Back during the 2008 US presidential election, shortly after then-Senator Barack Obama had been feted in Berlin by a million-strong crowd that stretched from the Brandenburg Gate all the way down the Strasse des 17 Juni, his Republican opponent, Senator John McCain, released an attack ad that was simply called ‘Celeb’. Intercut with the images of Obama being greeted like the headline act at a summer pop festival were two well-known figures, who you would not ordinarily expect to see in a political advertisement: Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. “He’s the biggest celebrity in the world,” the ad noted, portentously. “But is he ready to lead?” The messaging was blunt. The US needed a commander-in-chief not a celebrity-in-chief.
The fact Obama had become a political idol in a pop idol age helped propel him to the White House
Suffice to say, it was Obama who a few months later took the presidential oath of office rather than McCain. The former prisoner of war, who had turned down the offer of early release from the Hanoi Hilton thinking it cowardly to leave behind his fellow captives, could boast a stirring personal narrative. What he could never match was the personal star power of his youthful opponent. Thus, the ‘Celeb’ ad failed to land its blow. It highlighted a strength of his opponent not a weakness.
Celebrity was not the only reason why Barack Obama won the presidency, or even the biggest. Nonetheless, the fact he had become a political idol in a pop idol age helped propel him to the White House.
A decade on, the lines between America’s political culture and celebrity culture have become even more blurred, which helps explain the rise of Donald Trump. An attention-hungry former reality TV star parlayed his primetime prominence into the presidency. For 14 seasons of The Apprentice, the billionaire sat in his high-backed leather chair making executive decisions, his awe-struck subordinates acting unquestionably on his every command. For millions of his supporters, it did not require a great leap of imagination to see him doing the same in the Oval Office.
Trump more than met one of the main requirements of modern-day political success: the ability to entertain
As with Barack Obama, celebrity was not the only reason why Donald Trump won. His businessman acumen, and his status as a political outsider were key. Both helped make the billionaire a working-class hero. However, Trump more than met one of the main requirements of modern-day political success: the ability to entertain. It mattered not that he had only a limited grasp of policy and world affairs. More important was his talent as a performer. A ratings success on television became a vote-winning success in politics.
This celebritisation of the presidency is hardly a new phenomenon. The inauguration of America’s first reality TV star president came 36 years after the inauguration of America’s movie star president, Ronald Reagan – although ‘The Gipper’, a two-term Governor of California, was hardly a political neophyte. Long before that, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, through his mastery of radio, and John F Kennedy, through his mastery of television, demonstrated how the tools of mass media could be harnessed for political ends.
Playing the game
Other presidents, who were not such gifted performers, realised they had at least to nod towards popular culture. Richard Nixon went on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, the most watched variety show of its day, and in 1970 invited Elvis Presley to the White House. Jimmy Carter agreed to be interviewed by Playboy, during which he famously admitted to mental adultery. Even Dwight D Eisenhower, perhaps the stiffest of the post-war presidents, saw the value in appearing on the Ed Sullivan show and alongside the comedians Abbott and Costello.
What once would have been considered unpresidential became standardised behaviour
Bill Clinton can perhaps lay claim to being the first pop culture president (high culture, as practiced by the cellist Pablo Casals and poet Robert Frost, was more to Jack Kennedy’s liking). Whether it was donning shades to play his saxophone on the Arsenio Hall Show or revealing to an MTV youth forum that he preferred briefs to boxers, he revelled in what had increasingly become a job requirement. What once would have been considered unpresidential became standardised behaviour. To not play this game risked appearing prudish and aloof.
Barack Obama went further. Not only was he a pop culture president; he became a pop culture icon. The artist Shepard Fairey inaugurated him in that role when he rendered the then candidate in stencilled blocks of red, beige and blue in the famed ‘Hope’ poster. Whereas many of his predecessors looked like they had walked onto the wrong set when they ventured into the world of entertainment, Obama made the transition seamlessly. Mimicking Al Green, dancing with Ellen DeGeneres, appearing on The View or driving around the White House grounds cracking jokes with Jerry Seinfeld for the show Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee became just as much a part of his presidency as more formal appearances. It was no longer a case of stepping between two different realms. There was no line of demarcation.
