'Discount Trump' Kevin O'Leary not the first corporate shill pedalling celebrity over substance

Somehow I ended up on the contact list of the “Kevin O’Leary Media Department.” I’m not complaining, I’m big on Internet humour.

“O’Leary government will end corporate welfare,” reads the press release, quoting the man himself: “The days of corporate handouts and free money is over. If a deal doesn’t stimulate growth, create jobs, and provide a return on taxpayer’s investments it won’t get supported under an O’Leary government.”

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That’s a good one. Does anyone seriously believe that a guy with a scorched earth routine and matching ideology will upset the old boy’s game of privatizing profit and socializing losses?

With this claim, the reality TV fixture and Tory leadership hopeful might as well be a housewife from Sudbury pitching a multilevel marketing scheme on Dragon’s Den. As O’Leary himself might say, “I’m out. Get lost, you’re an idiot.”

I shared this press release with one of my contacts. “It’s the death of expertise,” he offered. Exactly. And it sounds awfully familiar. In the U.S., a lack of background in public service is not considered a bar to higher office, but rather a mark of distinction. Ignorance is rebranded as the blank slate of beginner’s mind.

The political rise of celebrity over substance was heralded by Ronald Reagan, a b-movie actor who snitched on Hollywood associates during the McCarthy era’s red scare. He won the Republican governorship of California in 1967 and was swept to the oval office in an eighties wave of evangelism and militarism.

Reagan — the “acting president” in the words of author Gore Vidal — was no more hands-on than George W. Bush two decades later. Post-JFK, the oval office has seen a succession of showroom dummies, frozen in place for photo ops and signings like a Macy’s window display.

Trump is not an outlier in the presidential mannequin trend. He’s its peak expression. The Casino Owner in Chief reportedly has very little working knowledge of government, and he doesn’t care. His organizational interests are limited to his own brand, and his malignant narcissism makes him ripe for manipulation by advisors scarier than him.

In Canada we have a self-promoting deal-maker of a similar stripe. “Elect me as prime minister for 15 minutes. I will make unions illegal. Anybody who remains a union member will be thrown in jail,” O’Leary said in 2011. A businessman who has leveraged his confrontational TV persona into a political brand, he’s our discount Trump. And nothing so much demonstrates the moral bankruptcy of the Conservative party than its acceptance of leadership bids from the likes of O’Leary and Kellie Leitch.

All this reminded me of Ronald Wright’s observations on the historical patterns of societies in decline.

“The concentration of power at the top of large-scale societies gives the elite a vested interest in the status quo; they continue to prosper in darkening times long after the environment and general population begin to suffer,” the historian observed in his 2004 Massey Lecture series, A Short History of Progress.

When empires enter their terminal phase, the upper reaches are populated by opportunists. Out for personal gain rather than principled governance, these smiling cynics are quite prepared to ride the train downward — as long as they have seats in or near the front cabins (I owe that last image not to Wright but the dystopian film Snowpiercer).

Canada has long been junior partner in the American empire. So it’s not so strange that electoral sideshows on both sides of the border feature pitchmen for the monopoly market wrecking ball. Whether they hail from the world of television, film, real estate or pro wrestling, the lack of public sector expertise is no hindrance. They’re shills for the true rulers, with the freedom to go off-script as long as they don’t challenge the almighty buck once in office.

That said, O’Leary’s leadership of the Tories, to say nothing of the nation, is hardly a foregone conclusion. Last year, the oil-friendly tycoon publicly offered Alberta premier Rachel Notley $1 million to quit as premier. She responded by telling O'Leary that the last time a group of moneyed magnates tried to instruct Albertans how to vote, she trounced the incumbent to become the province's first NDP premier.

Keep me on your humour mailing list, Kevin O’Leary Media Department.



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