2 September 2015

Kanye for President and the age of showbiz politics


Hollywood’s often tried to mix
Show business with politics
From Helen Gahagan
To Ronald Reagan…

So begin the lyrics of Tom Lehrer’s song George Murphy, written in 1965, where he rejoices that “At last we’ve got a senator who can really sing and dance”. Lehrer is, of course, a satirist, whose top hits include Poisoning Pigeons In The Park and The Masochism Tango, so his political analysis must always be taken with a pinch of salt. However, looking at today’s US election scene, it seems Lehrer may have had a point.

Let’s start with Kanye West. Over the weekend, the rapper and record producer used the MTV Video Music Awards ceremony to announce his intention to run for President in 2020. In predictable fashion, the internet promptly went mad: 47 million tweets worldwide, including 247,525 tweets in a single minute, and a host of Kanye West for President memes. Since then, traditional media has come on board, with the New Yorker publishing a think-piece on Kanye’s presidential “knack for making the average American feel things”, and the BBC running a video feature asking “is there more to Kanye West than just a monumental ego?”

That’s a question anyone following the 2016 US election has been asking for a while now, but not about West. In June, the Republican field became even more crowded when a reality TV star with a larger-than-life personality took centre stage. I am referring of course to Donald Trump.

Like West, Trump’s announcement was treated purely as entertainment. When Ted Cruz and Scott Walker announced they were running, the internet did not fill up with listicles for them like “The 10 best lines from Donald Trump’s announcement speech”. No one has run pieces on why Rand Paul’s hair can be so curly or Marco Rubio’s so shiny, but Trump’s hairstyle is so infamous it almost deserves a reality show of its own. And to my knowledge there are no videos of Jeb Bush saying “China” over and over again – and definitely none which have over half a million hits on youtube. It is difficult to take seriously a presidential candidate who is famous for firing celebrity business wannabes on his show The Apprentice and whose top ideas include demanding to see Obama’s birth certificate and building a giant wall on the US-Mexican border and making Mexico pay for it.

So America laughed, and then Trump went and beat every other candidate in the polls. This is after a debate performance in which Trump got into a feud with moderator Megyn Kelly and was generally considered to have ‘lost’ to the more moderate voices of basically everyone else. And media organisations, waking up to the fact that maybe they shouldn’t be quite so dismissive, are now beginning to run pieces like “What would be some pros and cons of Donald Trump becoming the president of the USA?” 

To me, and to any student of Tom Lehrer, this approach misses the point. Americans – at least, the Americans blown away by Trump – want to be entertained. They don’t want an even-handed pros-and-cons analysis of Trump. Nor do they want a presidential candidate who weighs up options, admits the challenges of solving complex problems, takes advice, and aims for the middle ground, like most normal politicians. In fact, many of them aren’t sure they want a politician at all:

Let’s not forget who’s polling second to (or possibly even neck-and-neck with) Trump: neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who has never run for office before in his life. And Carly Fiorina, whose qualifications for a presidential run consist not of being elected to a lower office but of managing Hewlett-Packard, was widely considered to be the winner of the second tier debate and is also on the rise.

How can the mainstream candidates, who have spent decades perfecting their political portfolios, respond? Jeb Bush’s answer (and you don’t get more mainstream than Jeb Bush) has been to get into the entertainment game himself, with a video drawing attention to Trump’s previous pro-Democrat policies, set to jaunty music:

It’s not just the Republicans who have to watch out though. Looking for a radical says-it-like-it-is maverick from the far left? Say hello to Bernie Sanders. While Sanders is hardly a newcomer to politics (he ran for his first office in 1971), he has always self-identified as an outsider, running as an independent. Like Trump, he’s happy to tell his base what they want to hear. So, indeed, is Britain’s own Jeremy Corbyn, another straight-talking anti-establishment sage who doesn’t see why forty years of globalisation and progress should mean updating socialist policies from the ‘70s. While it’s true that neither Corbyn nor Sanders has had a reality TV show (yet), both are playing up the entertainment aspect for all its worth.

So back to Kanye West and his unexpected sidestep into politics. How have the Democrats responded to their own politically-incorrect megalomaniac upstart?

Welcome to the show business of politics.

Rachel Cunliffe is Deputy Editor of CapX.