It is already becoming clear that, in the Trump era, we’d better get used to the ubiquity of virtue-signaling on the Left, as it has lately become even easier than it already was. “Not my president!” reads the message that lots and lots of our fellow citizens apparently feel it incumbent upon themselves to share with the rest of us, and it is often accompanied by the noise of chanting, disruption of traffic, and destruction or defacement of property. Of course the statement itself is patently false. Mr. Trump is, or soon will be, the president of the noise-makers as of everyone else, like it or not, unless they propose to follow the various celebrities who have threatened (or promised—could we but hold them to it) to leave the country. But what makes them feel the need to share their feelings with us? What makes them think anybody else cares what they think?
As it happens, I noticed the following passage in the (London) Times’s obituary yesterday of the late “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” Robert Vaughn. “He looked beyond his acting career when he was asked how he would most like to be remembered. ‘My opposition,’ he said, ‘to the Vietnam War.’ ” Could there be a lesson in this, both about the nature of celebrity and about politics? How on earth did it happen that this man, who enjoyed very considerable success in life through his own efforts, even though these only consisted of acting, came to see it as natural to regard a political statement (particularly a political statement in opposition to something) as not only an accomplishment but as the accomplishment of his life, the act by which this actor would wish above all others to be remembered?
Now it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that a lot of successful actors secretly feel a bit guilty that they have arrived at fame and fortune only through impersonating other people and look around for what they regard as noble causes to affiliate themselves with, in order to justify their exaggerated reputations. But it is also true that an essential part of the celebrity culture—the culture that gave us Donald Trump—has always been its implicit randomness. “Celebrities: They’re Just Like Us” as Us magazine puts it, or used to put it. At least we like to think they’re just like us, since thinking so is the flip side of thinking we might be celebrities ourselves. And from there it is not a very long or arduous journey to thinking that we are celebrities ourselves and therefore entitled, like Robert Vaughn, to regard it as in itself a quasi-heroic achievement publicly to proclaim a political allegiance—or a political dissent.
Of course, so to regard it requires us to imagine that the world at large is as interested in us as we are in ourselves, an easy thing for a celebrity to believe. But one of the great attractions of social media is that it allows almost anyone to believe something similar. Facebook and Twitter promise everyone at least that small measure of celebrity once summed up by Andy Warhol long before there were any social media as the future in which “everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes.” And just as celebrities affirm their entitlement to that elevated status by adopting the right social and political attitudes, so now can ordinary people do the same, at least in their own conceit—which is why, presumably, they’re spilling into the streets with signs advertising to strangers and, with any luck, to TV viewers how they feel about Donald Trump while oxymoronically announcing their hatred of “hate.”
Obviously there is no point to their doing so if they expect to accomplish anything political by it, though it might turn out to be politically counterproductive. But that wouldn’t matter either. Politics is not the point today, and I begin to wonder if it was even the point half a century ago when the glamourpuss Robert Vaughn was signing his petitions and making his public statements against the war to the echoing applause of millions. Instead, the point must be primarily to provide for oneself and for one’s putative fans, now called “followers,” an opportunity to demonstrate that we are the moral paragons that we and they suppose ourselves to be—and so, also, to confirm that we are important enough to command the attention of the world, if only for fifteen minutes, for that demonstration.