When the history books of our era are written, 2016 will likely go down as the year that Americans decided to part company, at least temporarily, with reality.
It was, after all, the year the country elected a man who seems pathologically attached to lying – sorry, “alternative facts”; who wills inconvenient science to disappear; who was perfectly willing to gin up his mob against a rival for her use of an insecure email server, while reportedly being unwilling to give up an insecure Android phone himself.
Donald Trump’s candidacy was never really about facts. From the get-go, it was about appealing to visceral emotions and pandering to modern-day America’s insatiable appetite for theatrics. His election this past November represents a destructive flight into fantasy perhaps unparalleled by any other ascendant super-power at any other moment in modern history.
In such an environment, traditional politics simply doesn’t cut it. A significant proportion of the electorate has now decided to view the political battlefield, and to choose political candidates, in much the same way as it watches, and engages with, reality television. It must be diverting, in the way that good entertainment has always been diverting, but not treated as something particularly impactful. It’s a terrifying calculus, for of course in truth politics is far more impactful under a man like Trump than it would have been under the bland-and-safely-predictable leadership of Hillary Clinton. The President is a chaos-connoisseur, a man who enjoys shaking things up simply to see the look on people’s faces. He dabbles with miscalculation on a near-hourly basis, and seems to luxuriate in the discomfort that he causes allies and foes alike.
Given these realities, who might have a fighting chance at taking Trump down in 2020 – assuming he isn’t impeached well before then? To my mind it’s likely to be someone from outside the political box, someone with vast “crossover appeal”. Someone able to connect with working-class voters in Michigan, say, while also appealing to a high-tech person out in Silicon Valley. Someone able to hold onto the party’s disproportionate level of support amongst women, while also reconnecting to white male blue collar Democrats who, in large numbers, bolted from the party this past November. Quite likely, in this era of anti-politics it will have to be a non-career politician – a businessman, say, or an entertainment figure.
Which brings me to George Clooney. He’s as Hollywood as one can get, but at the same time he has oh-so-decent political values. When he isn’t being George Clooney-the-actor, it’s pretty clear that Clooney-the-person cares about major issues in a way that Trump simply can’t. His father is a newsman who once stood as a Democrat candidate; his wife is a human rights lawyer. He empathises where Trump indulges in textbook schoolyard bullying.
Almost everyone knows at least one of Clooney’s silver screen and TV personas. There’s the over-educated, slightly smarmy, prison chain gang-escapee in Oh Brother Where Art Thou. There’s the loveable, fiercely intelligent conman in Ocean’s 11, 12, and 13 – that series where he goes after a most unlovable and greedy casino owner. There’s the caring, but slightly raffish, doctor in the ER television series.
None of the traditional politicians in 2016 had any idea how to make Trump look and seem smaller. But in 2020, Clooney’s carefully honed on-screen persona could, quite possibly, do the trick.
He could out-Trump Trump at every step of the way. Where Trump blusters coarsely, Clooney would bluster back, but his bluster would be laced with high style. Where Trump shouts, Clooney would be able to devastate with quiet wit. He wouldn’t be running simply as George Clooney. In an era of politics-as-entertainment, each of his most famous roles could be called on for assistance. Using, for example, his Oh Brother Where Art Thou persona, Clooney could man-splain Trump into something approximating silence.
And if Clooney were to win the nomination in this anti-politics, anti-politician era? Well, at that point, he might want someone like Bruce Springsteen, or even Trump impersonator Alec Baldwin, as his vice-presidential running mate. As an outsider, Clooney could serve as a bridge back to civil politics, and away from those of division.
Clooney has charisma, sex appeal, intelligence, and a time-tested commitment to progressive political values. He has dismissed suggestions of a presidential run for two decades. But that was before Trump. If he did decide to throw his hat in the ring, I suspect he would reduce the Potus to little orange pulp.