Celebrity politics is back in the news with Kanye West’s support for President Trump and Taylor Swift’s endorsement of the Democratic ticket. Endless numbers of stars are aligning themselves for or against the man in the White House. But in the aftermath of Trump’s election, many thought we would face a wave of celebrity candidates.
Cynthia Nixon’s defeat in the Democratic primary for governor of New York was taken as a sign of the failure of white progressives to expand their following (Nixon fared poorly in New York’s minority neighborhoods), the continued importance of TV ads (Andrew Cuomo saturated the airwaves), and the relative strength of the Democratic Party establishment. But she also received much criticism for her lack of political experience.
Celebrity candidacies have been a sporadic thing. There probably have been more since the rise of electronic media and spectator sports, but otherwise, there is no pattern that I can see. Astronauts (most notably John Glenn) aroused public enthusiasm in the decade or two after the peak of interest in the space program. Bill Bradley, Jack Kemp, Steve Largent, and Jim Bunning are among the most famous athletes, but there have been any number of onetime Olympians and college stars who won office, often long after the peak of their fame. Donald Trump, Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Al Franken are probably the best-known entertainers, but plenty of pop stars and sitcom actors have entered public life.
Those celebrities who lost or only toyed with a run aren’t as remembered: Country singer Roy Acuff ran for governor of Tennessee, baseball Hall of Famer Walter Johnson ran for the House of Representatives, and even Orson Welles considered running for the Senate in his home state of Wisconsin. (The fact that all three bids occurred in the 1940s shows that celebrity candidacies are not new).
Most entertainers who enter politics seem eager to show that they are “more than a pretty face.” Reagan and Franken were probably more famous as political commentators than as entertainers by the time they ran. Bradley and Kemp cultivated reputations as “thinking man’s politicians.” Schwarzenegger spent years learning California issues. But Trump showed that a celebrity could gain the highest office in the land without knowing much about issues or showing any respect for the political process.
His celebrity status clearly helped his presidential campaign, particularly in the Republican nomination season — he enjoyed vastly more media attention than his rivals and began with enviable name recognition (if not favorability). Given Trump’s success in breaking all the rules of American politics, many thought we would see a flood of celebrities into politics.
But we have not seen such a wave. Besides Nixon, the only celebrity to run for a prominent public office as a major-party nominee this year has been Antonio Sabato Jr., the soap opera actor who spoke at the 2016 Republican National Convention and is making a no-hope run for the US House of Representatives in California’s 26th District. (By contrast, social media, web video, and small-donor fundraising has created a new breed of political celebrity who becomes famous before even winning office, such as Beto O’Rourke and Amy McGrath).
Nixon is probably better informed than the average celebrity seeking office. She has been a leading activist on education policy in New York City. Her endorsement of Bill de Blasio for mayor in 2013 was taken seriously, in part because she was a queer woman opposing the candidacy of Christine Quinn, who would have been the first female and the first openly gay mayor of New York City. But her campaign arguably underachieved, in part because many didn’t take her seriously precisely due to her background as a celebrity.
Perhaps celebrities see running for mayor or governor or Congress as a step down. Trump, after all, showed that it was possible to go straight from The Apprentice to the White House. But so far, the Democratic potential field for 2020 looks huge but conventional: a former vice president, senators, governors, perhaps some big-city mayors. Mark Zuckerberg seems to have lost interest. Stormy Daniels lawyer Michael Avenatti and former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz don’t count as celebrities, since you actually have to be famous first. (Avenatti more closely resembles the “celebrities” that populate the conservative-political-entertainment complex than someone of the fame of a Trump or a Schwarzenegger.)
The Oprah-for-president boom had a surface plausibility. She is one of the most famous people in America and has some record of political engagement. Her fan base tilts toward African Americans and older women — not a bad combination for Democratic primaries. But for whatever reason, this speculation balloon deflated quickly, and Winfrey has done nothing that indicates interest. (I am sure Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum would appreciate an Oprah-led get-out-the-vote rally in Miami, but none seems to be forthcoming.)
It is also possible that another celebrity will come forward over the next year; Trump, while someone who had long talked loosely about pursuing the White House someday, did not start behaving like a presidential candidate until 2015..
Why hasn’t a boom in celebrity candidates emerged? Maybe Trump’s rocky time in the White House has discouraged other celebrities. Perhaps the barriers to celebrity candidacies remain too high. Running for office is a lot of work, after all. Given that the Democrats are the out-party and facing a favorable political environment, one would think it would be the party that would attract celebrity candidates right now.
But there are obstacles in the Democratic Party. Democrats are seeing a wave of first-name candidates, but many of them have experience in government or public policy, if not in elected office. As a party, Democrats appear to value policy detail more than do Republicans. So Alyssa Milano and Robert De Niro are so far contenting themselves with becoming resistance icons rather than seeking public office.
Trump may actually be making celebrity candidacies less likely. Presidents (and other political elites) can give “cues” to voters — signals as to what a good Democrat or Republican or American should believe. Trump has been a potent negative cue-giver to Democratic voters, pushing them away from positions that he has taken. Perhaps he has persuaded Democrats that they need value political experience more. Nixon herself had to fend off charges that she was similar to Trump. And perhaps Trump’s rocky road as president may have persuaded other celebrities that political life is not easy as it looks.
On the whole, I am pleased that Trump has not led to a flood of celebrities into public life. Some of the celebrities who have run for office have performed well, but it is good that voters and party actors seem to value policy knowledge and political experience. And if Trump’s struggles in the White House are making celebrities think twice before jumping into the political fray, our public life is probably better off.