Celebrities don’t exist. Not really. They are characters in a public drama, which is why, whenever someone meets them — or rather, the person of the same name who plays them — there’s always an exclamation of difference: the Hollywood sweetheart who’s not a stuck-up cow (or who actually has a brain), the action hero who’s five inches too short for his ego, the comedian who’d rather not crack a joke for you while grocery shopping.
We can only be surprised at how normal they are if we never actually thought of them as real in the first place. Our encounter exposes the truth that the person we met is not the characterization of them on TV.
Every celebrity, from sports to politics, exists only inside the prison of our expectations. When one of them tries to escape, when a comedian asserts his pain in public, we resist! How dare they break character! Actions that would elicit sympathy in real life bring derision instead. We don’t want these people to be human, full of grimaces and contradictions. If they’re not gods, then their foibles are petty rather than tragic, their opulence disgusting rather than heroic, and we turn away.
This was made internationally patent twice recently, first when Prince Harry and his wife expressly rejected the roles that had been reserved for them (new ones were quickly invented), and second in the dramatic plot twist in the epic of Kobe Bryant.
In politics, we do not root for Trump or Sanders (or whoever). We root for the character of the same name. That there also exists a real person is incidental. We participate in a politician’s triumphs and failures as we do Sherlock Holmes’ — as played by Benedict Cumberbatch the famous actor, as played by Benedict Cumberbatch the real person.
In the language of drama, the villain is that which must be vanquished for the community to flourish, as indeed Darth Vader is. He burns with his Empire, despite being redeemed.
No one roots for the villain. It isn’t even that he’s despicable. We know from the beginning that Darth Vader will lose. It’s just a question of how. Rooting would be pointless.
But politicians (and sports teams) can be both hero and villain. People really do root for the character Trump or the character Sanders as they do not for the character Darth Vader.
But they are not the same character. The Sanders I support is not the one you revile. He can’t be, for in one story, he’s trying to save the country, and in the other, to destroy it.
Even the very facts of his life, as distilled by the media, are not the same. One episode from Sanders’ life proves him a champion of justice; another, a hypocrite. One episode from Trump’s life proves he’s an evil genius; another, a buffoon.
Politics is often likened to a horse race, but in fact it’s worse than that. It’s much closer to daytime television than to racing. Politics has regularly scheduled seasons, for example (in the US, they last exactly two years), with cliffhanger endings. The politicians, as the political philosopher Bernard Williams noted, are characters in a soap opera invented on our behalf:
They are called by their first names or have the same kind of jokey nicknames as soap opera characters, the same broadly sketched personalities, the same dispositions to triumphs and humiliations which are schematically related to the doings of the other characters. When they reappear, they give the same impression of remembering only just in time to carry on from where they left off, and they equally disappear into the script of the past after something else more interesting has come up.
If you can’t understand why anyone would support Trump — or Sanders, or AOC — consider the truth: no one does. The villain in your story is a completely different character than the hero of someone else’s. Neither bear much relation to the truth.
Even their failures, universally recognized, are alternatively comic or tragic, depending on which political opera you follow. Politicians are just as chained to our expectations as any other celebrity, which is why they spend so much time courting appearances.
When we read an opposing side’s opinion piece, it sounds nonsensical because it is a chapter from a book we’re not reading inserted into our own as if by misprint.
The reason we throw it into the trash is the same reason we get angry at actors and comedians for breaking character. To understand someone’s else’s opera we must first leave our own.
cover image by Aleksandr Nikonov