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Donald Trump, Celebrity Politician

donald_trump.jpegDaniel Boorstin’s 1961 book about ‘pseudo-events’ helps explain the New Yorker’s rise.

 GORDON CROVITZ, WSJ, March 13, 2016

Americans are divided between those wondering how Donald Trumpcould possibly be a leading presidential candidate and those wondering how others can wonder why. Both camps would benefit from Daniel Boorstin’s “The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America,” which in 1961 explained the Trump candidacy.

Writing the year after the first televised presidential debate, between JFK and Nixon, Boorstin predicted that new media technologies would transform politics—and not for the better. He coined “pseudo-event” to describe photo-ops, presidential debates and other staged events whose relationship to the “underlying reality of the situation is ambiguous.” Today he might have included provocative social-media posts.

“Pseudo-events thus lead to emphasis on pseudo-qualifications,” he wrote. “If we test presidential candidates by talents 

on TV quiz performances, we will, of course, choose presidential candidates for precisely these qualifications.” Most earlier presidents would have failed, “but our most notorious demagogues would have shone.”

Boorstin defined celebrities as “human pseudo-events,” people known for “well-knownness.” Another observation applies especially well to Mr. Trump: “A sign of a celebrity is often that his name is worth more than his services.” Mr. Trump’s financial disclosure shows that much of his claimed net worth is from licensing his name for buildings, resorts and menswear, not from businesses he runs.

“Our national politics has become a competition for images or between images, rather than between ideals,” Boorstin warned. Mr. Trump burnished his brand by appearing for a decade on “The Apprentice,” a reality-TV show. The show is a manufactured competition leading to the dramatic moment when Mr. Trump declares, “You’re fired!”—perhaps the ultimate example of how pseudo-events can build celebrity.

Mr. Trump’s campaign has obliterated whatever line remained between politics and entertainment. Polls suggest his supporters aren’t troubled by vague, inconsistent or even authoritarian policy positions. He probably did himself no harm with supporters when MSNBC recently asked if he has foreign-policy advisers and he replied: “Yes, there is a team. Well, there’s not a team. I’m going to be forming a team.”

But Mr. Trump’s know-nothingness is anything but unknowing. “I play to people’s fantasies,” he wrote in “The Art of the Deal,” his 1987 best seller. “People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole.”

This means voters can’t be sure whether his pledges to build a border wall, ban Muslim immigration and launch trade wars—and his rationalizing of Vladimir Putin and Tiananmen Square—reflect his real opinions or instead are so much hyperbole intended to support a tough-guy image. His vulgar comments either reflect his character or define a character he has chosen to play.

The media Mr. Trump claims to abhor enable his celebrity. The head of CBS, Les Moonves, told a recent investor conference that the Trump-dominated campaign “may not be good for America,” but “it is damn good for CBS. . . . The money’s rolling in and this is fun. . . . Bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”

Mr. Trump’s defenders could object that he is not the only candidate famous for being famous. Hillary Clinton is most famous for being a Clinton, as Mr. Trump is for being a Trump. She was a mediocre senator and as secretary of state pursued Obama administration policies that undermined U.S. influence around the world. Mr. Trump’s supporters could also ask which is worse: Mr. Trump’s let-it-all-hang-out personality or Mrs. Clinton’s setting up private email to evade disclosure laws.

Celebrities aren’t likely to make great presidents. As Boorstin warned: “The hero was distinguished by his achievement; the celebrity by his image or trademark. The hero created himself; the celebrity is created by the media. The hero was a big man; the celebrity is a big name.”

It wouldn’t surprise Boorstin that Mr. Trump’s opponents haven’t been able to stop him. “Strictly speaking, there is no way to unmask an image,” Boorstin wrote. “An image, like any other pseudo-event, becomes all the more interesting with our every effort to debunk it.”

Boorstin—a conservative who served as librarian of Congress from 1975 through 1987 and died in 2004—encouraged Americans to protect the country’s core values despite the new allure of image: “Of all the nations in the world, the U.S. was built in nobody’s image. It was the land of the unexpected, of unbounded hope, of ideals.”

Voters looking for a candidate to confront Washington might consider whether a manufactured image is resilient enough to sustain leadership. A candidate with deep principles and considered policies could still trump Mr. Trump’s image of a celebrity politician.

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Donald Trump, Celebrity Politician
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