Increasingly, these pop culture moments were used to advance his agenda, as when he slammed-jammed the news with Jimmy Fallon and appeared on Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis. Both promoted Obamacare, the success of which relied upon young healthy people signing up in vast numbers. That marked a key development. Most presidents merely courted popularity when they went on chat shows. Obama had specific policy goals in mind.
Obama seemed especially confident at the White House Correspondents Dinner, the annual black tie event where the worlds of politics and entertainment intersect. The ballroom of the Washington Hilton is usually filled with as many stars as briefing room reporters. An irony, then, is that his merciless attack on Donald Trump at the 2011 dinner is often cited as the crucible moment for the billionaire’s bid for the White House – though Mr Trump denies this. Obama’s attack went viral, and so, five years later, did its victim.
‘Leotards and body oil’
Donald Trump’s great success was to turn the 2016 presidential campaign into an extension of his reality show franchise, and to co-opt all the cable news channels into broadcasting it free of charge. He also built his own media platform, on Twitter and Facebook. Only occasionally as a candidate did Trump venture onto shows like Saturday Night Live and Jimmy Fallon, which were beloved of the East and West Coast elites. A master-self-publicist, he was nowhere as reliant on these outlets as previous candidates. Besides, they were enemy territory.
Trump’s campaign mirrored much of the razzmatazz, hype, aggression and faux controversy of one of his favourite pop culture genres, World Wrestling Federation
With Trump, politics was entertainment, and his campaign mirrored much of the razzmatazz, hype, aggression and faux controversy of one of his favourite pop culture genres, World Wrestling Federation, which had blurred the lines between sport and show business. The nicknames, like ‘Little Marco’ and ‘Crooked Hillary’. The stadium rallies. The smackdown one-liners. The merchandising. All that was missing was leotards and body oil.
Trump also benefited from the rise of another avowedly populist form of pop culture: tabloid TV shows. The sex scandals of the Clinton years, and their wall-to-wall coverage, contributed to the Jerry Springerisation of US politics (Springer, a former mayor of Cincinnati, had gone from politics into entertainment). Trump’s decision to parade Bill Clinton’s female accusers ahead of his second presidential debate against Hillary Clinton was straight out of the Springer playbook.
On reaching Washington, Trump quickly deployed his reality TV smarts. Last year, the New York Times reported he had advised aides “to think of each presidential day as an episode in a television show in which he vanquishes rivals.” Major announcements, such as his Supreme Court nominee and choice as chairman of the Federal Reserve, are teased on Twitter with tune-in-for-the-next-instalment expectancy. “Welcome to the studio,” he said at the beginning of the first Cabinet meeting of 2018 from his leather chair. One almost expected the theme tune from The Apprentice to swell up behind him or him to point at a hapless Cabinet official and announce: “You’re fired!”
Yet this celebrity president has been largely shunned by the celebrity world. It irked him that he could not attract any A-listers to perform at his inauguration. A concert on the Lincoln Memorial featured Country and Western stars little known outside the US. By contrast, the Obama line-up in 2009 included Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, U2, John Legend and Beyoncé.
With the news that Oprah Winfrey is actively considering a White House run, we may have reached the point of peak celebrity in US politics. The logic of Oprah’s backers is straightforward enough. Lesser-known figures will not be able to compete for the limelight with Donald Trump. It will take a mega-star to beat a mega-star.
Others will make the case for competence over celebrity, for knowledge over name-recognition, for experience over entertainment value, for self-effacement over stardom. Maybe America needs a less sensationalised and more low-key form of politics. It maybe not so good for the ratings, but it may well be better for the country. Emphasising governance rather than glitz, maybe it is time to make the presidency boring again.
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