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When Celebrities Get Political

Celebrity political activity has been quite common for a long time. But with an atypical entertainer in the White House, we're seeing something different today.
Host Jimmy Kimmel speaks onstage at Los Angeles LGBT Center's 48th Anniversary Gala Vanguard Awards at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on September 23rd, 2017, in Beverly Hills, California.

Host Jimmy Kimmel speaks onstage at Los Angeles LGBT Center's 48th Anniversary Gala Vanguard Awards at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on September 23rd, 2017, in Beverly Hills, California.

The past week has seen more than its usual share of political activism by celebrities. Jimmy Kimmel may have played a key role in undermining the latest attempt by Senate Republicans to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Morgan Freeman is trying to raise concerns about Russian interference into the 2016 presidential election. Donald Trump attacked Colin Kaepernick Friday night, only to get pushback from Steph Curry (who then got disinvited from a White House visit) and LeBron James, which escalated into a full-scale war over the weekend between Trump and that bastion of liberalism known as the National Football League.

None of this is occurring out of the blue, of course. Trump himself has publicly courted support from conservative celebrities like Ted Nugent and Scott Baio, and the communications director of the White House Office of Public Liaison is Omarosa Manigault, a person whose primary experience has been appearances on Trump's show The Apprentice. We shouldn't overlook that Trump himself is, in many ways, the ultimate celebrity politician. His main career over the past several decades has really been the maintenance of his own name as a brand; he's famous for being famous, and jumped into the presidency without developing any real skills or experience as a politician.

Are we witnessing something new here? Is this the dawn of the era of the celebrity?

In many ways, no. American political history is shot through with celebrity culture and has been so for a very long time. The concept of celebrity was obviously a bit different prior to the development of recorded media and mass entertainment. Military heroes like George Washington, Daniel Boone, and Davy Crockett traded on their fame for political influence in the nation's first century, but arguably military experience is more directly applicable to national politics than acting and singing.

The 20th century saw a great deal of political activism by celebrities. Below is a favorite clip of mine: actor Gary Cooper, testifying as a friendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 in opposition to communism. He admits he knows little about the subject but thinks it's just not "on the level."

Frank Sinatra performed a campaign song for John F. Kennedy in 1960, just as Rosemary Clooney had done for Adlai Stevenson in 1952. Many entertainers would speak out against the Vietnam War in the late 1960s. Shirley MacLaine was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1972. Richard Nixon openly embraced Elvis Presley and, as my colleague Nancy Wadsworth reminds me, Merle Haggard in an attempt to draw rural white support for his Republican policies. (As California's governor, Ronald Reagan did the same thing when he issued a pardon for Haggard in 1972.)

George H.W. Bush famously tapped Arnold Schwarzenegger to chair the president's Physical Fitness Council, and Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992 with the overt support of Barbra Streisand, Fleetwood Mac, and many other performers. Bono befriended George W. Bush during his lengthy efforts to fight HIV and AIDS. Will.I.Am performed a famous campaign song for Barack Obama's 2008 campaign. In the summer of 1990, I interned for the U.S. House Select Committee on Aging, and we brought in Burt Lancaster, then enjoying some late-career fame in the wake of Field of Dreams (1989), to testify about Social Security. (He was very charming.)

I could obviously go on. The point is that celebrity political activity, with the encouragement and sometimes overt coordination of politicians, campaigns, and parties, has been quite common for a long time.

Frank Sinatra with former U.S. President John F. Kennedy.

Frank Sinatra with former U.S. President John F. Kennedy.

Moreover, there's nothing inherently bad about it. Politics is impoverished in many ways when only credentialed people are allowed to participate in it. Yes, we might get a somewhat more substantive take on national politics if Nancy Pelosi and Paul Ryan co-hosted a variety show every weeknight on a major network, but no one would watch it. (OK, I might.) Entertainers have the advantage of being interesting and enjoyable for people to watch, and if they can work some actual useful information into their routines, we may be the better off for it.

In some ways, Kimmel's recent foray into health-care politics was about as good as this sort of thing gets. He was discussing (and, by his own admission, politicizing) his infant son's recent heart surgery, sympathizing with those who do not have his access to health insurance, and getting the facts right on the Graham-Cassidy health-care bill. Obviously not all celebrities approach complex policy matters as deftly or relatably.

What is somewhat different today than in previous examples is Trump himself. He's hardly the first celebrity to run for office, but he did so in an atypical manner. Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger, both substantial box office draws before moving into politics, made the transition gradually. Reagan spent years on the lecture circuit honing a vision of modern American conservatism. Schwarzenegger worked on a variety of statewide initiatives and other campaigns. They acknowledged that entertainment and politics were two separate fields, seeking to use successes in the former to help them enter the latter.

Trump had no such, well, apprenticeship. He ran for office essentially saying that he would make Washington work the way he had made other business ventures work, through bullying and cajoling people into deals and keeping people amused. This particular celebrity has shown much less success thus far in either accruing many political accomplishments or getting people to like him. He has demonstrated no more knowledge of policy or deeper understanding of the political system and its norms than he did when he first announced his candidacy for president over two years ago.

Celebrities who dabble in politics usually either become more knowledgeable about the subject over time or just withdraw from it. Trump, ever the trailblazer, is pursuing a different path, remaining simultaneously ignorant and deeply involved.