Up Close and Personal: Celebrity Politicians and Modern Democracy

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Image: Image: William Hogarth, A Just View of the British Stage (Undated, c18, collection of the V&A).

By Rebecca Tierney-Hynes, University of Waterloo

The recent US election has made us all think about what it means to combine politics and celebrity, and whether Trump’s particular and peculiar combination of these qualities heralds a new kind of ‘post-truth’ politics. After a campaign characterised by personal attacks, when the thrice-married, predatory Trump became acceptable to American evangelicals and his proposal for a wall between Mexico and the US (funded, laughably, by Mexico) became a serious plank of an increasingly racist campaign, we knew we were all in new political territory. And when he was elected, it felt apocalyptic. More than anything else, perhaps, the election made clear to us the extent to which politics is about emotion.

Here in Canada, our own rather different brand of celebrity prime minister, Justin Trudeau, ran primarily on a platform of charm and non-specific lefty policy, receiving a powerful mandate for left-leaning reform on which he immediately capitalised, appointing a diverse and youthful cabinet and putting money into key infrastructure projects. As a nation, we adore him, and we show it by strewing eye-catching shirtless photos of him around the internet. His personal appeal, his lovely nuclear family, and his optimistic politics have been compared to Obama’s, and contrasted with Trump’s ugly bombast.

Trudeau was elected on a platform of vague promises; Trump on a platform of toxic lies. Trudeau stands for hope, Trump for hate. But how different are the emotional contexts of the cults of personality that these politicians have attracted? What seems profoundly bizarre about the Trump phenomenon, historically, is not that he attracted a cult of personality, but rather, that he didn’t. He was elected despite, not because of, who he is. He’s a secularist who was elected by Jesus freaks, a misogynist elected by white women; he’s anti-immigration but married to an immigrant; he’s a corrupt businessman who promised to clean up corruption in Washington; he’s a nationalist, anti-free trade campaigner who’s in bed with global business and Russian imperialist interests. This is new territory.

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Image: ‘Scene VIII’, Robin’s Progress in Eight Scenes, 1733. British Museum, AN 478672001

To put this in perspective, I want to talk briefly about some work I’ve recently finished on celebrity politics in the early eighteenth century. In the 1720s and 30s, England’s constitutional monarchy was stabilising, representative politics was establishing itself along party lines and England’s first prime minister, Robert Walpole, was busy ensuring a Whig stranglehold on English politics that would last for most of the century. Henry Fielding, the great English novelist, was, at the time, London’s most influential playwright, producer and theatre manager. In his role as the self-appointed ‘Great Mogul’ of London theatre, Fielding tangled with party politics, insisting on a ‘strict Resemblance between the States Political and Theatric’.[1] By the late 1730s, Fielding considered Walpole a symbol of everything that had gone wrong with the new political system. Early party politics counted on buying and selling votes, on absentee political representatives and on a franchise that was a moving target as boroughs (and the numbers of votes associated with them) were expanded and reduced to serve individual and party political interests. Corruption and bribery were endemic and, in Fielding’s view, Walpole embodied this new and disastrous political order.[2] Walpole’s uniqueness is now celebrated. As England’s first Prime Minister and the man who established the long Whig ascendancy, he is considered to have stabilised the English economy and solidified representative, parliamentary democracy. To Fielding, however, Walpole was the ‘Great Man’ who had undermined, with his silver tongue, all the potential of Parliament to maintain a peculiarly English political liberty.

But in 1737, in his farce afterpiece, Eurydice Hiss’d,[3] Henry Fielding conflated self-parody with a satirical portrait of Walpole, whom he repeatedly characterised as the nation’s enemy. Even for a dramatist with a notable commitment to self-parody in life as well as on stage, this is a peculiar move. Why would Fielding put himself and Walpole in the same satirised body on the same politicised stage?

Jürgen Habermas, a key theorist of modernity, talks about how, in the early eighteenth century, we began to think differently about our political leaders. A concept of political rule that he calls ‘representative publicness’ was replaced by the power of ‘public opinion’. Premodern political leaders, he says, were part of a system in which publicity was a status that just belonged to certain people: kings, nobles, military leaders. ‘Public opinion’, by contrast, can belong to anyone, and the new ‘public sphere’ was born as a conceptual space that we, as private people, can move into as we act publically to hold our representative politicians to account.

