This Poisonous Cult of Personality

Jack Gruber/Pool/Reuters

Former First Lady Michelle Obama, former President Barack Obama, President Donald Trump, and First Lady Melania Trump at the 2017 Presidential Inauguration, Washington, D.C., January 20, 2017

Donald Trump’s election last year exposed an insidious politics of celebrity, one in which a redemptive personality is projected high above the slow toil of political parties and movements. As his latest tweets about Muslims confirm, this post-political figure seeks, above all, to commune with his entranced white nationalist supporters. Periodically offering them emotional catharsis, a powerful medium of self-expression at the White House these days, Trump makes sure that his fan base survives his multiple political and economic failures. This may be hard to admit but the path to such a presidency of spectacle and vicarious participation was paved by the previous occupant of the White House.

Barack Obama was the first “celebrity president” of the twenty-first century—“that is,” as Perry Anderson recently pointed out, “a politician whose very appearance was a sensation, from the earliest days of his quest for the Democratic nomination onwards: to be other than purely white, as well as good-looking and mellifluous, sufficed for that,” and for whom “personal popularity” mattered more than the fate of own party and policies.

Public life routinely features such sensations, figures in whom people invest great expectations based on nothing more than a captivation with their radiant personas. Youthful good looks, an unconventional marriage, and some intellectual showmanship helped turn Emmanuel Macron, virtually overnight, into the savior not just of France, but of Europe, too. Until the approval ratings of this dynamic millionaire collapsed, a glamour-struck media largely waived close scrutiny of his neoliberal faith in tax breaks for rich compatriots, and contempt for “slackers.”

Another example is Aung San Suu Kyi who, as a freedom fighter and prisoner of conscience, precluded any real examination of her politics, which have turned out to be abysmally sectarian, in tune with her electoral base among Myanmar’s Buddhist ethnic majority. Her personal sacrifices remained for too long the basis for assessing her political outlook, though the record of Robert Mugabe, among many other postcolonial leaders, had already proved that suffering for the cause of freedom is no guarantee of wise governance, and that today’s victims are likely to be tomorrow’s persecutors.

The politics of celebrity, however, has no patience for cautionary tales. It remains impervious even as white supremacists thrive in America’s “post-racial” age, and democracy in Myanmar empowers ethnic cleansers. Premised on seeing history as inconsequential and political institutions as pliable, this politics continuously renews itself around new luminaries. Last week, Thomas Friedman emerged from a deep bath in the charisma of the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, to announce a new Arab Spring. The latest—though relatively benign—icon of world peace and harbinger of a post-racial future is Meghan Markle, a biracial American actress who is engaged to marry Prince Harry, the fifth in line to the British throne.

The engagement, an op-ed in The New York Times claims, is “astonishingly political” and “the reaction from people of color” is “explosive.” The people’s duchess admires Noam Chomsky as well as (confusingly) Madeleine Albright, a report in The Guardian informs us, “and her Instagram feed hints at possibly leftish politics.” “When Meghan weds Harry,” the title of a typical opinion piece this week says, “Britain’s relationship with race will change for ever.” In this absurd vision, Meghan Markle assuming her seat in the royal wedding carriage in London could be as epochal an event as Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Alabama.

A non-white royal no doubt presents an opportunity for magazines in Britain like Vanity Fair and Hello to affirm their commitment to diversity—and dynasty. What’s more striking is the upswing of royal-mania among those with leftish politics. Their gawking at Markle’s Instagram feed may appear to have nothing in common with Friedman’s slack-jawed adoration of the “reformist” Saudi prince. Both prophecies of imminent reform, however, emerge from the same fundamentally anti-political culture of celebrity-mongering and power-worship, which instantly and indiscriminately sacralizes the possessors of fame, wealth, and beauty, and believes that symbolism is all.

The culture may occasionally appear progressive, a showcase of diversity, but only because it comforts the rich, famous, and powerful without regard for race or gender. This identity-cum-personality politics is profoundly indifferent to political and moral principle. Thus, for example, the former Pakistani cricketer Imran Khan, leader of the Pakistan Movement of Justice and a member of Pakistan’s National Assembly, maintained his luster among British glossies and tabloids long after he mutated from handsome Lothario to stern Islamist. And so it is with Theresa May, the flailing conservative prime minister of Britain, who recently appeared in American Vogue—for no apparent reason than that she is a woman with power.


The liberal Obama, however, was the greatest beneficiary of an age of rampant depoliticization, when public figures turned into blank receptacles and the urge to project private desires and frustrations onto them overrode the need to make sober political judgements. This craving for emotional communion was not confined to marginalized and voiceless citizens. Many writers and journalists closely identified with the literary intellectual they saw in Obama; they were thrilled to watch, I wrote in 2008, “one of their kind ascend to the West Wing,” and were seemingly unconcerned that “the overall decline in national fortunes” was likely to push their country “to the rancorous right.” 

Obama continued to dazzle the literati even as he stepped up deportations of illegal immigrants and drone attacks, ruthlessly pursued whistle-blowers, and inaugurated the extrajudicial executions of American citizens. He exhorted African Americans to assume personal responsibility for their plight while absolving bankers of all responsibility for ruining the lives of millions of people. Yet, as with Trump and his loyal and captive audience today, support for Obama remained steadfast among African Americans and white liberals.

Obama’s supporters remain as defensive about their president as Trump’s fans are about theirs, even though Obama, kite-surfing with Richard Branson in the wake of Trump’s victory, and reassuring Wall Street with handsomely remunerated speeches, has affirmed his dedication to the one percent. But we should not be surprised and dismayed that Obama’s audacity of hope dwindled into some humdrum self-cherishing, or that Macron is now derided as “president of the rich.” The actual record of personality cults reveals the mendacity of hope. Real change always comes through the sustained struggles of countless people who often wish to remain unsung. 

The meaning of consistent striving, modest self-image, and quiet solidarity in politics is mostly lost today, partly because the last great mass movements for change in the West—the Civil Rights, anti-war, and feminist movements—occurred decades ago, in the 1960s and 1970s. During their long absence, decreed by the ideological conceit coined by Margaret Thatcher that “there is no alternative” to neoliberalism, the scope for collection action shrank. Glamorous individuals are increasingly tasked with working miracles. But in societies bitterly polarized by social and economic inequality, the appeal of such figureheads—whether expressed as “Yes, we can,” “Make American great again,” or “En Marche!”—is inevitably limited to specific constituencies. In this demoralizingly fragmented political landscape, many people end up bestowing their hopes upon celebrities with whom they can gratifyingly identify. 

It was this politics of narcissistic identification, of fanciful private bonding with the famous, that set us up for, first, the disappointment with Obama, and then, the appalling shock of Trump.

This post has been corrected. Contrary to earlier reporting, American Vogue’s photo shoot of Theresa May appeared inside the magazine, not as a cover.

Subscribe and save 50%!

Get immediate access to the current issue and over 25,000 articles from the archives, plus the NYR App.

Already a subscriber? Sign in