This Poisonous Cult of Personality

Pankaj Mishra in the New York Review of Books:

Obama-celebrityDonald Trump’s election last year exposed an insidious politics of celebrity, one in which a redemptive personality is projected high above the slow toil of political parties and movements. As his latest tweets about Muslims confirm, this post-political figure seeks, above all, to commune with his entranced white nationalist supporters. Periodically offering them emotional catharsis, a powerful medium of self-expression at the White House these days, Trump makes sure that his fan base survives his multiple political and economic failures. This may be hard to admit but the path to such a presidency of spectacle and vicarious participation was paved by the previous occupant of the White House.

Barack Obama was the first “celebrity president” of the twenty-first century—“that is,” as Perry Anderson recently pointed out, “a politician whose very appearance was a sensation, from the earliest days of his quest for the Democratic nomination onwards: to be other than purely white, as well as good-looking and mellifluous, sufficed for that,” and for whom “personal popularity” mattered more than the fate of own party and policies.

Public life routinely features such sensations, figures in whom people invest great expectations based on nothing more than a captivation with their radiant personas. Youthful good looks, an unconventional marriage, and some intellectual showmanship helped turn Emmanuel Macron, virtually overnight, into the savior not just of France, but of Europe, too. Until the approval ratings of this dynamic millionaire collapsed, a glamour-struck media largely waived close scrutiny of his neoliberal faith in tax breaks for rich compatriots, and contempt for “slackers.”

Another example is Aung San Suu Kyi who, as a freedom fighter and prisoner of conscience, precluded any real examination of her politics, which have turned out to be abysmally sectarian, in tune with her electoral base among Myanmar’s Buddhist ethnic majority.

More here.