I’ll assume that most of DI’s readers, like me, hate the celebrity phenomenon of the “famous for being famous”. This rising class of psuedo-celebs, the “famesque”, are a newish phenomenon who owe their livelihoods to media over-saturation. In a world of thousands of channels and millions of websites, in an economy where celebrity magazines and gossip sites flourish as newspapers decline, there is a consistent demand for fluffy content. The outrageous and fame-hungry, who are willing (it seems) to do anything to garner attention, bloom and profit in such an environment. If you have no standards and no shame, it is relatively easy to make a celebrity career of puff piece interviews and reality TV appearances. Far easier than launching a career based on hard-work, creative production, and talent, anyway.
But there is a new subclass of the ‘famesque’, one far more insidious than the droves of Paris Hiltons and Snookies and Osbornes and Kardashians we all despise and ignore. They are Celebrity Republicans- wannabe politicos who are pundits just for the sake of being pundits. And they are tearing the Republican party and political discourse apart.
The original Celebrity Republican, I think, is Ann Coulter. Outspoken, offensive, and commercially successful, Coulter never had a professional political career. She never launched a (sincere) campaign or worked as a strategist. She was never elected to any office, nor did she have a career in journalism. From whence came her expertise? Why did she produce seven commercially successful books, and why does she earn an estimated $500,000 a year in speaker fees, on top of countless televised appearances? You might as well ask what Kate Gosselin is famous for.
Coulter, like dozens of ‘famesque’ analogs, was always interested in the spotlight for its own sake, and never aspired to be more than a professional pundit. She managed to ascend to notoriety on the wings of audacity, and stayed there by continually producing inflammatory drivel. In the 90′s and 00′s, twenty-four hour news networks needed constant content and an attractor of eyeballs, and she was a prolific source of both. How could Fox, CNN, or MSNBC resist booking a sexy, provocative spitfire who believed that the Middle East needed to be obliterated and who called the 9/11 widows greedy harpies? She made a mint on her ability to pretend to have expertise.
But Coulter was just an early harbinger of the present era, where professional pundits abound. Sarah Palin quickly learned her value was not as a professional politician, but as a full-time talking head. She may dabble and flirt with a 2012 bid for the Presidency, but make no mistake: she quit an executive position because she realized she was ill-suited for it, and because she knew she could have a more profitable, easy political life as a Fox News correspondent. There is no chance in hell that she’ll ever be seriously elected to another public office. And why would she want to? She’s in a much more secure position as a critic of government than as an active participant in it.
Being practical economic conservatives, Republicans are figuring out it’s more financially viable to be a persona than a civil servant. Palin made 100 times her gubernatorial salary, totaling $12 million in earnings, within a year of leaving office. In 2010, Ann Coulter made at least $750,000, a pretty penny considering she hasn’t been at the height of her media saturation in years. Compare these sums to the $174,000 that Senators make, or the $400,000 the President makes.
Before you scoff at the difference, consider how much more backbreaking, hair-graying work the latter two jobs entail. Consider the hours of touring the country, of visiting constituents, of delivering repetitive speeches, of being assailed by voters and the media and made to justify your every move. Who wouldn’t prefer to sit back and lob critiques of elected official instead, and earn more while doing it? Of course Sarah Palin left office. Of course she doesn’t seriously want to be President.
Celebrity Republicanism is not reserved for attractive, inflammatory ladies, either. Take Mike Huckabee. A governor and sincere 2008 Presidential candidate, Huckabee came to learn that fame was an easier path to tread than politics. While he performed respectably in the Iowa Straw Poll and early state caucuses, he was more successful as an affable media darling than as a true Presidential possibility. Liberal and conservative news programs alike enjoyed featuring him because he was adorable and charming, even as he expressed extremely socially conservative views. He was on The Daily Show and Bill Maher; he had a campaign ad featuring Chuck Norris. He promoted his weight loss book; he played in a band. He was hard not to love.
When his candidacy failed, Huckabee was offered his own weekend program on Fox. He has since enjoyed the cushy TV spot while maintaining a radio program and publishing more books (like Glen Beck, he writes political books and fluffy Christmas stories). Like Palin, Huckabee flirted with a 2012 Presidential run but ultimately balked. He too realized that life as a professional pundit was less stressful and more profitable than a career in actual governance. He even said as much in a 2009 interview.
The Republican Party is flush with these types: professional pundits who are quick to express far-right views with strong sound bites, but who have no interest in working in the government. They are the reason that the Republican Party has no exciting, viable 2012 candidates: all the charismatic conservatives would rather be famous for being famous. In fact, almost all of the Republican Party’s current de facto leaders are professional pundits not currently in office. Rush Limbaugh. Glenn Beck, before he soured. Sean Hannity. Bill O’Reilly. Dick Cheney. Karl Rove. They are some of the right’s loudest voices, but few have any role in current governance. Most have no future political aspirations. Even Meghan McCain, by all means an unconventional Republican, fits this Celebrity Republican mold. She writes, she Tweets, she doesn’t run for office.
But even Republicans currently in office can qualify as Celebrity Republicans. Michelle Bachman, for instance, clearly loves the limelight more than she loves the promotion of her Tea Party ideals. Look to her insistence on voicing her own response to Obama’s State of the Union Address; look to the frequency with which she is on television as a pundit relative to her actual activity and support in Washington. Her Presidential run, too, smacks of a bid for media attention and nothing more. I’m calling it right now: she will retire to a Fox News position when her term is up.
Celebrity Republicans can vary in their past experience (or lack thereof), their current office-holding (or lack thereof), and their future aspirations (or lack thereof), but they are united by their political impotence. They are loud, compelling, attention-grabbing, and ineffectual. They are pundits just for the sake of being pundits.
Donald Trump is the ultimate example of this phenomenon. Like Huckabee and Palin before him, he declared a Presidential campaign, floundered, and can now use his notoriety to launch a successful career in commentary. He’s even a famesque celebrity in the original sense; before diving into Republican politics, he was a tireless self-promoter and reality TV ham, and remains one today. He has staunch economically conservative viewpoints, and like ‘famesque’ media presence, wants a podium from which to recite them. But as his past career choices make plain, he doesn’t care whether his podium is one of substance or not. Along with all his fellow Celebrity Republicans, he wants fanfare– and high speaker fees– but considers electoral success beside the point.
If I were a Republican, I would be severely dismayed. The party once boasted a unified, confident rhetorical presence that put the Democrats to shame and set the political agendas. But if all the charismatic Republican candidates keep realizing that it is more profitable and simple to become a celebrity talking head rather than a viable electoral option, the GOP will become nothing more than a loud dog on a short leash.