Phil Gulley: Our Obsession with Stars

The cult of celebrity is famous for incompetence.
When I was a kid, there was a man in Danville named Ralph who sat in the Coffee Cup each morning complaining about the country, telling everyone he’d be a better president than “that bum we’ve got in there now.” Ralph was a bubble off center, but if he were still alive and making that claim today, I’d likely agree with him. I suspect Ralph would admire Donald Trump, though. He would have Trump’s sign in his yard, and be expecting things to go his way now that a man who thought just as he did was in the White House. It would never have occurred to Ralph that if he had paid more attention in school, drank less, spent less time watching television, and more time thinking, his life would have been immeasurably improved. Of course, I would never say that, not wanting people to think I was a cultural elitist like my mother, who was forever telling me to study harder, avoid alcohol, stop watching TV, and for the love of Mike, use my head for something other than wearing a hat.
My mother is one of those lucky souls who grew up before families sat slack-jawed in front of the television, so was never enamored with celebrities, hanging on their every word, seeking their counsel on attire and politics and love. When Donald Trump announced his candidacy, citing his expertise in matters foreign and domestic, my mother never fell for it. Just as she never considered Kim Kardashian an expert on fashion, or Tom Hanks an airline pilot just because he played one in the movies. But I’m starting to think my mother is a rarity, and that a growing number of Americans now equate fame with expertise, so naturally believed a man who had his own reality show was qualified to lead America.
This cult of celebrity is uniquely American and probably has something to do with us watching so much television we forget it isn’t real. Like when Ronald Reagan was running for president and told a World War II story that made everyone cry, except that it had only happened in the movie Wing and a Prayer. This might explain why he was never all that alarmed about corrupt bankers, since in the end the townspeople would come to Jimmy Stewart’s house on Christmas and give him money to keep him solvent. By the end of our recent election, Trump could have told his supporters he was a Jedi and had single-handedly vanquished the Sith, and they would have believed him.
I’m no celebrity, though my roles as a minister, writer, and speaker often place me before the public. Recently, after I had given a speech, a man approached me, urging me to run for governor. My very modest prominence must have caused him to overlook my stunning lack of qualifications for public office. Do you remember when I was in college, staying up all night reading Jefferson and Madison for a political science test the next day? Yeah, neither do I. Then perhaps you will recall when I had that spare moment and was studying the economic effects of raising the minimum wage. Don’t remember that either, do you? Of course not, because it never happened. So stop thinking that just because someone can give a speech, they can hold a position of leadership others have prepared for their entire lives and still find daunting.
There’s a video clip whizzing around the internet, filmed on the campus of Texas Tech University, where the students were asked who America fought for its independence, which side won the Civil War, and whether they could name our vice president. It won’t surprise you to learn that while few of the students knew the answers to those important questions, they definitely knew Brad Pitt had been married to Angelina Jolie. That surprised me, because I thought he was still married to Jennifer Aniston. Now rumors are circulating that after divorcing Jolie, he’s playing footsies with Kate Hudson. Whatever. But I bet a slew of Americans would be fascinated by his take on love and commitment.
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, people! Are we that stupid? When did Ted Nugent, a rock-and-roll has-been, become an expert in governmental affairs? Whenever he opens his yap to comment on the presidency or gun control, try to remember he isn’t drawing upon a deep reservoir of knowledge, carefully honed by years of study. He’s just another Ralph at the Coffee Cup.
Our fascination with celebrity goes hand in hand with our casual dismissal of science and education as elitist. People who think gut instinct is superior to knowledge should have no problem letting the butcher at Kroger replace their heart valve should it leak. After all, he’s handy with a knife, and how hard can it be? Better yet, Patrick Dempsey played a surgeon on Grey’s Anatomy, which is surely as good as graduating from medical school. Indeed, Dempsey once said, “I’m always getting asked for medical advice, and I freely give it now.” I’m just waiting for Trump to name Homer Simpson the director of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. After all, he worked in a nuclear power plant on TV.
Once, when I was 12 years old and delivering newspapers, I stopped in the Coffee Cup to get a Coke. Ralph was there, bellyaching about “those damn hippies protesting the war.” What America needed, Ralph said, were “real men like John Wayne who could get this whole mess in Vietnam cleaned up in a week’s time.” But when John Wayne had the chance to fight in World War II, he declined, preferring to stay in Hollywood and play footsies with Marlene Dietrich. This is apparently a popular pastime with the celebrity class.
If you ask me how America ended up with Trump in the White House, I would tell you that two Americas have been contending with one another for some time. The first America values science, education, and reason. You know, all that boring stuff that made us the envy of the world. The second America confuses brashness for expertise, and fame for competence. The second America will give us the Trumps and the Kardashians, but never a Lincoln or a Jefferson. They will give us heat but no light, sound but no sanity. With the ascendency of Trump, the second America has spoken. Cover your eyes, folks, this ain’t gonna be pretty.