The not-so glamorous origins of American celebrity politics

tags: election 2016, American celebrity politics

David Haven Blake is Professor of English at The College of New Jersey. He is the author of "Liking Ike: Eisenhower, Advertising, and the Rise of Celebrity Politics." This post originally appeared on the OUPblog.

“In America,” the filmmaker Francois Truffaut once wrote, “politics always overlaps show business, as show business overlaps advertising.” The truth of Truffaut’s statement was on full display last month during the Republican and Democratic nominating conventions.

The Democrats predictably drew a series of A-list celebrities to their cause, including Sarah Silverman, Meryl Streep, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Star power at the Republican convention was noticeably diminished, but this year, of course, the reality show tycoon Donald Trump took center stage.  The fact that his daughter Ivanka invited Twitter followers to “Shop Ivanka’s Look” after her RNC speech tells us how keen an observer Truffaut was.

The merger of politics and entertainment in the 2016 presidential campaign may strike observers as garishly postmodern, something only a novelist such as Don DeLillo could imagine, but its roots stretch back to the vibrant political world of Jacksonian democracy.

America’s founders were keenly interested in the pursuit of fame, what Alexander Hamilton once called the “ruling passion of the noblest minds.” However what we consider celebrity politics originated in the turbulent popular culture of the 1830s and 40s as audiences began to turn their most admired entertainers into heroes of the new democracy.

Born in Philadelphia in 1806, the actor Edwin Forrest was one of the nation’s earliest stars, and in the fluid class structure of early American theater, he entertained everyone from presidents and authors to teamsters and mechanics. Working-class audiences prized Forrest’s highly expressive style of acting, especially when he appeared in action-adventure roles that depicted him as a charismatic, hyper-masculine patriot. Imagine Mel Gibson staging a live performance of Braveheart, and you have some sense of Forrest’s grip on the thousands of Americans who crowded into theaters to see him. ...

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