How Elizabeth Taylor Gave Us Donald Trump

People want someone who "shoots from the hip," who seems just like you and me, preparation be damned. They want ongoing access to their leaders' unguarded thoughts and emotions. To see rage along with weight fluctuations. To enjoy a show.
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Donald Trump's presidential run is Arnold Schwarzenegger's fault. Actually, scratch that, it's Sonny Bono's, Jesse Ventura's, and Clint Eastwood's. Maybe Al Franken's. No, wait. Electing people with no experience in politics or policy-making to higher office is all about Reagan, right?

There's more to it than that.

First of all, Cher's babe, "The Body," and Dirty Harry each started as mayor of a relatively small town. They didn't jump straight to the Senate like Franken, or the governor's mansion like the Terminator or the Gipper. Plus, Reagan was a voice in conservative politics for years before his gubernatorial bid and proved himself in California prior to running for President.

Trump decided to seek the nation's top office, controlling the entire executive branch of the government and serving as Commander in Chief of the United States Armed Forces, with not just no track record in politics, but arguably no relative experience whatsoever.

He thought he could do it, and millions of people are voting for him. Why?

Our country's nasty underbelly of racism, xenophobia, and poverty propel his candidacy forward, but I think the real blame falls squarely on the shoulders of a handful of Americans: Jessica Simpson, Jay-Z, and Paris Hilton, to name a few.

When I was a child, people who got famous for doing one thing did that one thing. Real phenomenon, outliers like Jane Fonda, did two, and we were appropriately shocked. An actress and a fitness guru?

But then Liz Taylor launched her signature scent "Passions" in 1987. In her footsteps followed Britney, Christina, Beyonce, Taylor Swift, and even Jennifer Aniston.

Reality TV wrought another twist. Socialites like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian became famous. No acting, no singing. So far as the public knew, they couldn't even do one thing well. But they lived in the rarified air of the one percent and, more importantly, were willing to let us breathe vicariously. Each now has her own fragrance.

And we all know we're not just talking perfumes these days. While some stars stick to areas of their original interest -- like Jillian Michaels, a personal trainer turned TV personality who largely limits her sphere to food and exercise -- others build diversified empires.

Jennifer Lopez started as a dancer, then transformed herself into a musician, actress, producer, and clothing designer in addition to pushing no fewer than six scents. Jay-Z added sports agent to his lengthy resume that includes recording, performing, running a record label, and heading up Rocawear brand clothes. Former child actress Jessica Alba founded The Honest Company that sells, among other things, baby wipes and sunblock; it was recently valued at close to two billion dollars.

Trump too built a brand. He started not with a niche competency but with ancestral wealth and used that to make a name for himself in commercial real estate. With the help of The Apprentice franchise he has hawked everything from magazines to water.

It makes an odd sort of sense: if we trust our celebrities to pick the products we use on our newborn babies, why not place the nation in their hands?

Of course, none of this is as historically unprecedented as it seems. George Washington was first and foremost a strapping young war hero in the mind of the populace, only later becoming known for his statesmanship. Our nation's founders also tended to be jacks of all trades. Benjamin Franklin not only discovered electricity, he ran a newspaper, invented bifocals, and served as the first Postmaster General.

And like Trump, most of the founding fathers were sons of the moneyed elite. That doesn't mean they had the political preparation of Nicole Richie though. They were widely read and well-versed in issues of land management, philosophy, and governance. They sought out ways, formal and otherwise, to educate themselves on issues of civics and social responsibility. They paid close attention to matters of history and international relations.

And while mixing celebrity and politics isn't a new thing -- after all, the founders had to deal with fame that "transformed many aspects of their private lives into public dramas," writes Thomas Fleming in The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers -- Franklin essentially had a second wife and family when U.S. Ambassador to France, with the American public none the wiser.

All our stars used to benefit from untouchability, an air of mystery and separateness. Then Liz Taylor and Richard Burton fed our fascination and instilled a thirst for more tawdry details. Whispered murmurings about Jack Kennedy gave way to interest in the exact choreography of Bill Clinton's Oval Office sexcapades.

Today many Americans no longer want a hero, a larger than life role model who hides the work of the office and personal imperfection of its holder behind reassuring smiles and carefully worded answers. They want someone who "shoots from the hip," who seems just like you and me, preparation be damned. They want ongoing access to their leaders' unguarded thoughts and emotions. To see rage along with weight fluctuations. To enjoy a show.

In Trump these two phenomena converge. We have a man whose primary accomplishment is having enough business acumen to not lose all the money he inherited and even make some more. Not exactly a difficult feat as large sums of money naturally compound -- and considering he's taken as much advantage of bankruptcy and tax law as he has beautiful women (by his own admission on both counts). We have a brand known for one thing, luxury real estate, that ballooned into countless others simply by slapping a name on a product. We have a nothing-held-back showman, an emotional exhibitionist.

People tend to have a few core strengths. Christina's phenomenal vocal chords have no logical connection to olfactory discernment. In this regard, Joshua Kendall's research on presidential parenting is telling. In First Dads, he concludes that the most effective leaders weren't the best fathers and the best fathers weren't the most effective leaders. Being good at one thing just doesn't qualify a person to take on another, no further questions asked.

And what makes for good politicians makes for bad TV. Patience, equanimity, deal brokering, refusal to burn bridges, and measured judgment are boring.

Trump is so awful on so many levels, that we've stopped talking about the most basic aspect of the job. We don't live in a direct democracy where our opinions are taken into account on every issue. Ours is a representative government. We are meant to choose a proxy, one person we trust more than the others to confront circumstances we haven't yet considered, and then largely leave them to it until the next election.

But one election cycle bleeds into the next, and we forget the Constitution doesn't give us a see and say at every turn. We forget that competent governance is rarely sexy. We forget that not every impressive person excels at everything. We forget that skill and training are more important than emotional transparency and charisma.

We start to see someone like Trump as a viable option.

And we owe it all to a violet-eyed starlet who convinced us to embrace our basest impulse to grab a piece of those we admire, even if just a whiff, and at an exorbitant cost.

Gail Cornwall is a former public school teacher and recovering lawyer who now works as a stay-at-home mother and freelance writer in San Francisco. You can find Gail on Facebook and Twitter, or read more at

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