When Montanans vote in the May 25 special election to replace former Rep. Ryan Zinke, they will choose between two candidates who have never held public office. The Republican, former gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte, is a businessman who sold his Bozeman-based company RightNow Technologies to Oracle for a billion dollars. The Democrat is Rob Quist.
Quist served 11 years on the Montana Arts Council and was an ambassador to Montana's sister state of Kumamoto, Japan. He has developed anti-bullying programs for Montana schools and advocated for the Montana Food Bank. But he is best known as a member of the Mission Mountain Wood Band, a roots-rock act that toured nationally during the 1970s. As Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold put it when he addressed the UM School of Journalism last month, Quist is a "cowboy folk singer."
It sounds like a Terry Southern plot: multimillionaire versus cowboy folk singer for control of Montana's sole seat in the U.S. House. A reader arriving late to this story might be forgiven for thinking it reflects the general public's dissatisfaction with career politicians. But a funny thing about Quist, as an outsider candidate from the world of popular entertainment, is that he was not selected by the general public.
The voters of Montana did not get sick of politics as usual and nominate a cowboy folk singer in a groundswell of disgust with the status quo. He was chosen by delegates from the Democratic Party in a special nominating convention. In early March, just months after a reality television star who had never held public office or served in the military became the U.S. president, 160 party operatives—the insiders' insiders, the ones so deep in the system that they vote to direct the party itself—got together at Helena's Best Western Premier Great Northern Hotel and agreed that political experience is less a feature than a bug.
This decision does not necessarily reflect what most voters in Montana think. It may not even tell us what the delegates think. All it tells us is what those delegates think voters think. The purpose of the Helena convention was to select the candidate with the best chance of winning May's election, and the politicians of the Democratic Party determined that we like entertainers better than we like the politicians of the Democratic Party. They're not wrong.
The original entertainer-turned-politician was George Lloyd Murphy, a song and dance man who became the U.S. senator from California in 1964. Before joining the world's greatest deliberative body, Murphy had worked as a nightclub dancer. During the Depression, he appeared in a series of Hollywood musicals, including the descriptively titled Broadway Melody of 1938 and Broadway Melody of 1940. He went on to become president of the Screen Actors Guild, then won his Senate bid by defeating John F. Kennedy's former press secretary. Murphy served only one term before he was unseated by Rep. John Tunney, son of heavyweight boxing champion Gene Tunney.
Readers may be familiar with another past president of the Screen Actors Guild who dabbled in politics. Before he became the leader of the free world, Ronald Reagan announced Chicago Cubs games for WHO radio in Des Moines, offering play-by-play accounts by embellishing short descriptions he got by wire. He also starred opposite a chimpanzee in the 1951 comedy Bedtime For Bonzo.
Shortly after Reagan left office to enter talk-radio sainthood, a number of his fellow entertainers followed his path to Washington. His presidency overlapped 12 days with the congressional tenure of Ben Jones, who played Cooter on The Dukes of Hazzard. Around the same time, Iowa's 6th District was represented by Fred Grandy, who played Gopher on The Love Boat. Grandy left office on the same day that Sonny Bono was sworn in as Representative of California's 44th District. Bono, who never graduated high school, was a former songwriter and television personality best known for marrying Cher.
Fred Thompson, U.S. Senator from Tennessee between 1994 and 2003, was a rare instance of an entertainer who was in politics first. Thompson served as minority counsel on the Senate Watergate Committee before he went on to play himself in the 1985 film Marie, titled after his client in a corruption trial against the governor of Tennessee. He played stern authority figures in Die Hard 2, The Hunt for Red October and a number of less-successful productions. In 1994, he won a special election to fill the Senate seat vacated by Vice President Al Gore, returning to the body he had first served 20 years earlier.
Former professional wrestler and Predator actor Jesse "The Body" Ventura was elected governor of Minnesota in 1999, becoming the first Reform Party candidate to win a significant office. Then, in 2003, Arnold Schwarzenegger announced his candidacy for governor of California during an appearance on The Tonight Show.
