Democrats should have embraced Bernie Sanders. Republicans should have spoken out sooner and more forcefully. Obama should have paid more attention to working class whites. Idiotic amateurs like your humble blogger should not have placed their faith in demographic models. Clinton should have campaigned in Wisconsin and Michigan. People shouldn’t be so damned racist.
Millions of words poured into the collective information stream in our continuing effort to explain how we ended up with Donald Trump in the White House. What if we are all wrong in our political prescriptions. What if the most important force responsible for this disaster emerged from outside the universe of political policy and traditional campaigning? And what if that force is more powerful than any response the political world can hope to muster?
Here’s an ugly statistic that should scare the pants off everyone on the left and right who actually cares about public policy. Early in 2015, before any candidate had formally announced their campaign for President, this is where each of the most popular future candidates ranked in terms of Twitter followers:
Everyone else in the field lagged well behind. No one ever caught up to Trump, as Clinton remained about 20% behind him right up to Election Day. There isn’t a lot of deep, complex content on Twitter. Having a following there is a measure of pure popularity and name recognition, little more.
Now let’s consider another factor. Look closely at the relative popularity of the final candidates’ signature political platforms. Large majorities of the voting public favor an amnesty program for illegal immigrants, access to abortion under some circumstances, prioritizing renewable energy over fossil fuels, and free trade agreements. A massive majority of Americans favor replacing our current health care system with a federally funded system of universal healthcare, and an even larger majority opposes the construction of a wall on our southern border. About 19% of the public favors Trump’s plans for the EPA. A narrow plurality of Americans slightly favored Trump’s limits on Muslim immigration. That is the only element of his agenda that gains anything approaching public approval.
Voters hate almost everything in Trump’s loosely defined policy agenda. Let’s repeat this fact for emphasis – it is impossible to identify a single element of Trump’s proposed governing agenda that voters actually support. Nevertheless, 46% of voters in the last election supported him.
Why was Donald Trump able to gain just enough votes in the just the right places to win the White House, despite the deep unpopularity of his policy proposals? Perhaps for the same reason that Elizabeth Warren, Corey Booker or Marco Rubio will struggle against Kanye West in 2020. Policy no longer matters very much in our elections. A pop-culture following is far more potent than any form of political support or activism.
Americans in 2016 did not elect the person they thought was best qualified to lead the country. They did not elect the person whose proposed policies they most supported. They elected the person with the widest pop culture following even though they viewed him as a despicable troll and feared what he might do once in office.
In 2016, Washington’s celebrity firewall was breached in a way we may be unable to repair. There is no version of Bernie Sanders or Marco Rubio or Corey Booker that could vanquish any random third-tier Hollywood figure.
To get a sense of the potential political vulnerability we face, take a quick look at the comparative Twitter popularity of a few prominent public figures. In the world of professional political administration, these are the most popular people today in terms of their Twitter following (apart from former Presidents or Presidential nominees):
Paul Ryan 2m
Marco Rubio 2.1
Elizabeth Warren 2.1m
Corey Booker 2.8m
That’s a lot of followers, but still less than half the audience Donald Trump was carrying into the 2016 primaries. Step beyond the world of political leadership and you begin to see a massive gap. Look at the Twitter following of a few prominent figures in political media:
Anderson Cooper 9m
Rachel Maddow 7m
Michael Moore 4.4m
Sean Hannity 2.3m
Megyn Kelly 2.2m
Michelle Malkin 2m
Bill O’Reilly 1.7m
Lawrence O’Donnell 1.4m
Ann Coulter 1.4m
None of our elected leaders can approach the name recognition, following and popularity that political media figures like Rachel Maddow and Michael Moore. But that’s just the beginning. Step beyond politics and the gap widens to a chasm. Take a look at the Twitter popularity of a few of the hosts of the NBC TV show, The Voice:
Blake Shelton 19m
Christina Aguilera 16m
Adam Levine 7.2m
People who have popular cooking, travel or lifestyle shows also have a wide following:
Anthony Bourdain 9m
Rachel Ray 4.4m
Martha Stewart 3.6m
Guy Fieri 2.5m
There’s a pattern evident here. Having a popular TV presence is more potent in terms of popularity than having published some popular books. Having published some popular books is more potent than having a popular blog. And a radio-only presence doesn’t get you on the map (sorry Rush).
None of these accomplishments can put you in a position to compete in a popularity contest with a serious celebrity. These are the numbers that movie actors, pop stars and major sports figures can rack up on Twitter:
Eli Manning 26m
LeBron James 34m
Jimmy Fallon 46m
Kim Kardashian 50m
Justin Timberlake 58m
Katy Perry 96m
Last year Kanye West promised he would run for President in 2020. Oprah is now openly speculating about a campaign. We always assumed that the substantial expertise required to serve as an effective Chief Executive would block random celebrities from treating the White House as just one more award to win. Those days may be over. Who better to handle the nuclear football than Tom Brady?
There’s good reason to think that Rachel Ray would have beaten Hillary Clinton like an over-fluffed meringue, no matter what either of them said about abortion, NAFTA or taxes. So-called “issues” may have mattered as much to our last election outcome as they did in the average campaign for homecoming queen.
If a loathsome D-list TV figure can defeat the entire political profession, then what’s going to stop one of the ‘real housewives’ who already has 2m Twitter followers? Well, LeBron James or Oprah, and not much else.
Washington used to be Hollywood for ugly people. It looks like ugly people may need to find another place to get some attention.