As different as they are, Sheryl Sandberg and Donald Trump both testify to America’s susceptibility to potentially dangerous fairy tales: narratives of can-do individualism promoted by wealthy celebrities blind to their own privilege.
Last week, Sandberg received acclaim and wide media coverage for admitting that her book, “Lean In” — which received acclaim and wide media coverage when it was published in 2013 — was wrong and based largely on her own, limited understanding of women’s lives. After a personal tragedy — the death of her husband — Sandberg acknowledged that being a newly single mother had opened her eyes to the challenges many women face in the workplace.
It’s admirable to admit mistakes, and Sandberg seems genuinely to regret her earlier stance. But while we applaud her honesty, let us not overlook the larger picture. The fact that Sandberg’s one-size-fits-all, upper-class bootstrapism was ever held up as a primer for women’s success was evidence all along of how intractable the problems are. The media glommed onto Sandberg precisely because her solutions were not social or systemic, but individualist.
“The shift to a more equal world,” she wrote in “Lean In,” “will happen person by person.”
Although this sounds good, such an atomist philosophy lets the status quo off the hook way too easily. Sandberg’s book spoke mainly of women’s “internal barriers” to success and focused on removing these psychological hindrances. Left unexplored were the very real obstacles posed by sexism, classism, racism and the lack of affordable child care and universal parental leave. Hers was a largely behavioral prescription: Change your attitude, ladies, show more engagement at work (this is the “leaning in” part) and reap new success. The message was seductive, simple and inspirational — but insufficient and largely inapplicable to the millions of working- and middle-class women not possessed of Harvard MBAs or mentors such as Larry Summers (former secretary of the Treasury and past president of Harvard).
But the insufficiency of Sandberg’s message took a back seat to the aspirational quality of the messenger. She was not really proposing practical solutions or policy; she was selling herself as a role model. Attractive, wealthy, smart and successful, Sheryl Sandberg was the message. America loves a winner and often prefers the dreamy cheerleading of charismatic celebrities to hard facts or political introspection. Fantasies of identification — “Hey, maybe I too can be like this attractive person on TV” — have a way of distracting us from thoughtful analysis.
This is precisely how we have arrived at Donald Trump as the putative GOP presidential nominee. A wealthy, successful celebrity, with a family and lifestyle straight out of a glossy magazine, Trump too offers airy, inspirational pronouncements — not about women’s professional advancement, certainly, but about America’s.
Like Sandberg, Trump posits his privileged personal life as a model for remedying the lives of millions: “I’m rich, therefore you can get rich through me.” Like Sandberg, he lionizes corporate ambition, substituting a story of his own business success — of “making great deals” — for substantive policy proposals or critique.
And like Sandberg, Trump owes his success to far more than merely his own hard work. The scion of his father’s multimillion-dollar real estate empire, Trump disingenuously presents himself as a self-made man, proffering this faux Horatio Alger story to America as a template for universal success. This approach works frighteningly well. (Trump’s presidential candidacy has even revived interest in his many (ghostwritten) books claiming to teach others his “art of the deal.”)
While Sheryl Sandberg is to her great credit reconsidering her earlier prejudices, it is safe to say that Trump will not be demonstrating such self-awareness anytime soon. But because the stakes in his case are extraordinarily high, let us cultivate our own awareness instead.
In selecting the next leader of the free world, we must shake off the power of fantasy and resist the pull of charismatic, wealthy celebrities and their self-serving biographical tales of ambition and achievement.
Our media-drenched culture continually encourages us to identify with popular iconic figures, and even believe that they have transformative powers. Succumbing to such easy seductions might be fine when reading self-help books about one’s career or kicking back with reality television. When choosing a president, it could prove catastrophic.
Rhonda Garelick is a visiting professor in comparative literature at Princeton University and professor of English at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Her latest book is “Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History.” Twitter: @rkgar. She wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times.