Democrats like me like to think that the election of Donald Trump was an aberration in that he won in the Electoral College only by some tens of thousands of vote and that it was unusual for a major party to nominate such an outlier as their standard bearer. He flummoxed his Primary opponents with his theatricals; they could figure out no way to respond. On the other hand, it is possible to think that he is just a harbinger of things to come: more and more candidates elected for their celebrity because that is what happens when nominations are driven by what happens on the debate stage rather than by the records of the politicians on the issues with which the American people are faced. Now, government by celebrity does not have to be anarchic. The United States could incorporate having mercurial and outlandish Presidents by more and more of the actual power to run the government falling on institutions like the cabinet departments which would operate in a more autonomous fashion , their actions coordinated by some chief of staff. We would then be in more of a parliamentary system with a permanent civil service answering only a little bit to appointed cabinet ministers. Before reaching that conclusion, however, let us put the main proposition to the test. Is it true that parties no longer act as checks on who their nominees will be and so the age of the celebrity has been unleashed? Let us consult, for evidence, how it is that politicians have traditionally made the careers that bring them to that circle of people who will go for the ultimate prize.
Most politicians who run for President have worked themselves up through elective office, from local to statewide or from Congress to the Senate and only then as Presidential contenders. They have all their lives been people who cared primarily about politics, right from the time they ran for President of their middle school class. They have cultivated their donors and fellow politicians by attending any number of fundraising dinners, endorsing one another, taking no stands on issues other than the constituency issues such as filling potholes and railing against insufficient schools. Matilda Cuomo hated that Mario was so often away from home in the evening even before he ran for public office because he was devoting so much of his time to worthy causes. Politics is the focus of these politicians not just the consumer of their time. Joe Lieberman went to his home town college, Yale, where he majored in political science and wrote his senior thesis on a local political leader and so got a sense of how politics operated at the grass roots level. Barack Obama spent his early years in Chicago teaching only part-time at the University of Chicago Law School, which would have given him a very prestigious career if he had stayed with that, and instead cultivated a horde of Hyde Park contributors as the foundation for a political career. The political bug bites early and those bitten don’t get over the sting. Richard Nixon was an exception in that he went into politics because he couldn’t get a decent law firm job and bet his all on making good at politics, whatever the vicious things he had to say about his opponents, because he saw no alternative career open to him. You put in the time and the work and maybe you get somewhere.
That notion that the political career is the result of grit as much as devotion to public service is opposed to two other notions of how to make a political career that can result in the Presidency, peculiar a notion as what I have suggested may be, politicians always thinking big, as Bill Clinton did when he informed Hillary back in Watergate days that he wanted to become President. Lawyers don’t enter into that career hoping to become Supreme Court Justices and doctors don’t enter into their careers hoping to become Ostler. The first of the two alternative notions is that the path to the Presidency is open only to rich people, that they can buy their way into office. While it is true that most Senators are now millionaires, and that Secretaries of the Treasury, in both parties, come from Wall Street, presumably because they know the dynamics of money, it is remarkable how infrequent are the rich people who can parlay that alone into the very highest office, even if George Washington, the first President, was probably also the most wealthy man in the new country.
John Kennedy is clearly one of those who translated money into victory. His father bought him his congressional set and greased the way for the nomination of his playboy son into the Presidency. John Kennedy, however, made his own case with his charm and elegance that tied together working class Irish and other minorities to great wealth, just as had happened when FDR found that he had the charm to talk to constituents never mind his patrician upbringing. FDR made it up the pole through the avenue of party politics rather than because of his wealth. But the path of money is a difficult one. Nelson Rockefeller can be said to have bought the Governorship of New York, after having served, in effect, as the American Viceroy in Venezuela, but he had to deal with the Republican Party in the old fashioned ways of horse trading, and the GOP was in no mood to put up with a Liberal Republican when it could have Richard Nixon, who was reliably Anti-Communist, and Barry Goldwater, who was reliably anti-civil rights. More recently, Michael Bloomberg, the three time mayor of New York City, explored and then decided not to run for President because, each time, it wasn’t in the cards-- though that may just be the result of the curse of being Mayor of New York, in that Robert Wagner, Jr. and John Lindsay and Ed Koch and Rudolph Giuliani could not parley having been Mayor of New York into a successful run for higher office. And Donald Trump, who didn’t even spend that much of his own money on his campaign, and was not running as a billionaire but as a businessman and, more than that, as a celebrity, and celebrity is that other category of political career other than working yourself up the greasy pole that is worth tracing.
