Malcolm Muggeridge, noted British television scourge and scold, told me that television will destroy journalism, that education is the great mumbo-jumbo of the age, and now that politicians have the media behind them, they have a tendency toward fantasies greater than ever. Do we hear echoes of Trump in this?
Malcolm Muggeridge, noted British television scourge and scold, was an accomplished writer who achieved brief celebrity — or notoriety — for having allegedly referred to the queen as “dowdy, frumpish and banal” and for which the BBC fired him.
Never one to shun controversy, Muggeridge told me during the course of an interview at his cottage in the Sussex countryside that television will destroy journalism altogether, that education is the great mumbo-jumbo of the age, and (best of all) politicians tend to move into fantasy, and now that they have the media behind them, have a tendency toward fantasies greater than ever. Do we hear echoes of Trump in this?
Television, Muggeridge said, has taken journalism into the realm of entertainment, purveying consensus as controversy and leading us to a collectivist, authoritarian society. Think about that in light of Trump’s flouting of conventional wisdom and such perceived norms as making known his bank statements or keeping his business interests alive and even flourishing from his new HQ in the White House.
Historian and social theorist Daniel Boorstin defined a celebrity as a person who is known for his well-knownness. And Muggeridge is credited with having also used that idea in the introduction to his book “Muggeridge Through the Microphone,” in which he wrote: “In the past if someone was famous or notorious, it was for something — as a writer or an actor or a criminal; some talent or distinction or abomination. Today one can simply be famous for being famous.”
Andy Warhol is famous for having said that in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. The fame of Warhol himself easily outlasted that estimate.
One larger-than-life example of celebrity was Liberace, who, while he had a natural talent for playing the piano, parlayed that and achieved stardom by becoming a show man, extravagantly dressed in lace and velvet, bejeweled with enormous rings, playing an equally bejeweled grand piano with a candelabra placed upon it.
Comparing Liberace with Donald Trump, Alexander Chancellor, writing in the British magazine The Spectator, noted that the décor and furnishings of Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue in New York is similar to those of Liberace’s former glitzy house in Las Vegas.
This brand of celebrity is not a new phenomenon. Like Liberace, Oscar Wilde dressed flamboyantly with a view to attracting attention. He wore satin breeches, a cape, and ruffled collars, and he carried a silver-topped cane.
In his book “Wilde in America: Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Modern Celebrity,” David M. Friedman notes that “decades before Kim Kardashian, Wilde had grasped that fame could be fabricated in the media.” In his case, before the era of television, it could be by distributing hundreds of photographs of himself to stir interest and attention.
Long before he achieved real fame as a successful playwright and poet, Wilde parlayed a slender self-published book of poems into a heavily publicized lecture tour of the United States — starting out being asked by a customs officer upon arrival in New York if he had anything to declare, and replying, ”Nothing but my genius.”
Henry James, jealous of Wilde’s ability to attract attention and even adulation, said he saw in Wilde a repugnant and alien future: an age when the talent that matters most is not the artistic genius but the narcissistic — a genius for self puffery and public preening.
As Wilde himself said: “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
In his book, Friedman compares the poseur with another esthete and self promoter, Truman Capote. Some say Capote, who made a career of his friendships and acquaintances with various actors, artists, writers, and socialites, inaugurated the era of the celebrity A-list with his black-and-white ball at New York’s Plaza Hotel, which the Wall Street Journal recently referred to.
One thing that separates the likes of Capote, Liberace, Wilde and Warhol from the likes of Trump and the Kardashians is talent. Trump did have the TV show “Celebrity Apprentice” and the instantly recognizable and unique hairstyle, of course, but he has very little overt talent — artistic or even political. Interestingly, the Donald selected most of his putative cabinet by instinct and by gut reaction rather than by more conventional techniques and standards.
The myth of Narcissus was the story of a vain and handsome fellow who could not stop staring at his beautiful reflection in a pool. The narcissism society (yes, there is one) defines narcissism as “a pattern of traits and behaviors which signify infatuation and obsession with oneself … and the ruthless pursuit of one’s gratification, dominance and ambition” — and using it to advance an agenda. In Trump’s case, command and control — influence over an entire nation and indeed the world.