We are all indicted by this. We have made a world where entertainers are the new priesthood, able to propitiate the public and endow those politicians who pay them homage with apparent moral and intellectual integrity. Cool chic and celebrity connections are now far more important than coherent policies and personal integrity. And Mr. Trump is surely no better. In many ways he is more representative of the moral and intellectual vacuum of this present age than Mrs. Clinton. He really is nothing more than an entertainer, the political equivalent of a foul-mouthed stand-up comic. Yet that is precisely what makes him the perfect politician for this present age.
Last Friday I had the pleasure of hearing Carlo Lancelotti and Michael Hanby give presentations at a seminar on the crisis of modernity as analyzed by the late Italian philosopher Augusto Del Noce. At one point, Michael commented that Marxism had triumphed in America. It was a striking statement. Of course, he did not mean “triumphed” in the economic sense of the workers’ control of the means of production, but rather in the sense that all of life is now politicized. Everything from Halloween costumes to the weather has profound political significance and demands a Manichean moral posture.
One could supplement this comment by adding that, as all of life has become political, so politics has become entertainment. This is not surprising in a world where entertainment is so dominant as to be a virtual ontology. To be elected, politicians need public support, and that means that they need to play to the gallery. Aesthetics, not argument, is crucial, as I have noted here before. This is nothing new, even if it is increasingly significant today. In the 1920s, Edward Bernays made Calvin Coolidge re-electable. Coolidge was by far the dullest president in US history (don’t you just long for the good old days?), but Bernays invited a bunch of stars to dine with him, giving him a kind of vicarious charisma. Ever since then, American politics has been increasingly linked to showbiz. That Bernays was Sigmund Freud’s nephew was not incidental to the plot. He was consciously using his uncle’s theories to build the empire of desire within which we all now love to be imprisoned.
From this perspective, the latest election is not a crisis in the democratic process but merely the extension, perhaps the end-term, of a longstanding process whereby style has triumphed and made substance irrelevant. Think for a moment of the absurdity of this fact: Mrs Clinton, facing serious scandal, is made more wholesome, statesmanlike, and electable in the eyes of the people by calling on the likes of J-Lo, Jay Z, and Beyoncé.
Mrs Clinton’s response to her manifold moral problems is not an aberration. It is a function of the culture of which we are all a part.