Kim Kardashian got married. Now she’s getting a divorce. Lindsay Lohan went to jail. Now she is being released. Paris Hilton went to a party. Now she wants to be a DJ. We know all this because there is a whole industry built up around chronicling the lives of people who are famous for no other reason than their fame. As Daniel Boorstin explained in 1962, media create people “well-known for their well knownness.” It doesn’t matter that there is no there there. Since the world experiences these personalities on television or through gossip broadsheets, they do not need to exist independent of the broadcast or the gossip sheet. The representation is all that matters.
Celebrity isn’t the only area of American life that the media has turned into an ontological head scratcher. It’s happening in politics too. Just look at Sarah Palin, Donald Trump and Herman Cain, three political leaders who at one point or another made headlines just about every day. They are political leaders whose main claim to that title derives only from the successes of their leadership-selling operations. Take away the reporters, the television cameras, the book deals and the speaking fees and there is little left.
(PHOTOS: Herman Cain Through the Years)
For the average news consumer, such a technicality doesn’t matter. On a debate stage, Cain looks to be just as much of a politician as Rick Perry, who runs one of the nation’s largest states, or Mitt Romney, who ran Massachusetts and now oversees a massive political machine. The debate viewer can’t see the behind-the-scenes campaign operation, which Cain essentially lacks in the early-voting states. To the viewer at home, the media’s representation of candidate Cain is his campaign.
This has been Cain’s approach to leadership ever since he left his job at Godfather’s Pizza 16 years ago. He founded a company called T.H.E. Inc., or the Hermanator Experience, and after several years running the National Restaurant Association, he basically became a full-time self-promoter. Instead of leading actual companies, he sold pamphlets and books on leadership, and gave speeches on leadership. He sold the idea of leadership.
Palin functioned much the same way. For months, she captivated the political press, who documented her Facebook postings, watched her reality show and chased her chartered bus on tours of American historical sites. It seemed as if she were doing something, but if you took away the press coverage, including her pundit duties on Fox News, nothing actually happened. To deal with this fact, she kept up speculation that she might one day be able to lead again by getting involved in the presidential campaign. This was a feint. Her political power derived almost exclusively from her ability to sell the idea that she had political power.
Trump, of course, is one of the great American pioneers of self-referential self-promotion. He discovered in the late 1980s that creating a leadership brand was more valuable than creating the buildings the brand was based on. For much of the past two decades, he has been far more successful selling the idea of himself than he has been at anything else.
The great irony of this trend in American popular culture is that most of the time, there is no difference between a representation that reflects an underlying reality and a representation that reflects only itself. Kardashian really is more famous than those who accomplish things independent of fame. Palin really was influential in 2009 because she successfully sold the idea of her influence. Trump really has made himself rich selling the idea that he can make himself rich. Cain really is leading most Republican presidential polls.
The great question of the Cain campaign, beyond the veracity of the swirling allegations of sexual harassment, is whether he can take this dynamic a step further and become an elected leader, or at least his party’s nominee. Generally speaking, voters don’t pull levers for political simulacra. But it is also true that the Republican campaign for President is far more of a live-television event than past campaigns, which have depended on person-to-person, on-the-ground campaigning. In the 1960s, Boorstin dismissed what he called “the age of contrivance.” But the “pseudo-events” he described at the time seem in retrospect incredibly authentic. The real age of contrivance was yet to come. And my guess is we haven’t gotten all the way there yet.