LONDON — Grace Kelly was a film star before she became a princess. Princess Diana was royalty before she became a star. Meghan Markle is neither a princess nor a star, even though she married a prince and is very famous. In the age of social media, there can be no real princesses or stars, because there is no privacy and no mystique. There is no content, only surfaces, and no substance, only promises. The winners in such a media environment are unprincipled counterfeiters: actors, for instance, or politicians.
Meghan Markle was never much of an actress. She is not a politician in the traditional sense, either. She has never run for office or gone through the antique procedurals of voter drives and public debates. Nevertheless, Markle, who promoted herself as a “philanthropist and activist” while she was a full-time actress, is already a politician in the emerging sense. She is an entertainer by profession, and the merger of politics and entertainment, formally announced in the 1960 televised debates between Nixon and JFK, was completed long ago.
Barack Obama’s digital campaign in 2008 saw this coupling evolve into a new format, social media. The medium being the message, social media has already restructured our economic and social lives. But it is only beginning to restructure our political system and ideas. A lot of interests are vested in the current system, even though it no longer works. A creaking bureaucracy naturally resists the innovative rival that threatens to superannuate it.
One consequence of this is that members of both parties are rapidly losing confidence in the legitimacy of elections. A second is a pronounced sense of unreality that emanates from traditional politics and traditional politicians. A third is that a new kind of politician is developing. In 2016, an adaptive, older entertainer, Donald Trump, successfully projected the new style of digital authenticity, short-circuited the party system, and rode the new informational regime to the White House. On the Democratic Left, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s photogenic activism is eclipsing the earnest and quaint socialism of Bernie Sanders. In the near future, our elected leaders will be “digital natives” who have never known anything else.
Meghan Markle is perfectly placed to convert her celebrity status as “activist” and influencer into political office for the Democrats. She is a Californian woman of color, and she reads a script much better than Kamala Harris does. She is also in the sweet spot of an emerging alignment between the Democratic Party and two ostensibly apolitical sectors. One is the patchwork of internationally oriented NGOs and foundations, which preach a narrow range of left-leaning ideas over the heads of the voters. The other is Silicon Valley, the keeper of the keys to the social media kingdom. Neither is accountable to the public, nor to anyone else.
“What Meghan wants, Meghan gets,” a furious Prince Harry shouted in an argument about her tiara before their wedding at Windsor Castle in 2018. Whatever Meghan wants now, it didn’t include Tom Bower, Britain’s foremost investigative journalist, digging into her past. But this is what Meghan has got. Bower’s book, Revenge: Meghan, Harry, and the War Between the Windsors, was published in Britain in late July. It is not yet available in the United States.
Bower’s credibility is as solid as it gets. An accomplished investigator, Bower has previously raked the muck on Boris Johnson, Tony Blair, Prince Charles, Jeremy Corbyn, the pop impresario Simon Cowell, the fraudulent newspaperman Robert Maxwell, and Mohamed Al Fayed, the Egyptian tycoon whose film producer son, Dodi, was Princess Diana’s last boyfriend and died with her in a car crash in Paris in 1997. Bower’s books have elicited several libel cases in Britain, and he has won them all. This is no mean feat: British libel law favors the plaintiff, and the defendant cannot invoke the equivalent of the First Amendment.
Bower has contacted all the people Meghan has used and thrown aside on her long, arduous, and often grubby climb to fame. Many are so embittered that they have already unburdened themselves in the tabloids and on TV (her father, Thomas, and half sister, Samantha, are especially forthcoming). Bower pulls this morass of resentment into a coherent narrative with plenty of footnotes. Meghan, he says, is a manipulative “media junkie.” This is like saying she is good at her job. Even Bower has to admire Meghan’s scorching ambition.
Meghan’s parents split when she was 6. Her father Thomas, who is white, did most of the parenting, and all of the paying, when it came to her acting lessons and studies at Northwestern (double major, theater and international studies). Meghan has written him out of the script, and brought back her mother, Doria, who is black. Diversity is her strength, and so is her light-skinned ambiguity. At school, she “never associated with African-American children” and “was not considered mixed-race by her peers.” At Northwestern, she called herself by her first name, “Rachel,” and did not join a black sorority. In 2013, she married Trevor Engelson, a Jewish film producer from Great Neck, New Jersey. In Suits, the mediocre legal drama that finally lifted her from obscurity, she played a lawyer with a Jewish-sounding name, Rachel Zane. No longer Jewish-adjacent, Meghan now presents herself as “a survivor of [anti-black] racism” in the era of BLM. In 2019, visiting Africa with Harry, she said she came “as a woman of color and as your sister.”
