Tag Archives: Celebrity politics

WHY SEX SCANDALS DIDN’T HURT DONALD TRUMP

Donald Trump

A well-publicized bout of illicit sex never did any celebrity’s reputation harm; often, a lot of good. But how does it affect a politician’s? Up to last week, you’d probably say: ruinously. But the election of Donald Trump (pictured above) amid a tsunami of accusations from women who claim he either touched or propositioned them inappropriately has forced us to change our minds.

It’s at least possible that, far from being damaged by the allegations, Trump actually profited from them. For a while he looked almost like a victim: someone whose every wink and flirtatious gesture over the past thirty years had suddenly returned as a baleful curse. Practically every day for about a fortnight, fresh grievances appeared; women, who had been silent for years, decided it was time to make their claims public.

After a while, it seemed Trump’s denials were useless and that his presidential campaign was wrecked. At least according to many journalists. But maybe there was a rebound in public sympathy with voters who doubted the authenticity of the claimants, lending their support to the beleaguered Trump.

He wasn’t the first US President or prospective President to have extricated himself from a potentially career-wrecking sex scandal and perhaps Trump owes his survival to the strategy adopted by none other than the husband of his presidential rival.

Bill Clinton is a liminal figure, occupying a position on both sides of the celebrity politician divide: he had a successful political career as governor of Arkansas, 1979-81, and 1983-93, before becoming president. Clinton cut a beguiling figure en route to the presidency: telegenic and good-looking, he also had the sheen of authenticity, appearing natural and relaxed on television.

Clinton arrived at the White House in 1993 in the middle of a media revolution, with cable television providing a 24-hour news cycle. His arrival also coincided with a voyeurism diffusing through the population: consumers’ interest in private lives practically commissioned the media’s intrusive approach and obliged even presidents to expose themselves. On one memorable occasion in 1992, Clinton donned Ray-Bans and played saxophone on a late night talk show. Yet there was more celebrity to Clinton than anyone dared to imagine and, in 1998, he became the central figure of a sex scandal bigger than anything dreamt up by Madonna.

There was a stunning moment shortly after the scandal broke when Clinton appeared on national television and affirmed: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” That woman was Monica Lewinsky, White House aide, and her account of her relationship with the President was somewhat different. The US President is always a figure of great interest by virtue of his position (there’s never been a female President), and this and the several other allegations of sexual peccadilloes that followed marked Clinton out as someone worthy of even greater interest.

Clinton was the US President for two terms of office and, for a while, under threat of impeachment. So the scandal could have had wider-reaching repercussions than it actually did. And the fact that Lewinsky actually worked in politics gave it added relevance. As the concupiscent details of the case unfurled — the semen-stained dress, the cigar, the secretly recorded phone conversations — interest built and, for the final two years of the twentieth century, Lewinsky was one of the most famous women in the world. Her celebrity status manifested in several books about her, an assortment of well-paid endorsement deals, her own line of accessories and a reality tv program in which she featured. She then faded from view.

The affair should have hurt, even destroyed Clinton. Why didn’t it? He had narrowly avoided a controversy about his wilder years as a student, when he issued his famous “I did not inhale” notice about his supposed marijuana smoking. The Lewinsky denial could have undermined his credibility.

In December 1998, within months of the denial, Clinton achieved his career highest approval rating of 73. His average approval rating during his term of office was 55.1, below John F. Kennedy, but above Reagan, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, among others. He enjoyed a consistently high approval rating among the “baby boomer” generation (those born in the immediate post-second world war period). An experts’ poll in 2011 placed Clinton at 19 in the all-time list of presidents. Maybe honesty was no longer part of the Presidential job description.

Clinton remained as President till 2001, when he left office after serving his complete second term. He also acquired a status distinct from that of other politicians, who leave legacies. Clinton could have been remembered for bringing together Israel’s Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat of the Palestine Liberation Front on the White House lawn in 1993, or signing the 1994 Kremlin Accords that stopped the preprogrammed nuclear missiles, or organizing peace talks for Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995, or ordering cruise missile strikes on Afghanistan in 1998. He could also be remembered as the first president to have solicited the public’s favour in spite of deeds that would have damned politicians from earlier eras.

