“A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing” – Oscar Wilde
In the world of entertainment, there are few things as sought after as crossover appeal. Whether it’s a musician who reaches into the realm of acting, like Madonna, or a man like Frank Sinatra who was famed on stage and screen, it’s an uncommon thing for a celebrity to be equally successful in more than one field. In the fourth season of the TV series 30 Rock, star Tracy Morgan even lampoons the concept, wearing a necklace bearing the acronym ‘EGOT’ to refer to his nearly unattainable desire for an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony.
In recent years, the idea of crossover appeal has taken even more desperate hold. Whether it’s a measure of talent or capital, there are few things that can’t be shilled for, and few that won’t participate in the shilling. The Kardashians have a show on E! and have published books, created beauty products and sponsored energy drinks. Television personality Bethenny Frankel entered the mainstream on The Real Housewives of New York and has since released a brand of cocktails, had multiple TV shows, and written books about fitness, self-help and cooking. In a hyper-consumer culture, this might now be the norm, but what does it dictate about our mindset?
The latest reality star to engulf the mainstream, a man who has had his name on everything from mattresses to bottled water to hotels to steaks, is of course none other than Donald Trump. We’re all sick of hearing about him and talking about him, but in lassoing the power of his name, Trump has now managed to become a part of presidential history, something that couldn’t have been imagined even a year ago. It is a feat that overwhelmingly endorses the reach of hyper-capitalism while simultaneously distorting what it means to be President…of anything really.
In a 2012 article for The New York Times , Timothy Egan takes us back to the time when the businessman Mitt Romney was running for president. At a campaign rally before he became the Republican nominee, Romney said of the presidency, ‘I’d like to have a provision in the Constitution that in addition to the age of the president and the citizenship of the president and the birthplace of the president…I’d like it also to say that the president has to spend at least three years working in business before he could become president of the United States.”
While Romney’s assertion might seem fairly inconspicuous, the extent to which being a businessman makes for a good president is disputable. Egan goes further to discuss two presidents who were considered among the worst at the job, George W. Bush and Herbert Hoover, both of whom were businessman; on the flip side, such a provision would have kept Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower from the presidency. Romney’s assertion may very well be that a good businessman makes for a good president, but the facts don’t stand up to this. Interestingly, this was the very thing that led many people to believe that Donald Trump might be right for the job.
Even without the facts to negate it, however, the idea of a businessman being a good president is a strange one, one that is more a result of capitalist culture than reason. When most things are a numbers game, a businessman-cum-president might seem like a reliable metric for success, but for a country with the American Civil War in its past, one that is divided on the opinion of what progress and success and even democracy mean, more nuance is required. A good businessman is defined by being able to turn a profit, but a familiarity with all of the complex issues that make up a country – from women’s rights to health care to social programs – comes down to more than finance.
The premise that firsthand knowledge of power and profit makes one an expert on the day-to-day issues of a country is laughable. Once we move beyond the veil of power, it becomes easy to see that those who philosophize or educate or work with policy may have a better understanding of what common good means, and the ways in which leading goes beyond what makes money. Perhaps, just maybe, the next time a prominent businessman and reality star is angling for more power, he’ll be able to content himself with striving for an EGOT instead.