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Monday, March 27, 2023

How Hollywood Accidentally Created the Celebrity Politician

Last week, a commercial made by the producers of My So-Called Life and Thelma and Louise, the author of the Orphan X thriller series, and a left-leaning PAC went modestly viral. The commercial, “Built Not Bought,” is a highly polished, beautifully scored, Americana festooned four minute short film. By crafting an optimistic, pro-business-yet-anti-corruption message, the video aims to be a new mission statement for the branding-challenged Democratic Party. It features a diverse cast of factory workers, and a down-home rhetorical style and message best summed up by its opening line: “We stand for the working men and women. Always have, always will.”

It is, in short, exactly what you’d expect to get when you add Hollywood cinematic glamor to the political campaign ad. “After the 2016 election, my colleagues kept saying the same thing over and over,” says Mark Riddle, CEO of Future Majority, a PAC Riddle founded to support centrist Democratic politics. “‘We have a lot of very talented people in our party, the best storytellers in the world, and we don’t make good use of them. Why would you not be using those talents?’”

Fair question. But then again, Hollywood’s relationship with American politics has always been fraught. Though these days Hollywood is most often linked to Democrats, for the last 90 years both parties have made frequent use of LA’s glamor factory—often disparaging the other’s strategies as elitist and out of touch, then copying them immediately. By inserting itself into politics, Hollywood may think that it was doing something at worst benign and at best patriotic. But by giving choice candidates a broader, more attention seeking tool-set, in reality what they did was prime American audiences for a new kind of political voice—one that prioritizing grabbing and holding attention over anything else.

Hollywood may now be a bastion of liberalism, but it wasn’t always that way. In 1928, Louis B. Mayer, the cofounder of Metro-Goldwin-Mayer, “turned MGM into the publicity wing of the Republican party,” says Steven Ross, author of Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics. (Mayer also got to spend a night in the Lincoln bedroom as a thank you for helping elect Herbert Hoover.) Hollywood didn’t make as strong a showing for progressive politics until the mid-‘30s and ‘40s—when movie stars like Orson Welles, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart worked to promote Franklin Roosevelt’s candidacy and social issues like ending segregation.

Both parties have been vying to capture Hollywood’s glitz ever since—but with very different strategies, in part because of the Red Scare. In the late 1940s, many of the actors investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee were advocating for Democrats. Creating close ties with individual celebrities backfired. Rather than acquiring glamor, political candidates acquired a whiff of communism at the worst possible moment. “That really shaped the way the Democratic party thought about Hollywood,” says Kathryn Cramer Brownell, author of Showbiz Politics: Hollywood in American Political Life. “They got really nervous and moved towards looking to Hollywood primarily for fundraising instead.” In addition to campaign contributions, Hollywood liberals from Harry Bellafonte to Jane Fonda began backing movements more than they did candidates.

Republicans took the opposite tack. Though publicly, party leaders criticized Democrats for glamorizing politics with show business, internal memos reveal that, secretly, some conservatives wanted to resurrect the chummy relationships of FDR’s presidency. In the 1950s, President Eisenhower gave actor Robert Montgomery an office in the White House so he could coach the president on how to be more photogenic and media-friendly. Instead of giving politicians’ celebrity-style poise, the strategy snowballed until politicians began casting themselves as actual entertainers. Figures like Nixon (as advised by Roger Ailes) began to credit their campaign successes celebritizing stunts like Nixon appearing on Laugh In. Eventually, Republicans started recruiting entertainers to run for office themselves—beginning in the 1950s, but accelerating over the next two decades.

Enter Ronald Reagan, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and President Trump. Despite the perception of liberal Hollywood’s political power, liberal Hollywood has actually produced vanishingly few political candidates—Al Franken and Cynthia Nixon being notable exceptions. Most ultra-successful Democrats like Presidents Obama and Clinton are politicians-first, and managed to celebritize and glamorize themselves with the help of Hollywood money and counsel.

But hang on—aren’t conservatives supposed to identify more with heartland fly-over states more than frivolous Hollywood? “Few voters, Democrat or Republican, are persuaded on who to vote for by an endorsement from a Hollywood star or group,” says Don Critchlow, an American political historian at Arizona State University. “As evidenced by many polls, they don’t see Hollywood as saviors of the Republic or protectors of working Americans.” Riddle noted that this dynamic is one of the reasons he’s sometimes hesitant to publicize Future Majority’s Hollywood collaborators.

So why do political operators, past and present, think buddying up with Hollywood is the way to go?

Because, in some ways, it works. Celebrity endorsements and appearances only go so far: “Voters aren’t idiots,” says Ross. “Oprah endorsing Obama didn’t get him elected. Celebrity endorsements just make people more likely to take a closer look at a candidate.” According to Brownell, the key benefit of working with Hollywood is celebrities’ ability to generate excitement for a person or issue. Think: Chance the Rapper leading Chicago voters to the polls, Beyoncé endorsing feminism to generate more mainstream acceptance, or President Trump tweeting about winning or witchhunts to rile up (and distract) his audience.

But in other ways, all that matters is that the people running campaigns believe their showbiz politics is working. “What politicians believe makes a successful campaign can really impact how the campaigns that come after it are run,” Brownell says. “Trump and Cynthia Nixon are both products of ideas like Richard Nixon’s—that political authority is firmly rooted in being able to get media attention.” Trump’s qualifications, as he often says himself, are that he’s able to get good ratings. The same idea powers some progressive’s longing for President Oprah Winfrey or President Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

The polish of projects like “Built not Bought” are good uses of Hollywood’s undeniable storytelling skills. But it’s important that Hollywood and average citizens alike be aware of movie magic’s role in fueling Trump-style politics. LA glitz and glam does capture attention, but ultimately, it’s a marketing technique with serious, country-shaping consequences.

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