The media treated it as a joke. Headlines were generally split between "the governator" and "the running man," a reference to the 1987 film in which Schwarzenegger played a contestant on a murder-themed game show. The action hero and former bodybuilder had never campaigned for public office before. He was running in a recall election against Democratic Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante, Republican state Senator Tom McClintock, Green Party activist Peter Camejo, and 132 other candidates—including Arianna Huffington, former MLB commissioner Peter Ueberroth and Gary Coleman. It was a circus, and Schwarzenegger looked like another circus candidate.
Then he won. In retrospect, it made sense that a crowded field would offer an advantage to one of the most famous people on Earth. It also seems logical that a recall election—which by nature attracted voters dissatisfied with the state of California politics—would swing toward a political outsider. But at the time Schwarzenegger announced, his candidacy seemed laughable.
Twelve years later, another celebrity would enter a crowded field of more experienced candidates in a way that made everyone laugh. Donald Trump was like Schwarzenegger, only less likable on screen, arguably dumber and certainly more vulnerable to ridicule. As soon as he announced, I predicted in print that he would never be president of the United States. I repeated this prediction to anyone who would listen for the next year and a half, right up until approximately dinnertime on Tuesday, Nov. 8, when I started to look like a real asshole.
Like Gov. Schwarzenegger, President Trump seems inevitable in retrospect. During the nominating process, he was the most recognizable figure in a field of 17 otherwise interchangeable Republicans. The others blended into a miasma of managerial haircuts and pious talk about personal responsibility. Then Trump would appear, with his orange face and evidently deceitful hair, and say that Mexicans are rapists and we need to nuke ISIS. The press, agreeing that such remarks made him unelectable, covered them relentlessly.
In the general, of course, he was doomed. As the first major-party nominee for president with no experience in public service, he was up against the most qualified opponent in history. Hillary Clinton had been a senator and secretary of state. She had also been the favored candidate to win the Democratic nomination in 2008, before she was upset by a charismatic junior senator from Illinois. No one could believe it when she lost to Barack Obama back then, but now, in 2016, it was her turn.
Looking back, that was a big part of the problem. As qualified as Clinton was, her career in politics was founded on her marriage to a former president. She was the consummate insider—a perception reinforced by the leak, in July, of emails suggesting that Democratic National Committee leaders had influenced the nominating process to her benefit. Even her campaign slogan, "I'm with her," implied an arbitrary but coordinated effort on her behalf.
And then there was the way she talked. Clinton was well-informed, articulate and careful in her public remarks, much like that talking plastic cylinder you can buy from Amazon. Trump, on the other hand, seemed never to think about what he said until after it left his mouth. His speeches felt improvised, to the point that it made headlines the first time he used a teleprompter. Where Clinton calculated every sentence for safety, if not necessarily for effect, Trump spoke blithely and without regard for truth or consequences, as though he were saying whatever popped into his head.
This is, of course, the primary talent of the reality television star. Trump's ability to act naturally under artificial circumstances is not useful to a president, who makes most of his important decisions behind closed doors. But it is supremely useful to a candidate. The only area in which his experience as the host of an unscripted television show—on which he pretended to be a shrewd and dynamic leader instead of the heir to a family business that he nearly bankrupted more than once—could be more valuable than Clinton's experience in government was during the campaign. He couldn't possibly be better at running the country. He was just much better at convincing people to vote for him.
A month before the 2016 election, a Gallup poll put Americans' approval of Congress at 18 percent. For point of comparison, Richard Nixon enjoyed an approval rating of 24 percent after the Watergate scandal, in the weeks before he resigned. Congress hasn't cracked 25 percent since 2009. Such a dismal approval rating would have been regarded as a crisis in the 20th century, but in the 21st it has become accepted as a more-or-less permanent feature. The question for strategists is not how to repair the public's hatred of the political class, but rather how to harness it.
Politicians know we don't like them, and the consensus that American voters prefer outsiders has sometimes driven candidates and their surrogates to absurdity. In September of 2015, Clinton described herself as a political outsider, citing her gender. From a narrowly feminist perspective, she had a point. But if the wife of a former president isn't a political insider, who is?
