In late 2015, my colleagues and I were about to launch a weekly documentary series covering the presidential campaign. The chairman and CEO of Showtime, David Nevins, suggested calling the show The Circus. But at that time, there was some concern the title was over the top—too denigrating to the noble calling of politics.
Turns out Nevins was prescient because along came the greatest carnival barker of all time, Donald J. Trump. And today, the real circus, Barnum & Bailey, is out of business, while the political circus is packing them in across America.
It’s not like we haven’t had celebrity candidates before. For decades, we’ve seen the likes of Little Miss Miracle (Shirley Temple), the Gipper (Ronald Reagan), and the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger). We’ve watched as Clint Eastwood and basketball star Kevin Johnson were elected as the mayors, respectively, of Carmel and Sacramento. We’ve scratched our heads as a string of personalities, from Sonny Bono to Bill Bradley, from Jesse Ventura to Al Franken, took office, partly by leveraging their star power.
But after the disastrous Trump show, one might have thought the pendulum would redirect itself—as it did in 2020, to Joe Biden—to candidacies favoring no-nonsense, steady-as-they-go, career politicians. I’m referring to potential nominees who believe in public service, are steeped in public policy, and have years of experience.
Looking ahead to the elections on the horizon, however, contenders borrowing Biden’s seasoned, centrist template are few and far between. Instead, some among the current crop of would-be candidates are using Trump 2016 as their model for 2022. They regard the Trump narrative not as a cautionary tale but as a playbook for doubling down on their own marginal celebrity, as if suddenly liberated to express themselves, grasp the brass ring of power politics, rake in some serious dinero, and redirect their careers by running on fame’s fumes—and appealing to Trump’s base. To wit: The recent wave of cartoon candidates and clickbait C-listers, who are hoping, like Trump before them, to use so-called “performative politics” to catapult themselves in the primaries from freak-show clowns to credible nominees.
Ladies and gentlemen, step right up. See the sword-swallowers, contortionists, and snake-charmers that include: the Heisman Trophy–winner Herschel Walker, with whom Trump had dinner in June, stating, “He told me he’s going to [run] and I think he will”; Caitlyn Jenner (a sports hero turned transgender pioneer turned punch line); Andrew Giuliani (a clone of a punch line); Lara (will-she-or-won’t-she-run?) Trump (who married into the punch line); Matthew McConaughey (the alright-alright-alright punch line); and J.D. Vance (the hillbilly punch line).
What all these political novices have in common is name recognition, lack of experience, and in most cases some connection to Donald Trump. Or, at least, a seeming desire to try and establish one.
J.D. Vance, running in Ohio for the Republican nomination to the U.S. Senate, is Exhibit A. Vance, who got famous writing the book Hillbilly Elegy—about growing up in Kentucky and Ohio—had this to say (in since-deleted tweets) about DJT: “Trump makes people I care about afraid. Immigrants, Muslims, etc. Because of this I find him reprehensible. God wants better of us.” And shortly after Trump took office: “In [four] years, I hope people remember that it was those of us who empathized with Trump’s voters who fought him most aggressively.”
Today, guess who’s seemingly seeking Trump’s endorsement? The giant sucking-up sound you hear now in Ohio is none other than that of J.D. Vance.
What does this say about the state of American politics? Well, it certainly indicates the pendulum ain’t swingin’ back to anywhere near normal yet. If anything, it’s looping further out toward crazy. And if you’re some kind of celebrity geek, it’s a lot easier to get into the circus.
After Donald Trump won in 2016, one can only imagine all the millionaires and celebrities who woke up and thought, Well, if that guy can be president… And it was only a matter of time before Democrats were begging for Oprah to run. (And let’s not forget Kanye’s ill-fated crusade in 2020.)
So, where does it stop and when does it end? Or does it? Maybe the table stakes to enter American politics today is some measure of fame. There’s talk now about Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson running for president in 2024. And wouldn’t that be a fitting conclusion? A president who was literally a WWF (WWE) wrestler.