The presidents in the Ukraine scandal have celebrity status

The presidents in the Ukraine scandal have celebrity status
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When most people think of celebrities, they imagine an escape from the mundane. Nothing real is at stake when Martha Stewart and Snoop Dogg cook dinner together, or when Donald Trump used to stride away from his ornamented helicopter to the tune of “For the Love of Money” on his way to assign an inane group challenge to some less famous peers. Television is a welcomed distraction from real life concerns, while politics is, as Professor Robert Dahl noted, “a sideshow in the great circus of life.”

It is no coincidence that it was two former television stars, not boring politicians, who effortlessly plunged their governments and the global markets into a tailspin in the course of one brief call over the summer. President TrumpDonald John TrumpLev Parnas implicates Rick Perry, says Giuliani had him pressure Ukraine to announce Biden probe Saudi Arabia paid 0 million for cost of US troops in area Parnas claims ex-Trump attorney visited him in jail, asked him to sacrifice himself for president MORE, who hosted the hit reality series “The Apprentice” for more than a dozen seasons, and Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who played a school teacher turned president on “Servant of the People,” rocketed themselves to the top seats of national political power with the formidable communications toolsets that seasoned entertainers have.

As Zelensky himself said, according to the released transcript of the call, these toolsets and advantages like name recognition, outsider status, large following of supporters, and natural ability to attract and shape media attention often make celebrity politicians difficult to beat on the campaign trail. Those qualities, however, also come at great cost.


The utter lack of political experience and knowledge that Trump and Zelensky share renders the tedious tasks of responsible government all the more difficult. It places both leaders at risk of making some grave missteps or breaking the law even without intending to do so. Perhaps most disturbingly, the lax ethical standards and low expectations the public tends to apply to celebrities, not to mention the strength of party loyalty, diminish the odds that these leaders will be held to account.

Political observers trying to make sense of the enthusiastic agreement from Zelensky to take care of the request from Trump to investigate the situation involving Joe BidenJoe BidenLev Parnas implicates Rick Perry, says Giuliani had him pressure Ukraine to announce Biden probe Ex-Obama official on Sanders-Warren feud: 'I don't think it played out well for either of them' Parnas says he doesn't think that Joe Biden did anything wrong regarding Ukraine MORE have pointed to the youth and inexperience of Zelensky, as well as to the new international norm of appealing to the ego of Trump. Trump is different, as past White House press secretary Sean Spicer once said of the diplomatic style of his former boss.

The credible ignorance of Trump continues to shield him from the consequences that traditional politicians would face if they engaged in the same activities. Reports that indicate White House aides, rather than the president, took special steps to conceal the transcript, as well as claims that Trump had been in favor of declassifying the transcript since the scandal first broke, bolster the notion that the president was oblivious of any wrongdoing, or even cognizant of any efforts underway to protect him from it. Trump has already invoked the common sense argument that no one would willingly engage in any inappropriate behavior in public.

I am not arguing that Trump was unaware of the potential illegality of his alleged actions. His own contemplations suggest he believes otherwise. “When you are a star, they let you do it. You can do anything,” Trump said in the Access Hollywood tape. “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and would not lose any voters,” he said during the campaign. But whether he knowingly broke the law or not, like most celebrity candidates, his novice status makes pleading ignorance a reliable strategy. That is a political asset with dangerous implications.

I also do not mean to suggest traditional politicians avoid running afoul of the law. One need not look deeper into American history than the Clinton administration and the Nixon administration to discover examples of seasoned politicians behaving wrongfully or illegally. Yet the prospect Alexander Hamilton lamented in the Federalist Papers was indeed that of unqualified and unfit characters practiced in the “little arts of popularity” rising to power, which he imagined the electoral college could prevent.

The electoral college has not shown to be the deliberative independent body that Hamilton initially imagined. Weakened political parties and current low trust in government institutions and the mainstream media have exacerbated the extent to which a distracted voting public is left to choose who the most powerful people in the world will be each few years. It should come as no surprise that the people they come to know and love through their television screens often seem like better choices than the politicians they believe are responsible for the worst of our problems.

Lauren Wright (@DrLaurenAWright) is an associate scholar and lecturer in politics and public affairs with Princeton University. She is the author of “Star Power: American Democracy in the Age of the Celebrity Candidate.”