Yet the premise of political outsider-dom is strange. If you were dissatisfied with how your mechanic tuned your engine, you wouldn't go looking for someone who had never worked on cars before. A recent New Yorker cartoon summed up the contradictions in our present mania for candidates who have never worked in government: "These smug pilots have lost touch with ordinary passengers like us," says a man standing in the aisle of a commercial jet. "Who thinks I should fly the plane?"
This cartoon misses the point, though. The premise of the American system is that people don't need specialized training to run their government. The heart of the democratic experiment is the citizen-legislator. That principle is reflected in the Montana Legislature, which meets for 90 days every two years, and in the U.S. House of Representatives, which requires no qualifications of its members except that they be at least 25 years old.
This is a beautiful principle, and easy to support in theory. In practice, it is probably a recipe for disaster. For one thing, the baseline rules of American democracy were laid out in 1789, when the U.S. government was far less powerful and complex than it is today. How much damage could an inexperienced president do in the days before the telegraph, the multi-state corporation and the nuclear missile? The difference between the governments of the late 18th century and the early 21st is the difference between a toddler with a plastic shovel and one with a backhoe.
Another difference is that the invention of the citizen-legislator predates the invention of political parties. Outsiders may come to Washington innocent of corruption and partisan recalcitrance, but they learn fast. When you vote for people who have never worked in government before, you might get mavericks who go their own way. But you're more likely to get party loyalists.
Consider Al Franken, the screenwriter and former Saturday Night Live cast member who became the junior senator from Minnesota in 2009. Since joining the Senate, Franken has voted with the majority of the Democratic Party 97 percent of the time. This record makes sense. What kind of person—even a famous person—would walk into the world's greatest deliberative body with zero experience in government and decide he knew better than everyone else there?
Yet this is what we hope the outsider candidate will do. The engine of American government is out of tune. The plane is not taking us where we want to go. So we look for someone who has not been involved in the failure we want fixed. We want this person to enter the field of governance with no experience and do it better than anyone who has done it before, because those people by definition did it badly.
There's no reason our clever outsider can't be a farmer, or a forensic accountant, or a middle-school teacher, except those people aren't famous. Entertainers are. They enter the political arena already in possession of politics' most expensive commodity: name recognition. Particularly in a short race like this spring's special election, the cost of teaching voters to remember who they are is a huge barrier to entry for outsider candidates who aren't already famous. A candidate who is already publicly known enters politics with a chunk of capital comparable to the deep pockets of tycoons like Gianforte or Trump.
Plus, entertainers are the kind of public figures people like. Politicians are the kind people hate, even though the prerequisite for their careers is to win a popularity contest. So we select entertainers to become our replacement politicians and, once they take office, begin the process of hating them, too.
Trump won election in November with 46 percent of the vote. As of this writing—two months after he took office, when he has done little other than appoint several of his fellow outsiders to cabinet positions and try to keep Muslims overseas—his approval rating has dropped to 37 percent. The longer he is president, the less he is an outsider, and the more he becomes just another politician.
Meanwhile, his party reaps the reward. Although most prominent Republicans despised him before he started winning primaries, the GOP is happy to let Trump appoint a corporate-friendly justice to the Supreme Court. If they ever get the votes together, Republicans in Congress will send him bills to cut taxes on millionaires, privatize Social Security, roll back net neutrality—all the unpopular projects he didn't run on that have been in his party's platform for years.
Perhaps the best thing about President Trump—the first chief executive who never wrangled votes in a state Legislature, traded horses in Congress or even managed the conflicting schemes of his subordinates in the army—is that he lacks the experience to stop them. Granted, this situation is less than optimal if you're on Medicare or don't expect to make a million dollars this year. But if you are a lifelong politico like Paul Ryan, this outsider president is just what you've been waiting for.
Maybe outsider Rob Quist will stop Ryan and Trump. Perhaps the mic skills he learned in his years as a touring musician or his natural sense of how to rally a crowd will give him an edge on the House Appropriations Committee. Maybe Greg Gianforte can dissolve bureaucratic deadlock with a wave of his entrepreneurial wand. Or maybe we have hoodwinked ourselves, and these inexperienced political outsiders won't represent those of us who vote for an exception to political rule at all. Perhaps they will merely entertain us for a while before getting on with politics as usual.