Walpole, I think, is confusing and complicated because he belongs in certain ways to both sides of that political divide. He had a kind of ‘representative publicness’ as a status, but that very status also represented the idea of the new publicness. He moved into the new public sphere and established a celebrity political status because he, in his own person, represented a new system of politics, a new concept of public representation. Fielding’s satire-by-identification of Walpole is related, I think, to a theory of English comedy that makes ‘humour’, or emotional temperament, central to comic practice. For Fielding, I think, Walpole embodies the contentious, divisive misanthropy of the English temperament – English ‘humour’ – as well as the oratorical genius peculiar, eighteenth-century people thought, to English liberty. Humour, says Fielding, is what makes the English both antisocial and brilliant, so we can see why he might want to claim it for himself even in spite of himself.


More on humour, emotions and Fielding in a lecture from the Author on ‘Fielding’s Farcical Accidents’.

Celebrity politicians, like Walpole, are at once ordinary and extraordinary. The intimate faults they offer up to us are fundamentally our own. All celebrities are both us and not-us. But politicians have a particular relationship to being both us and not-us because they’re supposed to represent us. This complicated feeling we have about politicians seems like a distinguishing feature of modernity to me. Our inability to separate ourselves from our rulers, the necessity of seeing ourselves in them even as we hold them to account, seems constitutive of modern democracy. If we think about it this way, we have to feel with as well as feeling about politicians. And celebrity politicians might be able to attract a special character of public emotion, one that emphasises the intimate nature of the feeling-with that goes along with political representation. When Fielding puts himself in Walpole’s shoes, and then puts the widely vilified Walpole on a public stage, it seems to me that he’s just making the essential emotional move we all make in a functioning democracy even when, maybe even because, we disagree with our political leadership. Fielding’s identification with Walpole is an admission, of a sort, that Walpole’s genius is fundamentally English, and fundamentally representative of the potential of this new politics to foster fiercely productive disagreement. To be truly democratic, in other words.

The fact that Trump was elected by people who did not, in fact, see themselves in him, who vocally disavowed his lack of family values (the Christian right), his racism (neo-libertarian Republicans) and his misogyny (white women) even while casting their ballots for him, suggests that we’re looking now at a new way of feeling politics. The Trump campaign was underpinned by a dark current of racist and anti-Muslim emotion which is now making itself felt in public violence and hate speech licensed by a campaign without any sense of decency or a standard of public discourse. Even while this uncontrolled aggression meets the terror and anger of its victims, we can see that the extreme emotions that have coalesced around Trump do not feel with him. As a public figure, he is variously understood as an excuse or a justification, a necessary or an absolute evil, but not as representative. Not even by those who voted him in.

Rebecca Tierney-­Hynes is Associate Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Waterloo, and a former Early Career International Research Fellow with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotion (Europe, 1100–1800). Her current project investigates comedy and the history of emotion. She is the author of Novel Minds: Philosophers and Romance Readers, 1680–1740 (Palgrave, 2012) and has recently published articles on drama and emotion in SECC, Textual Practice and Genre.

[1] Henry Fielding, The Historical Register for the Year 1736, in Henry Fielding: Plays, Vol. III, 1734-1742, ed. Thomas Lockwood, The Wesleyan Edition of the Works of Henry Fielding (Clarendon, 2011), p. 431.

[2] To be fair, Fielding may have been trying to attract Walpole’s patronage by dedicating a comedy to him in 1732, and there’s some evidence that he was paid off by the ministry for his later silence (see Bertrand Goldgar, Walpole and the Wits [U Nebraska P, 1976], pp. 100-2 and David Thomas, “The 1737 Licensing Act and Its Impact,” in The Oxford Handbook of the Georgian Theatre, 1737-1832, ed. Julia Swindells and David Francis Taylor [Oxford UP, 2014], p. 98).

[3] Appended to The Historical Register.

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