Clinton though was a politician for the celebrity era. Squeaky-clean politicians whose worst vice was an extra-marital fling were, by the 1990s, remnants of another age. Compare his experience with that of former civil-rights leader and Washington DC mayor Marion Barry, who in 1990, was convicted of cocaine possession. A female friend had lured him into a police sting: at their assignation, hidden cameras captured him smoking crack. During his six-week trial, accounts of his sex and drug binges, backed by evidence from a pimps and pushers, were relayed to homes via television. He served six months in jail, but two months after his release, he returned to the city council and, within three years, was re-elected Mayor. In another sex-related case, New York governor Eliot Spitzer resigned after being implicated in a federal investigation into inter-state prostitution in 2008. He barely broke stride, returning in his own television show, his credibility in tact.

John Edwards, a 2004 vice presidential candidate, had an affair with a woman while his wife was dying with cancer. This was scandal enough to blow him off course in his bid for president in 2007, but he would probably have navigated his way back had it not been for allegations that he masterminded a $1 million cover-up of his affair, mis-using funds from two wealthy campaign donors. Substance abuse, carnal activities and sundry other deviant behaviours are, it seems, forgivable; in a way, they humanize a politician, exposing a few of the kind of flaws all of us secrete.

Clinton sailed close to the wind; but it blew in his favour. The political culture in which he prospered had lost the stiffness and propriety of earlier eras and his sexual misconduct was not thought venal. Clinton brought a sense of showmanship and his occasional peccadillo only intensified the drama of his presidency. Even in the midst of the Lewinsky scandal, he battled on like a rock star in his fifties, determined to show his audience he had a few good songs in him. Clinton may not have been the greatest President, but he was surely the most consumable and, as if to prove this, he still tours the world, giving guest lectures, signing copies of his own books, receiving invitations to do spots on tv shows and doing what celebrities do – appear.

There’s no evidence at that Trump studied Clinton’s expertly manoeuvred strategy. But you can be sure the people surrounding him were aware that a resolve to remain unforthcoming, distant and aloofly silent about the allegations was the only response realistically available to their man. Denial would have just led to further accusations, implicating him in a vortex of claim and counter-claim. Speechlessness effectively killed the narrative. A stream of allegations became repetitive and uninteresting after a while.

Is there irony in this? After all, most celebrities revel in sex scandals. It reminds us that political celebrities – and Trump is now arguably the paragon of these – are different from other celebs. They still need to engage with us in a way that reminds us that they have that indefinable quality of ordinariness; they also need to keep us in close contact via social aswell as traditional media; and they need to surrender their private lives to us – after all, we feel entitled not just to know but to own celebrities.

Yet politicians don’t just entertain us: they make decisions that affect our material lives and, possibly, those of our children. We like to know that, for all their flaws and foibles, they have our interests in mind. Trump has skilfully persuaded Americans that, for all his reputed dalliances, he is a man who can be trusted to put his followers’ interests before his own. This is a rare feat for a politician today.

Picture courtesy of Gage Skidmore, via Flickr

 

TRUMP: THE MUSICAL?

Donald Trump Sr. at #FITN in Nashua, NH

Q: Trump: The Musical. Surely, it can’t be long, can it?

A: If I didn’t think I’d get sued, I’d start writing it myself. Although, in a sense, this is writing itself as we speak. Donald Trump’s political career is so entertaining that it’s hard to dramatize; in fact, were anybody to write the story ten years ago, it would be too preposterous. Today, we’re confronted by a stranger-than-fiction political reality: a billionaire entrepreneur and tv personality decides he wants to take a shot at the presidency of the United States and, against all odds, finds himself in pole position – at least in the Republican Party.

Q: He’s a demagogue, right?

A: Yes: he’s sought and generated support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational analysis and level-headed argument. Among his proposals are a ban on Muslims entering the USA and a wall built as a barrier between the US and Mexico. These are impractical and unreasonable, but somehow they’ve got traction among the American people and Trump is leading the Republican Party. If we froze the polls today, he’d be the man chosen to run for presidency.

Q: But surely there are other Republican candidates who will overhaul him when the primaries – i.e. the preliminary elections to select candidates for the presidential election – start later this month.

A: Possibly. But his nearest rival, Ted Cruz, has political views not too different from Trump’s. I watched the Republican tv debate before Christmas: the discourse was wholly reactionary. By European standards, America’s Republican Party would be seen as far right. Like the Front National in France or Golden Dawn in Greece. The Republican debates focus on migration and Syria; specifically, how to curb migration and how to attack Syria. Trump’s message has a simplicity and easy-on-the-intellect plausibility that, at the moment, sounds appealing to Republican voters: Trump has 35% support compared to 18% for his nearest rival Cruz.

Q: I suppose all this will play into the hands of the Democrats, who seem to have only the formality of selecting Hillary Clinton as their nominee.