When Suits did not lead to better work in TV and film, Meghan applied her acting talents to forging a facsimile of a personal brand in the image of her A-list heroines. She promoted herself as “a foodie, as a beauty and fashion expert, and as an advocate of wellness” on her blog, The Tig. She “occasionally set up a paparazzi photo or let info slip out to the press” about her relationship with the star golfer Rory McIlroy. She cultivated the hotelier John Fitzpatrick, a friend of the Clintons. Fitzpatrick fixed an introduction to the U.N. Women’s Program, and in late 2014, it invited Meghan to become a “women’s advocate for political participation.” “This type of work feeds my soul,” she wrote on The Tig after visiting a refugee camp in Rwanda. “My life shifts from refugee camps to red carpets.”
A certain desperation can be detected beneath The Tig’s relentless optimism as Meghan reached her mid-30s. Her career as an influencer peaked with a shoot for Reitmans, “Toronto’s leading mid-market fashion retailer”; she kept the shoes. Her movie roles included “hot girl” in the Ashton Kutcher vehicle A Lot Like Love and a “cameo role snorting cocaine” in The Boys & Girls Guide to Getting Down. Making the best of what she had, Meghan inflated her U.N. Women’s Program talk at an off-Broadway theater into an address to the United Nations’s General Assembly. She claimed to be friends with the program’s ambassador, Emma Watson, whom she had never met, and presented brief social encounters with Serena Williams and Ivanka Trump as personal friendships. It’s not a crime; Trevor Engelson, who was by now very much out of the picture, would call it chutzpah.
Neither is it a crime to lie about how much you knew about your spouse before you first met. In a social media world, shuffling the deck and tweaking your narrative is a strategy for maximizing your reach. Suits was made in Toronto, where filming was cheaper. It was through Toronto’s small and provincial social scene that Meghan met Prince Harry in July 2016. When they announced their engagement in 2018, she told the BBC that she “didn’t know much about him or the royal family.” In fact, she had been studying them for years, and especially Harry’s mother, Diana.
“I’ve Googled Harry, I’ve gone deeply into his life,” Meghan told her publicist when she started dating Harry in 2016. “I didn’t have a plan,” she told Oprah in 2021. “I hadn’t Googled Harry online.” It would have been unprofessional if she hadn’t. Either way, she and Harry turned out to share the same passions: Africa, luxurious simple living, vague humanitarianism, the life and works of Princess Diana. Both were veteran performers who were tired of playing supporting roles. He proposed in the spring of 2018. Meghan’s cleanup operation has been going on ever since.
Revenge is being promoted and received in traditional form, as an exposé. This presumes that there is still something to be exposed. Monarchy, Thomas Paine wrote in 1792, is like “something kept behind a curtain, about which there is a great deal of bustle and fuss, and a wonderful air of seeming solemnity.” When the curtain is lifted, people see monarchy for what it is, and “they burst into laughter.” The curtain on the British monarchy was lifted long ago. The curtain on the American presidency, by contrast, remains discreetly lowered, at least for now.
When Diana lifted the veil on Prince Charles, the world burst into laughter and rage. Meghan and Harry are completing the job. The revolutionary aspect of their campaign of vilification is not their attack on Harry’s family; the royals are a franchise too valuable and entertaining to be killed off, and they are adroit players of the media game. The revolutionary aspect is that Meghan and Harry are forcing the royal family’s transition into the age of social media. But, as de Tocqueville noticed about political revolutions, this is an acceleration of existing trends.
The royals have survived worse. Meghan and Harry have called them racist, which admittedly is the worst thing you can say about anyone these days. The last time a senior royal took up with a publicity-mad American divorcee, he was the heir to the throne, the future Edward VIII, and she was Wallis Simpson. After they broke with his family, they fell into Hitler’s arms. There are worse things than moaning about your in-laws to Oprah.
Bower gives a detailed account of Meghan’s brief tenure as a working royal. He sounds baffled. No sooner had she unpacked than she and Harry were planning their escape. You get the impression that her goal all along was to revive Princess Diana’s post-divorce media game and use that to propel her into the company of the American A-list. Harry had told the BBC that Meghan was a “team player,” but if you’ve been No. 24 in the parade of swimsuit-clad “briefcase girls” on Deal Or No Deal, you’re not going to settle for that when your lucky number finally comes up. Naturally, Meghan put everyone’s back up. The Rolls-Royce limo that carried her to the chapel at Windsor was the same one that had carried Wallis Simpson to the Duke of Windsor’s interment in 1972. The choice was deliberate. It’s your funeral.
