I don’t know how many times we have the relearn the lesson that celebrities make bad politicians. Whether it is Jesse Ventura in Minnesota, Arnold Schwarzenegger in California, and now Donald Trump in Washington, the results are almost never good. They come with no executive experience, no coherent governing philosophy, and no understanding of how political consensus is to be achieved. Being the leader of a country like Canada is not be an entry-level job. Making Kevin O’Leary Canada’s next Prime Minister is a really bad idea.
But what about Ronald Reagan, I hear you say. Wasn’t he a B-list Hollywood celebrity who ended up being a successful President? Yes, but he was also a successful two-time California governor first. That matters. He also read and thought deeply about conservatism. By the time he became Governor, he was well versed in conservative thought.
In contrast, most celebrities lack an intellectual compass. This is because they haven’t thought anything through. Our first clue that Kevin O’Leary has this problem are all his wildly inconsistent pronouncements. Unfortunately, ideological ignorance often works to the advantage of celebrity-politicians – at least initially. Because they boldly say things that no ordinary politician will dare utter, many voters get the impression that they are not afraid to ‘tell it like it is’. People really hate it when politicians speak in scripted, focus-grouped phrases. It comes across as cowardly and disingenuous – as it often is.
What adds fuel to the celebrity-politician’s bombast is that they often do not understand what is politically possible and what is impossible. As a result, they make bold promises that can’t be delivered, but they don’t know it. This faux courage, delivered with a showman’s flair, gives the celebrity-politician a charisma that most career politicians can only wish for. Unfortunately, the source of this boldness is ignorance and inexperience.
Also, their celebrity status confers upon them a false sense of familiarity. With Arnold, a lot of Californians said to themselves, I saw Terminator 2 and Kindergarten Cop, I know what Arnold is like. Er, no you don’t. Arnold is an actor delivering lines written by other people. This phenomenon is worse if they come from reality TV. This is because many people think reality TV is real. It is not. It is scripted. There is the old joke about a good Samaritan telling an accident victim, “Don’t worry, I am not a doctor but I play one on TV.” The same can be said about O’Leary and Trump. They play businessmen on TV. (And before anybody protests, yes, I know they are businessmen in real life. But here’s the thing: their TV shows do not tell you anything about what kind of businessmen they actually are.)
At this point, some of you may be wondering where I am coming from. I have been very supportive of conservative insurgents in the past. I was a big-time supporter of Preston Manning and the Reform Party, and I even supported (and still look back fondly over) Toronto’s crack mayor, Rob Ford. But here’s the thing, while Manning and Ford were outsiders, by the time they took center stage they were not politically inexperienced. In addition, both possessed a consistent set of political principles that gave their actions a unifying theme.
Preston Manning may not have been elected prior to 1993, but he had been in politics since 1967, when he and his father, Ernest Manning, began working on the long-term prospects of Canadian conservatism. They noticed that about every twenty years or so a grass-roots rebellion against Ottawa erupts in Alberta, but each time it fizzles out due to lack of unifying principles and leadership. They reasoned that the next eruption would take place sometime in the late 1980’s but if they were ready for it, a political realignment might be possible for Canada. They were right. If you are interested, read Murray Dobbin’s “Preston Manning and the Reform Party.” This hostile but informative book explains how the Reform Party was able to burst onto the Canadian political scene, seemingly fully-formed. Whatever you can say about Manning, he was not just ‘winging it’. Nor was he ignorant of what he was doing.
At first glance, Rob Ford sounds like just the kind of radical insurgent I am railing against. Not so. What is often forgotten is that Ford was a City Councillor for 10 years prior to becoming mayor. In his time on City Council, Ford focused like a laser beam on his two signature issues, fiscal conservatism and serving constituents. His dedication to constituent concerns were legendary. He dealt with every concern personally, often answering the initial call himself. He gave out his home phone number to every resident who asked, even after he became mayor. Jimmy Kimmel said that when Ford was in the limo with him being driven to the studio, he was busy on his cell phone talking to constituents! While Ford’s mayoralty was ultimately destroyed by his substance abuse issues, his first couple of years were very productive. This was due to the experience and knowledge he acquired from a decade of working in city politics.
Another problem with celebrity-politicians is that the source of their charisma is often the source of their downfall. Because they are ignorant of what can and cannot be done, they drive heedlessly into traps, either failing to deliver on their bold promises (the best case), or creating foreseeable disasters (the worst). As well, the unconventional behaviour that is the source of their initial appeal begins to wear on the voters after a while. This is because the people insist on statesmanlike behaviour just as much as they like boldness and originality. The celebrity-politician rarely appreciates this. They think they have rewritten the rules, when in fact the rules were just temporarily suspended. When their probation period ends, the immutable rules of politics return – often with a vengeance.
This is why I am against Kevin O’Leary. If he were elected party leader and loses to Trudeau, we will have missed a golden opportunity. But if he beats Trudeau (as he brags he can do), the resulting Charlie Foxtrot might bury the Conservative Party of Canada for a generation. This I believe will be the current fate of the Republican Party, who chose a reality TV clown as its standard-bearer. I don’t want Canadian conservatism to suffer the same fate as our American cousins. Speaking as the former two-time riding association president in the Conservative Party, if O’Leary is selected to be our party’s leader, I will personally have much more spare time on my hands during the next federal election campaign. I will probably still vote Conservative (while holding my nose), but only because I think O’Leary is incrementally less of a celebrity airhead than Justin Trudeau.