President Donald Trump’s seeming imperviousness to the law was displayed once again Wednesday as exasperated congressional representatives questioned former special counsel Robert Mueller to little avail.
But Trump possesses another suite of extra-institutional powers that are just as potent as those granted to him by the Constitution.
Trump is a celebrity politician — a skilled entertainer with no prior political experience — and that means he receives more slack to make mistakes, gets to more credibly claim ignorance when it comes to abusing his office, and is evaluated according to much lower standards than traditional politicians.
As I argue in my new book, Star Power: American Democracy in the Age of the Celebrity Candidate, celebrity politicians like Donald Trump not only benefit from a host of attributes that help them get elected — resources like name recognition, popularity, and a large devoted fan base — they also benefit from the lack of qualifications and experience they bring to their government posts.
Mistakes and misdeeds can be written off as understandable accidents made by a political novice. Wrong answers and knowledge gaps are treated as parts of a learning curve, rather than red flags. In a country that detests professional politicians and everything associated with them, ignorance is not only blissful, it is beneficial.
When the infamous Access Hollywood recording of Trump bragging about sexual assault emerged in October 2016, his supporters excused the behavior by attributing it to his pre-political life; as Ben Carson put it, “well before Trump entered the political arena.” Franklin Graham responded in a similar manner when allegations emerged in 2018 that Trump had paid hush money to Stormy Daniels to cover up their affair. “He’s a businessman. … He’s not a politician.”
The same standards were applied when James Comey stated Trump urged him to let go of the investigation of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, a move that Robert Mueller’s team scrutinized as a possible instance of obstruction of justice. Then Speaker of the House Paul Ryan minimized the significance of the claim, stating, “He’s just new to this.” Of allegations that the president conspired with Russia to influence the 2016 election, Lindsey Graham said: “He can’t collude with his own government. Why do you think he’s colluding with the Russians?”
Indeed, the inability of Mueller’s team to ultimately determine whether the president committed a crime was not only based on the Office of Legal Counsel’s determination that sitting presidents cannot be prosecuted. Mueller’s conclusion was also a result of the difficulty of establishing Trump’s intent. As Dana Milbank aptly wrote, Trump was “too stupid to conspire” and “too incompetent to obstruct.”
Even now that Trump has been in office for more than two years, he has not traded his celebrity skin for the venerable cloak of an incumbent president. He is betting that campaigning through shock value and entertainment is a surer strategy than recounting his official accomplishments. After all, it is what helped him win the first time.
Perhaps only the most talented of actors could convince voters he is not responsible for the problematic swamp over which he singularly presides, or occupy the most visible seat of power in the entire world and call himself an outsider.
The familiarity, media attention, passionate supporters, and fund-raising prowess that helped Trump win the Oval Office in 2016 have not waned but rather grown. Voters have become more numb to, rather than concerned by, his personal idiosyncrasies and prejudices, lapses in judgment, and dishonesty. Watching the president spew personal attacks and fuel conspiracies from behind the presidential seal is a normal occurrence, not a shocking event.
Trump ran as a celebrity in 2016, he has governed like a celebrity, and he is running like a celebrity again. Democrats would be wise not to underestimate this unique combination of forces.