Bower thinks that Meghan failed to understand the difference between Hollywood, where the media are servile publicists trafficking in “favors, mutual agreements, payments and dishonest journalism,” and Britain, where the royals and the media are wound together like Captain Ahab and Moby Dick, furiously fighting over the direction and speed of their descent. The British tabloids delight in publishing “raw reality without Hollywood’s cosmetic cover-ups.” And the Palace has no influence at all beyond Britain, especially on social media.
Initially, Meghan and Harry wanted to have the best of both media worlds. They proposed to continue as part-time royals, collecting a salary from the British taxpayer while also selling England by the pound in the U.S. through a network of tax-avoiding companies and the Archewell Foundation, a charitable entity that, Meghan assumed, would be an opaque clearinghouse for donations and influence, like the Clinton Foundation. This proposal horrified Prince Charles and Prince William, who are betting the farm on a slimmed-down, low-profile monarchy. The queen didn’t like it either. After a brief, Godfather-style audience with the monarch, Meghan and Harry were dismissed.
Meghan understands how the fame game has changed, and how the royal brand fits into it. Celebrity is the currency of the age, but its coinage has been debased by overprinting since Diana’s heyday. Still, like money and oil, the tokens of celebrity can be moved profitably between markets. Markle has flipped her investment several times over, raising her profile and profit each time. But time is running out, and not just for Elizabeth II.
Markle is 41 years old. She and Harry have sizable overheads, from private security to running a house with 11 bedrooms and 14 bathrooms. They are a long way from earning back their advances from Netflix and Spotify, and there is little indication that they ever will. Meghan’s children’s book, The Bench, was widely ridiculed, and sales figures are curiously hard to come by.
The couple’s attempts to put their finances beyond the taxman and the public gaze have not fully succeeded, either. According to Bower, Meghan was not amused when she learned that the Archewell Foundation will be a British-style charitable entity with its books open to public inspection. The foundation has yet to receive a significant donation. The couple’s only sure source of income, as Bower says, is “trading off the family they have betrayed,” but the price depends on their “originality and celebrity.” The longer they are estranged from the Windsors, the faster their stock of original material shrinks, and the further the tone of their celebrity confessions falls. Like a shark in the water, Meghan must keep moving. “Her singular bold move would be a political career,” Bower concludes, suggesting the California Democrats as the obvious place to start.
In October 2021, Meghan crossed the Rubicon and wrote a public appeal to Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer for the government to fund parental leave for new parents. “I’m not an elected official, and I’m not a politician,” Meghan began, as though politics, celebrity, and media were still separate entities. “I know how politically charged things can — and have — become. But this isn’t about Right or Left, it’s about right or wrong. This is about putting families above politics. And for a refreshing change, it’s something we all seem to agree on.”
A couple of weeks later, it emerged that Meghan was in the habit of cold-calling Republican senators who opposed the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion spending proposals. “Much to my surprise, she called me on my private line, and she introduced herself as the Duchess of Sussex, which is kind of ironic,” said Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. “I couldn’t figure out how she got my number,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia. Again, she leaves them flat-footed.
The question, then, is not whether Meghan Markle will go into politics. She has been there for years, in a new guise whose lines we are only now beginning to recognize. The question is what kind of politician she will become. She and Harry have already taken sides on the free speech issues whose resolution will define democracy in 21st-century America. When “frenzied online trolls” sided with William and Kate, Meghan and Harry responded as Hillary Clinton would have done and convinced themselves they were the victims of “an orchestrated campaign in Russia.”
Harry, saying the quiet part out loud, has said that he considers First Amendment rights to be “bonkers.” The couple has called for restrictions on free speech online, and restrictions on the rights of the press. Earlier this year, they won a defamation case in the London courts against the Mail on Sunday newspaper, which published letters between Meghan and her father, with his permission. “Misinformation is a global humanitarian crisis,” Harry told the court. But there was no misinformation in what the Mail on Sunday published. And a man who sells the rights for photographs of the queen meeting his first-born son to CBS, and wears a microphone on his lapel when he leaves the house so that Netflix will have good-quality audio, is not in a position to lecture anyone on privacy.
