of snarky books like 1995’s Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot — liberal lay-ups theoretically meant to weaken the grip that conservative punditry had on average Americans in the Clinton era. Well, Limbaugh may be fat, and an idiot, but he was smart enough not to run for office. He stuck with the celebrity afforded by his radio show (which, unlike Franken’s progressive Air America network, is still going), where he’s free to say that sexual consent is irrelevant without the slightest consequence.

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Who the fuck asked Franken to become a politician, anyway? The man quit Saturday Night Live in a huff because Norm Macdonald beat him out for “Weekend Update” anchor — how could anyone trust him to govern effectively? Maybe Minnesota voters were overcorrecting for their last celebrity leader, Gov. Jesse “The Body” Ventura, a wrestler-turned-actor whose tenure is usually summarized as not quite the disaster it could have been, even though he habitually referred to reporters as “jackals” and said stuff regarding his Navy service like: “Until you hunted man, you haven’t hunted yet.” He also inspired a legendary bumper sticker: “My Governor Can Beat Up Your Governor.”

As if to challenge that claim with a meathead of their own, and create the unlikely alternate universe where two different actors from the film Predator went on to attain state executive power, California elected Arnold Schwarzenegger governor in 2003, the same year Ventura decided not to run for re-election. The baton had been passed… to a steroidal action star who advanced the dialogue by calling his Democratic opponents “girlie men” — hey, another SNL connection! — and raised the bar for ethics violations. Before all that, of course, he had secretly fathered a child with his housekeeper. But yeah, sure, it was totally fun to call him “the Governator.” And now he’s always talking about kicking Trump’s ass! You’ve got a model member of #TheResistance right there.

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The clear predecessor to both Schwarzenegger’s governorship and Trump’s presidency is Ronald Reagan, the senile and simply colossal dipshit who gave us the War on Drugs, Iran-Contra, and trickle-down economics, all while ignoring the AIDS crisis. A man who once starred in a film about trying to teach a chimpanzee human morals but then, in the White House, got a boner for weapons of mass destruction, overseeing “the biggest peacetime defense buildup in history” and virtually guaranteeing we’d spend the next 40 years prioritizing missiles and fighter jets over schools and drinkable water. Thank God we got rid of that Jimmy Carter, or we might not have invaded Grenada!

I asked historian Angela Serratore, who has edited and written for Lapham’s Quarterly and Smithsonian magazine, whether the U.S. has ever turned a celebrity into an admirable politician. “It’s complicated because celebrity as we understand it is a really modern construct,” she said, noting that Reagan, Franken, Schwarzenegger, et al., enjoyed fame “directly related to the invention of film and television.” In terms of notoriety, she added, “the celebrities before 20th-century media are the politicians,” and the Trump model — convincing voters you’re a smart businessman with a shitty reality show and then running on that artificial reputation — is a reversal of longstanding norms.

One exception, she said, might be Ulysses S. Grant, a war hero who was “not really qualified to be president” but found himself swept into power anyway. How did that go? He mostly surrounded himself with equally inexperienced Army pals and presided over an age of “unprecedented” cronyism and corruption, despite his noble intentions. He also drank hard enough that he was often “not aware of what his appointees were doing in his name.” Only the sheer criminal incompetence of your George W. Bushes and Warren G. Hardings keeps him off the list of the very worst presidents in history.

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Serratore said that John F. Kennedy is another interesting case, and probably the most transformative in terms of how we see celebrities as viable candidates: “He’s this figure who uses TV and movies and mass media to become president. He basically acts like a celebrity in order to get elected, which to me makes the case for actual celebrities realizing they can do it, too — because he’s already borrowing from their playbook.”

Which brings us back to Donald Trump, a man who unwittingly absorbs and constantly regurgitates the worldview of commander-in-chief as A-list superstar. From the beginning, nobody believed that Trump wanted the responsibilities of the job (in election speeches he always whined that his gilded life outside the political arena was much easier—a comfort to which he was tempted to retreat). But the domination of each news cycle, his face on the covers of magazines, and the adulation of violent crowds were irresistible. One can’t escape the sense that Trump wanted political power only because it meant people would pay attention to him, parsing his every lunatic utterance. It’s like he gets to do another pro wrestling arc, only this time with a nuclear football!

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So no, I don’t want Democrats running celebrity candidates against Trump any more than I want them to excuse sexual assault and harassment scandals within the party just because the GOP is cool with theirs. For the love of god, find someone boringly capable and just telegenic enough to win. Mark Cuban telling some tech dweeb that he can’t invest in his bluetooth-connected coconut water or whatever the fuck on Shark Tank doesn’t make him an expert on economic policy, just as Trump pretending to fire Stephen Baldwin from a fake job (twice!) doesn’t make him the best guy to pick the next Secretary of the Treasury. I don’t care if you’re Kid Rock or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson; I am not in the mood for any President Rock, not even Chris. What the hell, though, we’re gonna nominate Mark Zuckerberg in 2020, because a tech celebrity is the only thing worse than the Hollywood kind. I only wish that, as long as we’re ceding leadership to people on the basis of their careers in unrelated industries, we could give Willie Nelson a shot. He might screw up worse than anybody else, but at least he’d be chill about it.

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