Since Donald Trump shattered the archetype for a presidential candidate, dozens of celebrities and public figures with no previous political experience reportedly have considered running for public office.
Certainly, some measure of disruption in the political system is welcome. It democratizes access to public service opportunities and diffuses a monopoly Washington elites would like to hold on the political system. But governing is hard work. It’s also enormously important. The president is commander in chief of the armed forces. He or she is the face of America to the world. The Constitution doesn’t list any requirements for the office other than citizenship and age, but it’s hard to overestimate the value of real governing experience. The electorate needs assurance that candidates have the experience and skill sets necessary to run the country.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan won a controversial nomination as an anti-establishment candidate on the Republican ticket. A Hollywood celebrity in his own right, Reagan spoke with a mobilizing gravitas that attracted voters across party lines as the change candidate in a country disaffected by the Carter administration. His successful presidency dramatically realigned parties, and American politics, for decades to come. While the parallels to the modern day are stark, they aren’t complete. Reagan had previous, and successful, government experience as governor of California. He had been a major player in the American political landscape for even longer, becoming a prominent conservative voice with his support for Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign in 1964.
Reagan’s rhetoric appealed to vast swaths of the American public for its eloquence and reassuring confidence. He ran on an ideologically unconventional platform; still, his proposals were accepted establishment ideas that simply drew from both parties — he opposed on-demand abortion, was anti-communist and supported tax hikes when necessary. His amalgam of policy positions appealed to the policy sensibilities of millions of Americans.
Trump’s populist moorings have at times exhibited the lack of depth that comes from inexperience. If the office becomes a magnet for Hollywood celebrities with broad popular appeal but shallow governing experience, the republic would suffer. Effective governing requires a healthy respect for public processes, compromise, modesty and historical perspective. Rarely is statesmanship acquired overnight.
Many Americans put far too much weight on celebrity. They cannot afford to confuse that with political leadership in a world that demands the best and brightest public servants.