A: It appears so. Hillary’s main rival is Bernie Sanders, who is the most leftwing American politician I can ever recall. Sanders is against the Syrian offensive, opposes the massively uneven distribution of income and wealth, and declares himself an enemy of largescale corporations who exploit consumers. Hillary, by contrast, is a moderate. While Americans see her as a liberal or even a lefty, she is some way to the right of our own Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron. No Democrat besides Sanders would dream of the kind of public expenditure Cameron approves.

Q; Hang on. Cameron is being criticized for cutting public services, isn’t he?

A: Over here, yes. But American politicians realize that this requires higher taxes and this is political poison. Americans would rather see their schools close and their roads riddled with potholes than pay more tax. And, while Hillary supports her fellow Democrat and current President Barack Obama’s healthcare system, she wouldn’t contemplate anything resembling what Americans call socialized medicine, such as Canada’s and our own National Health Service. The USA’s party of the left is some way to the right of our own Conservative Party.

Q: If I hear you right, you’re saying that American politics generally is rightwing. Apart from Sanders, there doesn’t appear to be a legitimate voice on the left.

A: Which is why Trump is sailing serenely. Of course, you have to pinch yourself when you realize this is a man with no political experience at all: he’s never held political office in his life; he’s 69. He wouldn’t be the first President with no political experience, by the way: Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was elected in 1953, was the commanding general of allied forces in Europe during World War II, but had never held political office. In the nineteenth century Ulysses S. Grant was elected following the civil war. Zachary Taylor also had a military rather than political background. So there are precedents.

Q: I guess the question no one can answer is: why would Trump want the presidency anyway? He’s beyond rich and enjoys a certain celebrity status. He’s the guy that started the “You’re fired!” catchphrase, later adopted by Sir Alan Sugar. Trump featured in the original The Apprentice, didn’t he?

A: He did. And he certainly has the kind of celebrity status singers and other entertainers crave. What he doesn’t have is political power. Maybe this is what he thinks will complete his life.

Q: Will it?

A: I doubt it. In fact, it’s a question how far the largely self-funded Trump proceeds with his campaign once the going gets tough. We can expect him to do well initially, but not well enough once his rivals start picking up momentum. There are twelve candidates in the hunt and it will probably be the end of May before this is pared down to two or three. I doubt if Trump will be among them. By then, voters will have been given a reality check. Trump is an entertainer, not a politician. Republicans will know that Trump stands little chance against the politically savvy Hillary or any of her rivals for the Democrats’ nomination, and put their weight behind someone with credibility. Celebrity culture saturates every aspect of contemporary society, including politics, and Trump shows how far it can take someone even without political skill, training or grounding. But it’s not going to take him all the way to the White House. All the same, I’m looking forward to the musical.

 

ELECTION 2015: IS POLITICS PART OF CELEBRITY CULTURE?

Q: Just over seven weeks to go before the General Election. Already there are a couple of media controversies, with Prime Minister David Cameron (pictured below) refusing to participate in a tv debate unless there is a seven-way format with other party leaders involved, and the Conservatives launching a poster featuring Labour leader Ed Miliband in Scottish Nationalist Party’s Alex Salmond’s top pocket (pictured further below). It’s almost as if the presentation of leaders in the media has become more important than the policies they promise to implement. Is it?

A: There is a kind of parallel Election in which the parties are fighting for supremacy in the media. This is the Election most of us will engage with, if only by watching tv, checking twitter and other social media, browsing around the internet and just looking around us at posters and hoardings. Politicians realize that nowadays, policies will be influential, but the impressions they make on voters through their public presentations are probably going to be more decisive.

David Cameron at Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham

Q: Wait a minute. That’s an awful indictment of democracy; are you saying there is a kind of political celebrity culture in which politicians try to attract our attention, entertain us, persuade us that they’re worth voting for and well … engage us just like pop stars, rock musicians and reality tv stars? Surely we voters are not so gullible to be misled by images. Are we?

A: “The camera never lies.” It’s a well-known saying, though not a very reliable one. Since the famous televised John F. Kennedy-Richard M. Nixon US presidential debates of 1960, there has been little doubt that the camera can overwhelm truth. Nixon held his own in the discussions and the majority of those who listened to the debates on radio believed he came out on top. But on tv, his ghostly pallor and jowly cheeks made him appear a less attractive candidate than his handsome, fresh-faced opponent who emerged triumphant in the election. At the time of the Kennedy-Nixon debates, the printed medium was the most credible source of news. Despite its domestic growth over the previous decade, television was still something of a novelty and lacked the punch of newspapers and journals. Since then, we have since grown evermore reliant on television for our political information, as we have for all kinds of information. Kennedy was the first modern politician to realize the potential of television in politics.

