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3Qs: For real, or for ratings?

Aram Boghosian

As real estate tycoon and TV personality Donald Trump mulls a run for the U.S. presidency, Alan Schroeder, associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University and author of the book “Celebrity-in-Chief: How Show Business Took Over the White House,” discusses the relationship between celebrity and political power.

How has Donald Trump managed to grab the political spotlight?

We live in a media culture in which celebrity carries a lot of weight, and Trump, an established celebrity, already has media access in a way that regular politicians don’t. Also, the Republican field of nominees is so ambiguous at this point that there is no clear front-runner and we don’t know which of the potential candidates are legitimate.

This vacuum presents Trump with an opening to command the stage. But we don’t know how serious he is. Is this Donald Trump making a presidential
run? Or is he trying to boost the ratings of “The Apprentice,” and his own ego.

How will this affect the presidential campaign going forward?

Every story about Donald Trump running for president is a story that someone else who is running isn’t getting. The other nominees are being crowded out at a time when, normally, candidates are making themselves known to the broader public. Trump is sucking up so much of the oxygen that there’s not enough left for everyone else.

Also, Trump’s crusade to challenge whether President Obama was actually born in Hawaii is forcing that topic—an extreme hard-right position—back into the conversation, at a time when other nominees would probably prefer to talk about more substantive things.

What can be learned from celebrities who’ve won elected office in the past?

We’ve seen Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura become governors. Members of Congress have come from the sports world. But I think the president is a separate category and voters would be less likely to take the risk.

Also, after Schwarzenegger and Ventura were elected, they really didn’t have much success. They came in with a lot of plans and momentum, but the reality of these jobs is very different from being a celebrity. Celebrity may get you there, but being a celebrity doesn’t help you execute the job of governing very well.

Everyone always thinks of Ronald Reagan’s transition from acting to the presidency, but his was a slow transition. He was a two-term governor, and he also had been the president of a labor union—the Screen Actors Guild—which was a very political job. So Reagan had both the celebrity and the practical experience before he reached the White House.