Many of Bower’s sources spoke on condition of anonymity. “Indeed, this book was noteworthy for the number of people who asked this,” he notes. A pattern emerges. The friends and associates whom Markle has used and then discarded have nothing more to lose. Their revenge is to allow Bower to say their names. The others, the sources who still have something to lose, work in the media, where everyone knows everyone else, access is all, and a bad smell travels fast. They all withhold their names — with one significant exception: Sam Kashner of Vanity Fair. And he has now jumped back into line with the kind of servile alacrity that used to characterize the bewigged and powdered retainers of the old aristocracy, and that now typifies most American journalists.
In mid-2017, when Meghan was dating Harry but the story had yet to become public, her team secured her media breakthrough. A hint that she was “destined to change the royal family” won her the cover of Vanity Fair’s September issue. Kashner interviewed Markle at her apartment in Toronto, where she was filming Suits. He gave Bower a thorough report of his impressions, all of them negative. Kashner told Bower that he had “felt he was being played” by Markle.
Meghan and her team insisted that she be presented as “a philanthropist and activist.” The problem was Vanity Fair’s “scrupulous researchers” could find “no evidence of Meghan’s global philanthropy and activism.” Nor could they authenticate Meghan’s oft-recited story about how, aged 11, she had written to Procter & Gamble to object to the sexist language in a laundry detergent ad, and that Procter & Gamble had changed “women” to “people.” Nor could they confirm that, as Meghan said, she had written to Hillary Clinton, and that Hillary had written back. Thomas Markle says that he helped Meghan invent these stories. Her claim that she “spent her senior year working at the US embassy in Argentina” turned out to have been “just five weeks” of work experience.
Like the Mail on Sunday, Vanity Fair had published the truth. Yet within days of Revenge’s publication, Kashner rushed forward to apologize. “I found Ms. Markle to be exceptionally warm and gracious, and admired her intelligence and her remarkable courage, as I still do,” Kashner groveled in a letter to the London Times. He accused Bower of misrepresenting him. “That just shows the power of Meghan,” Bower commented, accurately. In elite media, careers depend on access to big names. Kashner’s humiliating reversal shows that Meghan has become a permanent fixture, with the possibility of greater celebrity and more exclusive access to come.
Meghan and Harry’s hostility to free speech, and their suspicion of the public’s judgment, matches that of the Democrats and their partners in the elite media and the NGO complex. If political opinion is hemmed in by woke speech codes, there can be no real debate. If politics are stage-managed by unelected administrators, there can be no real democracy. In such a future, elected politicians become frontmen and -women for a post-democratic system. Meghan Markle is suited to the role. She has the technological wind at her back. If she runs for office, the donations will flood in. Pelosi, Schumer, and the other old-timers will have little choice but to acclaim her.
The current Democratic leadership are the last of the old-school politicians. Octogenarians such as Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and Bernie Sanders can remember when the television at home replaced the movies as a source of news. Even sprightly young Chuck Schumer (71) can probably remember the first time he saw color TV. The rising generation are social media politicians, because the rising generation everywhere is immersed in social media.
Despite their victory over the Mail on Sunday, Meghan and Harry show no sign of suing Bower for defamation in Britain, even though the British papers are vengefully reprinting incendiary excerpts from Revenge. One possibility is that “Cash and Harry” have written off Britain as a lost cause. If so, the feeling is mutual.
Another, more likely, possibility is that “Ginge and Whinge” no longer feel the need to defend themselves in courts of law. They now plead their case in the courts of public opinion, digital circuit. No argument is too implausible in the kingdom of social media. The jury always favors an appeal to self-pity. There is no truth or lies, only the mercury of images and narratives. Desire is the only reality. Precedent, the basis of common law and monarchy, means little here. Meghan’s audacious gamble has paid off.
If Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump could become president of the United States, Arnold Schwarzenegger the governor of California, and Jesse Ventura the governor of Minnesota, then it is eminently possible for Meghan Markle to win high office if she wants to. At moments of desperation and excitement, much of the media have begged Meghan’s new friends Oprah Winfrey, George Clooney, and Michelle Obama to run for the White House.
Walter Bagehot, the Victorian analyst of monarchy in the age of democracy, divided the British crown’s function into “dignified” and “efficient” aspects, the ornamental and the constitutional. In the American system, these are combined in a single office, the presidency. Nixon and Clinton cost the presidency its dignity. Partisanship and the culture war have hamstrung its efficiency. The high offices of the American state are sinking in the public’s estimation. The Romans ended up with gladiators and bodyguards as emperors. They would have looked hot on Instagram, too.
Dominic Green is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society and the Foreign Policy Research Institute. Find him on Twitter @drdominicgreen.