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Of Trump and Palin: From Politician to Reality Program Personality, and Back Again

November 19, 2010

Not a president.

Perhaps you may have heard of a young lady named Sarah Palin. She is, by all accounts, a television star and prolific author. If she has done other things in her life, they go unbeknownst to me. I understand at some point she also did something else, but if she did, I don’t know anything about that. I think she’s from Alaska. She wears glasses and she’s folksy. She’s just precious.

Palin is best known for her reality program Sarah Palin’s Alaska, which I think is some sort of travel program where people ride snowmobiles and hunt. She also has a famous daughter, who is one of the best dancers in our entire country.

I’m being facetious, of course, but not concerning Palin’s politics. Her political stance is not a point of interest to me in this particular piece. Were Sarah Palin a republican or a democrat, the fact would remain the same: that Palin is a politician seeking the high office of President of the United States. But rather than hitting the campaign trail to stump for the various changes she’d make to our vast country as the Commander-in-Chief, Palin has decided to of late take a decidedly different route to the Oval Office.

Let’s start with Palin’s newest book, America by Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith and Flag, Palin reveals her deep-seeded, seething disapproval of Fox’s perennial singing contest American Idol, mocking the would-be pop stars for lacking self-esteem by stating that “no one they have encountered in their lives — from their parents to their teachers to their president — wanted them to feel bad by hearing the truth.” It was a timely statement by Palin, one she must have known would get her face plastered across every media outlet from Gawker to People. Of course, Palin is no stranger to the bubblegum celebrity circuit, ever-present as her daughter Bristol fights for survival on Dancing With the Stars each week, yukking it up with the correspondent crews of Billy Bush and Mario Lopez. She also serves as the star of her own reality show, the aforementioned Alaska, which features Palin herself as she hosts a variation of The Osbournes in which she does regular, normal things around our 49th state as her kooky and adorable family keeps her on her toes.

An odd twist for a former Vice Presidential candidate to take, to be sure. By turning herself into the precise sort of “celebrity” featured across the board of entertainment show gabfests and pop magazine covers, Palin is courting the same star-worshipping masses who care when and where Ryan Reynolds took off his shirt or whether Eva Longoria and Tony Parker can iron things out. And why not? If the number of celebrity gossip programs available on television are any indicator, this is what the people want. Their audiences love their stars; they want to see them shopping, they want to see what their houses look like, they want to know how they feel about other celebrities. And why else would Palin even have reason to mention American Idol, if it’s not to create a flashy segment wherein CNN’s Showbiz Tonight brings in three different pundits to talk about how Palin is feuding with the show. If only Barry Goldwater had the wherewithal to take on The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

But just as Sarah Palin has decided that politics is the fastest way to gossip-rag stardom and household name celebrity, so also do others decide that gossip-rag stardom and household name celebrity is the fastest way into politics. Such is the case of eccentric “billionaire” Donald Trump, who has recently begun teasing that he may as well be eyeing a run for the Presidency. It doesn’t matter, of course, that Trump’s business acumen is almost constantly called on the carpet, or that The Donald has himself filed for bankruptcy three times.  What matters is that he still hosts The Apprentice and The Celebrity Apprentice, where he plays a billionaire magnate every week. Perception is everything, and Trump knows that just by holding his head high and behaving as if he’s the richest and most important man in the Western world, there will always be people who to some extent believe that to be somewhat true. Trump made his money as a businessman, sure, but his legacy will always remain that of a pop cultural icon — he’s become a master of playing the power character to the hilt, and people seem to believe it — why shouldn’t he be even more powerful? Why shouldn’t he be President?

The troubling question in all this has nothing to do with Palin’s qualifications to be POTUS or Trump’s political aspirations, but whether the bizarre media strategies of these two individuals may actually work or not. One would hope that the educated citizen would view Palin’s political views unswayed by her cutesy interviews with Oprah or The View and evaluate Trump’s competence for high office outside of the ridiculously over-the-top character he unflinchingly plays on television. But isn’t it true — and statistically probable — that there will be people for whom these facets will be a factor?

Trump and Palin these days are literally sharing the front-of-program segment with Jersey Shore’s Pauly D being swarmed by rabid fans while visiting the University of Rhode Island. And hey, Pauly D seems really famous. Maybe he should be our President. Why not? After all, we’re collectively interested in him. Why not turn the election of our next President into a battle of Q-ratings? In a time where so many are obsessed with celebrity, the line is rapidly blurring between famous and smart. The President should be smart first. Then he or she becomes famous. Not vice versa. The entire circus isn’t unlike Kate Gosselin revealing that she really wants to act in movies — and why shouldn’t she be? She birthed eight children. That makes her qualified to star in a feature film, right?

The question then becomes: which is more prestigious? The President of the United States or the Biggest Media Star in the United States? As long as any of us believe that the two should be one and the same, we tread on dangerous ground. If we’re not careful, we’ll be watching Maria Menounos’ “super-exclusive backstage glimpse” of the corridors of the White House or see a President feuding with Rosie O’Donnell rather than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. We live in a time where popularity means more than it probably should. It’s important to remember that celebrity is merely entertainment — and should never be confused with political effectiveness. As more celebrities decide they’re important enough to make major choices for all of us (and I’m looking at you too, Wyclef Jean) we risk treading in an increasingly grey area that’s not going to turn out well for any of us. We don’t need Johnny Knoxville sneaking up on Gordon Brown with a cattle prod any more than we need Nancy Pelosi guest-starring on CSI: Miami. But as long as media strategists and clever publicists think we’ll buy it, they’ll feed it to us. It’s left up to us to learn how to make the distinctions on our own.

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