The Age of the Demagogue
Last week, President Obama visited the set of Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” for the third, and presumably final, time. Obama has set records for the most late-night talk show appearances. He’s also appeared alongside YouTube star GloZell Green, in the online series “Between Two Ferns,” and Miami radio host DJ Laz, aka “The Pimp with the Limp.” Obama has treated the White House like his own personal concert venue, complete with selfie-stick video. After all, as they say, you only live once.
Meanwhile, the same week as Obama’s final French-kissing session with palace guard Stewart, Obama vowed to push through his support-free nuclear deal with Iran, utilize the power of the executive to curb carbon emissions from power plants and craft more executive action on immigration.
Buffoonish. Powerful. The two descriptors used to oppose one another in the minds of the American electorate. Now they go together like Oval Office and oral sex.
The modern media age has transformed our presidents into celebrities. When Abraham Lincoln resided at the White House, visitors could literally knock on the door and ask to see him. One European, shocked at such laxity, wrote, “one goes right in as if entering a cafe.” Lincoln himself had to walk through crowds of people to get to and from his office. The presidency was the highest civil service office — emphasis on the service.
Today, we expect our presidents to treat themselves like royalty. Americans may decry the expense of the British monarchy, but the Kingdom of Obama costs far more. The president’s family has access to the White House movie theater, with a 24-hour-per-day projectionist on call. The Obama dog, Bo, has a handler paid six figures. Overall, according to one estimate, the American royal family costs taxpayers $1.4 billion per year, as opposed to the crowned crew in Buckingham Palace, who cost British taxpayers a mere $60 million each year.
And like the British royals, our American royals are celebrities, treated as such. They hobnob with Hollywood celebrities, and even send their children off to intern with them. They shut down traffic in major American cities merely to appear on the telly. They are stars, not servants.
All of which would be fine, had they ceremonial rather than real power. But the president has unified star power with actual power. Early on in President Obama’s term, my father noted that Obama seemed to want to plaster his face everywhere; he theorized that Obama used ubiquity as a tool, making himself part of the background noise of American life. That tactic worked not only in embedding Obama in every aspect of public consciousness, from sports (Obama’s picking his NCAA brackets!) to reality television (Obama just congratulated Bruce Jenner on becoming Caitlyn!), but in making him feel indispensible. Obama feels far more like the head of a unitary, dictatorial government than he does like a cog in the machine of checks and balances. He bears more resemblance in the political optics to a Castro than to a Calvin Coolidge. We see him everywhere. And that is how he wants it.
It thus seems somewhat jarring for the media to decry the rise of Donald Trump, a reality television star long in the media eye. Trump, we are assured, is a joke — would we really want a celebrity as president? But Obama represents the apotheosis of celebrity as president. Hillary Clinton, too, is a celebrity attempting the White House — had she never met Bill Clinton, she’d be a screechier Barbara Boxer. There’s a reason Senator Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., doesn’t merely spout his gun control views before the media — he trots out his cousin, “Trainwreck” comedienne Amy Schumer, to do so.
Perhaps the British have it right: a ceremonial head of state, and a politician to do a politician’s job. Americans apparently can’t handle a system in which our ceremonial head of state and our actual head of state are the same person — not without swooning at that person’s feet, and offering as much power as humanly possible to boot.