There was an interesting article in The New York Times that argued Trump was doing so well at least in part because of his celebrity status. The reasoning is this: politics has become a kind of celebrity show anyway so why not elect the ultimate celebrity? And that got me thinking: what is a celebrity? And why do we seem to need them?
Maybe we should begin with the word itself. Ever since it entered the English language in the seventeenth century, the word celebrity has had a religious undertone to it. The Oxford English gives as a secondary (obsolete) meaning “due observance of rites and ceremonies; pomp, solemnity.” So even though the word now means (primarily) “the state of being well known”—which is to say, famous because one is well-known—the old religious undertone has never quite died out. And that may help explain the rise of our fascination with celebrity in a world where religious affiliation is declining.
For whether or not we are affiliated with a religion, humans have always needed religious figures. Indeed, some say that the Greek gods and goddesses were our first celebrities. Perhaps that is why some of our superheroes, perhaps most explicitly the Silver Surfer, are modeled on Biblical heroes. Perhaps that is also why, even as affiliation with traditional religions is on the decline, non-traditional religions such as Jediism are thriving. In England and Wales, it is the fourth largest reported religion. And if the Jedi are not heroes and celebrities alike then that word has no meaning.
Which bring us right back to Donald Trump. He is a celebrity, much like the Greek gods and goddesses were celebrities. That doesn’t mean he has to be a nice person; Ares wasn’t going to get canonized by anyone and the havoc Hera and Zeus between caused is indescribable. That wasn’t the point though. The Greek gods and goddesses were fascinating and they did things they “weren’t supposed to do.” Things, in fact, that they prohibited mere mortals from doing. And they were above us; literally (they lived on Mount Olympus) and figuratively (a cloud palace was their home and nectar was their sustenance.)
Donald Trump, the multi-billionaire, also lives in a tower (one he created) and a billionaire’s life is far from ours. All of that makes him fascinating if not particularly liked. He is, after all a celebrity.