Ed Miliband in Alex Salmond's pocket would mean chaos for Britain

Q: OK, but that was the 1960s, before we’d even heard the term “celebrity culture.” Surely something else has happened.

A: You’re right: after JKF, the politicians who made most impact were the ones who made most effective use of the media. But it wasn’t until 1992 that Bill Clinton (pictured below, recently) arrived and decided that this wasn’t enough to emulate, imitate, or reproduce the style and manner of popular entertainers: politicians had to become entertainers in their own right. He was the first genuine celebrity politician. Clinton is a transitional figure, occupying a position on both sides of the celebrity divide: he had a successful political career as governor of Arkansas before becoming president. He cut quite a figure en route to the presidency: telegenic and good-looking, he also had the sheen of authenticity, appearing natural and relaxed on television. He studied the way in which tv performers established a rapport with audiences and replicated this quite brilliantly. Self-presentation became all-important.

Bill Clinton signs autographs

Q: Of course, Clinton became more like a showbiz celebrity than he ever guessed he would be.

A: You’re referring to his scandal. I doubt if Clinton anticipated his own career would follow that of some other entertainers, but his relationship with one of his aides, Monica Lewinsky, became an international scandal in 1998, and almost ruined his political aspirations. Interestingly though, it’s added to his legacy. Clinton is not known for any single achievement, nor for one great defining moment that would linger in everyone’s memory. But he remains an exceptionally popular media figure and, of course, a very well-paid speaker (his  haul in speaking fees since leaving the White House to $106 million, about £72m, according to CNN)

Q: Like Tony Blair.

A: Blair was, in a sense, Clinton’s most studious pupil. He mimicked Clinton in almost every detail. It’s possible that, in the process, Blair lost that touch of humanity that was so integral to Clinton’s persona, that is those aspects of his character that were visible to others. But his political record (three General Election wins) and his lucrative career after politics (the company he set up turns over £14m per year) suggests the project worked.

Q: Which I suppose convinced the politicians that followed Clinton and Blair that they needed to follow their example.

A: Barack Obama obviously thought so. Both his Presidential wins were preceded by stunningly effective media campaigns. Obama took the novel step of employing social media to engage with his potential supporters. This made him approachable and, in a way, genuine: voters felt they had an authentic line of communication with him. I think British politicians have realized how effective twitter in particular can be, though I’m still not sure they have grasped how best to use it to their own advantage.

Q: And celebrity endorsements?

A: Obama enjoyed arguably the most persuasive celebrity endorsement in history when Oprah Winfrey backed him. She is an immensely popular figure, but also one with a certain gravitas, by which I mean a weighty authority. I’m not sure if there is a celebrity over here who has that kind of influence. I mean, David Beckham is incredibly popular and can influence the way people dress and do their hair, but would his political views have any authority? Joanna Lumley (pictured below, campaigning for the charity Prospect Burma) has been very effective in campaigning for human rights and she is a popular figure but without influence across the whole spectrum. One thing is for sure: over the next few weeks, we’ll see parties recruiting all manner of celebrities to endorse them.

Joanna Lumley Namaste

Q: So now showbiz values have penetrated politics and, politics is, by definition, a public sphere. Perhaps more public than ever … and more personal than ever, wouldn’t you say?

A: I agree: as well as being able to relay news instantly from every part of the world to every part of the world, the media enables viewers to scrutinize their political leaders to an extent unheard of as recently as the 1990s. The surveillance carried out by new media is more invasive and perhaps more meddling than ever. Celebrity culture itself is, in some senses, an accommodation of this, celebrities surrendering any trace of a private life in exchange for publicity. Politicians too have had to strike the bargain. They play by the same rules as all other celebrities. All of which makes the next few weeks very interesting. People may hate the way in which politics has been sucked into celebrity culture, but the effects are intriguing. Campaigns are personal, mudslinging is inevitable and bickering is bound to become nasty. But imagine how much we knew about our politicians in the 1960s, 1970s, or 1980s. Very little. Some might argue that all we need to know is how they intend to govern the country. Fair enough, but today’s voters have different appetites and sensibilities: we demand to know our politicians up close-and-personal. In seven weeks time, we’ll know a lot more about Cameron and the others than we do now.