Accompanying the emergence of mass communications in
the mid-nineteenth century, a nascent celebrity culture arose
in Europe and North America. By the time that Hollywood
films, network radio, and professional sports were inserted
into daily life, international celebrity culture was in full
flower. Television, popular music recording, global cinema
and ubiquitous commercial media advertising pushed this
culture “over the top,” and the subsequent introduction of
the internet and social media has enabled virtually anyone
to become a “viral celebrity” without leaving his or her own
Given the the preoccupation in Western culture with physical
prowess, material evaluations and sexual beauty, this was
almost certainly inevitable. As traditional standards and
rules were overturned by the celebrity “squeaky wheels” in
each national culture, a certain universal vicariousness and
passivity arose. Individuals were content to become “fans”
and “followers.” (It’s no accident that active participants in
one of the largest social media institutions are, in fact, called
In some European, Asian and South American societies
during the 20th century, particularly in societies with
undeveloped democratic political traditions, the celebrity
culture was combined with new propaganda techniques to
induce totalitarian regimes, a phenomenon that seemed to be
avoided in the United States where celebrity culture and
political culture seemed to be kept more or less separate in
national public life. Of course, there were momentary lapses,
such as with the glamorous but dysfunctional Kennedy
political family personalities, yet for the most part, political
and celebrity values remained distinct.
The presence of powerful, multi-generational political U.S.
families is as old as the Republic itself. The first U.S. vice
president, and later the second president, John Adams, was
first of 19th century Adams political heavyweights, including
another president. The Harrison family produced two
presidents before 1900, and the Roosevelt family two after 1900.
The Taft family also had two major figures in the 20th century,
as did the Kennedy family (which actually had three). The 21st
century has brought us the Clintons, husband and wife,
interspersed with the Bush family with at least two presidents.
It’s a non-partisan phenomenon over time, and surely an
understandable one, but with the Kennedys (as already cited)
the celebrity culture and the political culture became somewhat
confused. Some would suggest that the 2016 candidacies of Jeb
Bush and Hillary Clinton, notwithstanding their considerable
political experience, represent a further step in creating a U.S.
political “celebrity dynasty” culture (to be followed presumably
by young George P. Bush and Clinton daughter Chelsea).
When Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, it seemed
that celebrity culture was again becoming misapplied by the
political culture, but Ronald Reagan the movie star and
Hollywood celebrity had absorbed himself genuinely into the
political culture. Although controversial for his political views,
his presidency was substantive and transformational.
It is 2016, and one of the two major political parties is about
to nominate someone from the celebrity/entertainment culture
as its candidate for president. Donald Trump upset his party’s
establishment and 16 of its leading members to win the nod as
he defied virtually every political rule and the inhibitions of
political correctness. He treated the nominating campaign not
as a political process, but with his understanding as an
experienced entertainer and celebrity. He has infuriated almost
the entire political class, and its fellow-traveling pundit class.
Now the nation is confronted with a problematic choice, that is,
the voters have to choose between an unlikeable member of a
political family dynasty and an unlikable celebrity. The former
has an extraordinary political resume, but few real
accomplishments, and the latter has no political resume and
ambiguous accomplishments. Both have long trails of
controversies behind them, and both are promising to proclaim
the other’s scandals in a vicious mutual campaign of attrition.
It is an election made for television soap operas and Hollywood
The celebrity culture piper has worked hard for many decades
and many generations in American society. This piper has led
us to clowns and heart throbs, vamps and home run hitters,
pretty faces and assorted star athletes, crooners and adonises,
colorful gangsters and charming charlatans, knock-out punchers
and punk rocksters, daring quarterbacks and provocative
TV/radio hosts, and so on --- a seemingly endless list of
amusements for our starstruck entertainment and vicarious
The doorbell rings. It’s the piper. Time to pay, he says.
Copyright (c) 2016 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.