It's obvious by now that Donald Trump and Ben Carson are not old fashioned political candidates. They are Reality TV stars. But it's not fair to say they are the first. George W. Bush had his own star power, much of it a thinly constructed cowboy image that was given life by a terrible tragedy and unnecessary war. And no one can deny that President Obama's first campaign had all the trappings of a major worldwide popular cultural event like Live Aid or maybe the Pope's recent visit. But after watching last week's Benghazi hearings, it's clear that Hillary Clinton is a star as well. It might even be the case that she and her husband were the ones who first ushered in the political Reality TV era and remain its biggest stars.
Despite the fact that Trump literally hosted a very successful TV show for years, rather than "The Apprentice" where the winner is determined by one final arbiter, Trump's presidential campaign is actually an American Idol type of competition where everything depends upon this week's audience vote deciding if you continue on to the next round. His schtick is entirely based upon where he is in the polls and the more he stays on top the more he talks about being on top. He does sprinkle his stump speech with some riffs about Mexicans and "doing great deals with China and Japan" and how we'll have "victories coming out of our ears" but really the speech is about how great he's doing and how great he is, which is proved by the fact that he is number one. If the polls change and he loses ground anywhere but Iowa (where Huckabee and Santorum are previous winners, so it's not surprising a thrice divorced city slicker would slip up there) we could see the sort of meltdown that happens when an "Idol" singer has a couple of bad performances and loses the audience forever.
Carson is the star of a much older type of reality show: the old-time Christian hour. He's not a fire and brimstone type like Jerry Falwell or Jimmy Swaggart. But if you listen to him carefully, his intonation and body language are very much like the preacher who once ran for president and still runs one of the biggest Christian media companies in the world. It's a calm, measured, confident recitation of gibberish and gobbledygook delivered with such conviction that you know he really believes what he says and says what he believes, even though it makes no sense. There is clearly a huge audience for this type of television star.
Bush was, as I noted, a fake cowboy who even created a western set for his TV show down in Crawford where he spent most of his presidency pretending that he was a tough hombre who wasn't going to let some tin-horned terrorist tell him what to do. It was a huge hit for a while but after the first couple of seasons they lost the thread of the storyline and people turned away. Obama's great pop cultural event of 2008 was a hugely successful worldwide TV special which was repeated to lower ratings at various times throughout his presidency. His loyal fans always watched, however, to sing along with the familiar tunes. (They'll be singing them their whole lives.) Obama's enemies created a competing horror show that kept them breathlessly engaged, but it never got the really big ratings.
But nobody comes close to Bill and Hillary Clinton -- they are the stars of the nation's longest running TV soap opera. They were the prom king and queen of 1960s youth politics and by the 80s, when their show was a small franchise on a tiny cable network, this husband and wife team already had the necessary elements of prime time politics in age of infotainment. By the time they got to Washington, their plot was set. Their show has heroes and villains and ups and downs and intrigue and sex and laughs and thrills. It is always a wild emotional ride and nobody ever knows how the season is going to end. Still, the heroes always prevail and the show always gets renewed. The audience often wishes it wouldn't but they tune in anyway.
Politics is inherently dramatic, of course. It's a big competition between opposing teams, a major sporting event with tons of emotional energy invested in who wins and who loses. And there have always been major events that draw the nation's attention -- tragedies, assassinations, wars, depressions. Homer and Shakespeare made tidy livings telling stories about them. But modern American political life is different. We have infotainment at least 16 hours a day. The internet goes 24/7. It's a gigantic, gaping maw that must be fed with entertaining material or the audience will go elsewhere. Politicians must do more than simply react to dramatic events or make arguments and negotiate deals, they must be able to be star in an ongoing political spectacle.
Politics are TV entertainment and for it to be truly successful you need larger than life characters, celebrity politicians and pundits and journalists. This has never been more obvious than it is now with the Trump and Carson phenomenons. (Rick Perlstein made the point that Trump isn't even a reality TV star so much as a World Wide Wrestling character.) It's hard to imagine that either of these two shows will be able to maintain their entertainment value for the long term, and that's important. Presidencies last longer than a TV season and you have to be able to build an audience and sustain it.
By that metric, Hillary Clinton is the biggest political star of all. Along with her husband, she has been in the harsh spotlight of national politics for 25 years, and has gone through more ups and downs, heartache and triumph than your average Telenovela heroine. She is hated by her enemies (yes, they are mostly Republicans) and adored by her fans. She is an object of fascination for virtually everyone. And it never seems to wane. Her relationship with the press is a riveting, if frustrating, game of cat and mouse and you never know which is the feline predator and which is the unfortunate rodent as it unfolds. And just when you think the game is done, it starts up again.
Now that she and her husband are grandparents, her marriage is no longer quite as titillating a preoccupation as it once was but you can imagine how the power angle will unfold should she win the presidency. The story lines pretty much write themselves. And needless to say, the villains in the Clinton Saga are among the most colorful we could hope for. From Newt Gingrich to Ken Starr to Roger Ailes to Trey Gowdy, even their names are Dickensian perfection. And they are very, very good at being what they are: foils. If you needed any proof of that, her appearance before the Benghazi committee last week should provide it.
None of this is to say that underneath all of this showmanship, real politics and real governance are not taking place. They are and the stakes could not be higher. I think everyone can sense that we are in the middle of a very dramatic shift in the way our politics are practiced with Republicans becoming more and more radical, discarding rules, norms and processes that make our system work. But that does not mean that this politics as entertainment isn't how most people experience their civic life or that it doesn't affect the way elections unfold. Ignoring it or pretending that it doesn't matter is how we could end up with a President Trump. I don't think his presidency would be a show we'd enjoy very much.
We are in the midst of a real political drama in which a rather large number of Republican voters have come to believe that if they do not see or hear it on Fox News and talk radio that it doesn't exist. And there are a lot of people making money selling that idea to them. Worse, they are electing people to Congress who also believe this and they are acting upon that distorted belief thinking that it's all real. Congress is now completely dysfunctional because of it.
Any president is going to have to take this into account and be prepared to find ways to govern in spite of these radicals' craziness. President Obama decided in his second term that he would use executive power, knowing that it would take a massive effort to even keep the government running. This year it took the resignation of Speaker of the House.
Senator Bernie Sanders says he will create a mass movement that will overwhelm the congress with demands that it cooperate. If he can make that happen it could have an effect. After all, the Tea Party has certainly made its mark this way. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, hasn't said exactly how she would govern under these circumstances. Clearly she isn't laboring under any illusion that the Republicans will cooperate with any Democrat, much less with her, on anything but the most basic requirements of governance (if that). Perhaps she too will be able to inspire citizens to engage on the level of the Tea Party but there's no sign that this is her plan. It's most likely she will follow President Obama's lead and use executive power and that's likely to create right wing histrionics -- after all, one congressman has already said impeachment would be on the table on inauguration day! But then again, if one of the requirements of our politics is the ability to roll with Reality TV politics, to make the audience stay tuned, to feed that beast then she's got more experience than anyone in public life. She is one of the pioneers of the form.
For better or worse, I suspect that Reality TV politics is here to stay. We can rail against it and we can bemoan that it's come to this but the show will go on. All we can do is hope that our leaders are somehow able to make it serve the country as well as it entertains it.