Celebrity Presidents stretch far back into the Nineteenth Century. They were generals. The first of those, Andrew Jackson, was thought by the elite of the nation as not suited to be President because he didn’t have the intellectual training or the political experience that had been characteristic of the first six Presidents. And, indeed, he does not seem to have been very well informed on the issues, such as the need for a national bank, and believed that to the victor belongs the spoils, rather than them belonging to what was good for the nation, in which case they would have been spent on a vast improvements project such as that favored by Henry Clay, who had grown up in politics. Jackson also unleashed his own prejudices when he became President, seeing to the evacuation of the Cherokee from their homelands. Two other generals who were also celebrities, William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor, were also elected in the years before the Civil War, and one, Ulysses S. Grant, after the Civil War, Grant a better President we now recognize thanks to Ron Chertow, than he had been thought to have been. It can be argued that Theodore Roosevelt was a celebrity President because he was known to people as the one who charged up San Juan Hill, but he had already made a name for himself as a politician and that is why he was supposedly sidetracked by being made Mckinley's Vice President. Military men since then were not elected because of their celebrity. By the time Dwight Eisenhower ran for President, he had for ten years been operating at the very top levels of international politics and showed himself able to preside over organizations containing millions of men. His manner suggested that he would bring a pacific tone to the White House. Jimmy Carter, who had been a military man, was known as a technocrat, and so not just a peanut farmer, because he had been one of those who helped Herman Rickover develop the nuclear powered submarine. Trump stands out alone as a celebrity without either a political background or a military record. Even Ronald Reagan, the first truly celebrity President because he had been an entertainer, had two terms under has belt as Governor of California. That had taught him to delegate power, which is just what George W. Bush did when he became President, his celebrity consisting of his last name. Only Donald Trump is a celebrity who thinks he knows how to govern, but fortunately he does not, and so most of his schemes don’t work out.
Consider the credentials of the people presently running for the Democratic nomination. Not a single one is there because of his celebrity. No entertainers; no military people. Rather, people all of whom have pursued political careers ever since they finished their educations or emerged from military service at a fairly low level. Some have more distinguished records than others. There are mayors who became Senators, like Corey Booker, or people just starting out as mayors, like Pete Boutigieg, or mayors who were cabinet secretaries, like Julian Castro. They are professional politicians though some like myself may think it problematic that people with such short resumes throw their hats in the ring for the highest office, but they are trying to build public personas rather than use ones that they already have. What all of them sense is that you never know who will catch fire on the debate stage, now that that has become the major way in which potential candidates get to stand out rather than because of their ground operations or their political connections. It is cheap to run a political campaign if all you have to do is show up for the debates. Even the very unlikely candidates have had some congressional experience, though that is not true of the investor Andrew Yang. A billionaires without any political experience who thought about running as an independant, is Howard Schultz, the one time head of Starbucks, but his campaign already seem to have fallen by the wayside. And don’t forget that the three leading contenders for the Democratic nomination at the moment--Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren--have long political records whatever their differences on the issues.
The 2016 race for the Republican nomination therefore is the one that seems an aberration in that it had a number of people in it who were without political experience. There was Herman Cain, Carly Fiorina, Ben Carson and, of course, Donald Trump, who dominated every debate he was in and rose from last place to first even as the Republican National Committee may well have presumed that he would sink to his justified level as the biggest clown in the race rather than the one to beat. Why Jeb Bush couldn’t find a zinger to take him down, Bush having the money and the political backing and an odds on favorite to win the nomination, continues to amaze me. Maybe, as Trump said, he was just too low energy, and maybe the rest of the competitors were of low grade, what with Rick Perry, the Governor of Texas, not remembering the name of the cabinet department he wanted to abolish, which was the Department of Energy, the very department he went on to head, and Marco Rubio just out of his element when required to take on the pushy ones. I would have thought Chris Christie would have done better, but he was hedging his bets, just like Ted Cruz did, wanting someone else to take on Trump so that he could pick up the Trump support. Those two guessed wrong,and we have had to live with the results.
So I do think the evidence suggests that the Trump Presidency is an aberration, a departure from the way American politics is organized, even if we trust too much to debates rather than smoke filled rooms as the places where we choose our candidates. The Republican Party will wake up the morning after the coming election and decide that it never heard of Trump and continue on in its service of xenophobic and big money interests under the subterfuge of being the responsible party for the respectable segments of the population, that percentage of the population it regards as respectable ever diminishing, and so heading the party towards the dustbin of history, which would only be its just desserts.