My Turn: The age of celebrity’s toll on our government


Wednesday, January 24, 2018

We must have no illusions over the fact that our grand, democratic institutions — the foundations of what fuels the beacons for liberty and justice — has fallen into the abyss of its own encyclopedic missteps, miscalculations, prevarications and self-delusions.

Our government can’t pass laws that serve the people; an Executive is completely cut off from the reality of his job; and Congress, that ship of fools which, having cut themselves free of the mooring, have positioned themselves for electoral suicide. They can only float in the Trump lagoon now. They’re poised to go down with the ship. They were never sailors anyway.

It’s handy to look at all this dissembling and groveling as a storm that may pass, but it’s all cheap and vulgar, dishonest and dissembling, and mortifying. It magnifies itself like a cancer, finding strange solace in imaginary wanderings, striking out at phantoms, shielding what is too painful and powerful to see. Each new day is a further descent into the world of fantasy, grasping for celebrity status, the locus of everything. No, my friends, it’s every bit as frightening as it appears and conversations should share this concern. It’s a battle for the heart of Democracy.

When celebrity is the modus vivendi, we develop the cult of the star, and stardom can have an insatiable appetite for validation, as in Trump’s case. To retain power, politicians like Donald Trump know they simply have to hone and stick to their act. That’s recognizing the dynamics of our media and digital age. Trump’s act is set down, but his mental instability does not allow him any flexibility to create according to the actual needs of the moment the world is witnessing.

He is the consummate celebrity to himself and uses all encounters to feed that hunger pang he will never satisfy. The one percent are all he prefers to know, and his servile base, while the rest of the population can do without its Constitutional protections. The cult leader becomes the antithesis of democracy, then protects himself by genuflecting to those leaders he knows recognize the insult to democracy he is pouring on it. But Trump is not really ideological — he is ill. It’s plain to see. That is not a lay person pretending to be a diagnostician, it is an observation of what all reputable outlets describe as being unmoored to any at all consistency of thought. He’s adrift and his party, the Trump party, is clinging to the life raft.

When Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond descends the stairs toward the end of Billy Wilder’s classic “Sunset Boulevard,” she clings to a last ditch attempt to resurrect her immortality, and shows us the disconnect between the past and the present that is tragically irreconcilable. The famous movies Norma starred in are long past. The end is near and the dissipation of a legend is playing itself out in real time. Norma knew and had a sense of the drama that she was using her own life to portray, and in this case assume as her person, not just as the actor’s role. Trump has no meta theatre instinct whatsoever, yet it’s the very same movie dragged out in real time. We feel pity and horror in the classical tragic sense for Norma, whereas here we see a faded “star” trying to pump wind into a role for which he was never prepared, let alone a script he refuses to even read. Pity versus pitiful.

Celebrity attracts a following and vulgarity can make you stand out. Trump’s sense of celebrity is the road to self-flattery. But depth of character is sadly lacking. Perhaps it’s somewhere; perhaps hidden and wounded, gasping for air to breathe, desperate to escape from whatever prison or hell its world resembles. Norma wanted to recede back into the past while Trump lives in the past, frightening and haunting. The future needs release from the past but its grip is merciless. The next disposable Netflix series is writing itself.

Trump produces fiction constantly as an involuntary reflex because he has allowed himself no access to history or our political thought process. Celebrity will exist for itself at whatever cost. Our values get rewritten by its symbols rather than by nobility of action. That must stop. We need honest representation that respects our history, understands the pressures from the outside world, their cries and needs as well as our own, and build walls not against our neighbors or ourselves, but against the phantoms that disempower our resilience and our resolution to find generosity of spirit.

Each day portrays a man further and further divorced from his own reality and that of the job. Republicans refuse to resist Trump’s xenophobic, irrational, quixotic behavior, and act in the better interests and defense of the country. We can no longer base our trust or expectations on the current Congress or the White House. Change must come from our tradition of civil disobedience and the ballot box. New candidates are stepping up to the challenge. They must have our total support for the turnaround that silences the Trump dysphoria with all the wit and wisdom that lies at the heart of America.

This we owe to Jefferson, Adams, Washington, Hamilton and Madison, who would urge us with great heart: this is your fight, your future. Understand the struggle and arm yourself with wisdom and resolve. You can win. The United States is much greater than any of us can grasp.

A playwright, Harris has been a well-known chef for 40 years in Franklin County. He lives in Shelburne Falls.