Americans love celebrities. Americans hate politicians.
Those sentiments gave us Donald Trump, fresh from the set of The Apprentice, and proudly unschooled in the art of politics. The sheer entertainment factor of his presidency has everyone on the edge of their seats waiting for the next episode.
He’s opened the door to other celebrities with an urge for elective office. Kid Rock is toying with a Senate bid in Michigan. Cynthia Nixon of Sex in the City fame is floating a possible challenge to New York Governor Cuomo in next year’s Democratic primary. And Michael Moore from his perch on Broadway with a new show says Democrats should nominate Tom Hanks for president in 2020.
“It’s not crazy to detect a rising trend of celebrity as a credential for entering politics at a very high level,” says Bill Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, “but it’s not a sufficient codicil for political success, or even a necessary codicil.”
It’s also a mistake to see Trump simply as a celebrity, says Galston. Celebrity was the platform on which he built his campaign, but he ran on trade, immigration, and an America First foreign policy. “He didn’t say ‘vote for me, I’m a celebrity;’ he said ‘vote for me, I happen to be a celebrity with ideas and feelings that match your own. Not a bad idea to have me on your side.’”
Celebrity has always been a big advantage in terms of name recognition, though—at least until recently—candidates needed a certain degree of credibility. Ronald Reagan was president of a union, the Screen Actors Guild. Arnold Schwarzenegger chaired the President’s Council on Physical Fitness. Even Trump could claim he’s run an international business.
“For someone like Kid Rock, this is the new generation,” says Jack Pitney, professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College. “You’re inviting voters to express an attitude rather than choose a qualified public servant.”
Kid Rock’s Senate page says he’s “beyond overwhelmed” with response from community leaders, D.C. pundits, and blue collar folks “tired of the extreme left and right bullshit.” He says he’ll hold a press conference in the next six weeks or so, and that if he decides to throw his hat in the ring for the Senate next year, “believe me… it will be game on mthrfkers.”
The McCain campaign in 2008—a long ago, perhaps simpler time—tried to get its game on by attacking Barack Obama as a celebrity candidate with an ad that cut between Obama before a huge crowd in Berlin and shots of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton as a female narrator confides, “He’s the biggest celebrity in the world, but is he ready to lead?”
Obama strategist David Axelrod recalled the strategy behind the ad “as a kind of jujitsu to try and turn the outsized interest and energy he was attracting against him.”
That failed, Axelrod said in an email, not only because Obama was a serious person who had thought deeply about the issues and “sealed the deal” with his performance in the first debate, but, also because “McCain’s nomination of Sarah Palin really robbed him of his standing to launch the undeserving novice argument against Obama.”
The ad did strike a nerve, just not the one McCain wanted. Hilton, the hotel heiress whose parents helped bankroll McCain, had a clever comeback. “Hey, America, I’m Paris Hilton and I’m a celebrity too,” she said in her own spoof ad posted days later. “Only I am not from the olden days and I am not promising change like that other guy. I am just hot.
“But then that wrinkly, white-haired guy used me in his campaign ad. Which I guess means I am running for president—so thanks for the endorsement, white-haired dude. And I want America to know that I am, like, totally ready to lead.”
The idea of a wrinkly, white-haired guy from outside of Washington running the country is nothing new, with voters and pundits talking for decades about having a CEO as commander in chief. Ross Perot had a good run in 1992 with his charts, infomercials, and warnings of a giant, sucking sound if NAFTA became law. Three-term New York City Mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg encouraged endless talk of a run of his own, before deciding in each of the last three elections that there was no way for him to win a campaign.
Lee Iacocoa, the president of Ford and then-chairman of Chrysler, had a familiar-sounding rant in his 2007 book, Where Have all the Leaders Gone?:
“Am I the only guy in this country who’s fed up with what’s happening? Where the hell is our outrage? We should be screaming bloody murder. We’ve got a gang of clueless bozos steering our ship of state over a cliff, we’ve got corporate gangsters stealing us blind, and we can’t even clean up after a hurricane much less build a hybrid car. But instead of getting mad, everyone sits around and nods their heads when the politicians say, ‘Stay the course.’ Stay the course? You’ve got to be kidding. This is America, not the damned Titanic. I’ll give you a sound bite: Throw the bums out!”
Now, the bums have been thrown out, the bar for a president lowered, and it’s not going well at all so far for President Trump.
Going forward, “he will raise the bar,” says Bob Shrum, a veteran consultant of Democratic presidential campaigns. “Our experience with Trump means that if a celebrity runs, they better instill confidence that they’re competent, responsible, know what they’re talking about and won’t embarrass us.”
Shrum added that, “Business people get a little bit of a pass on what they can do, and he might change that too.”
Axelrod agrees, writing in an email: “Certainly, celebrity is valuable in an environment in which it’s hard to break through and traditional politicians are held in such low esteem. Trump proved that with his march to the White House [as] the best known and least experienced person to run and win. But Trump’s ascent, and subsequent problems, may well make celebrity candidacies harder for the foreseeable future, if people come to value experience more.”
Fixating on any single credential as the magic formula can backfire. John Kerry stood before the Democratic Convention in 2004 to accept the nomination and said, “Reporting for Duty.” He wagered that his distinguished service in Vietnam would help him vanquish an incumbent president. Instead, his war record was turned against him, and the veterans he wanted to win over pilloried him for turning against that war.
Kerry learned then as Trump is discovering today that when you lean hard on something, it better be really strong. You can’t just bring up a piece of your history, not with Special Counsel Mueller rifling through financial records of real estate deals never meant to see the light of day.
It’s too soon to know how this turns out for Trump, but it’s already clear that running the country is not the same as running a business or basking in the celebrity of a reality TV show.