Donald J. Trump represented a welcome breath of fresh air for the world as one of the first celebrity political candidates in modern history. His celebrity was complimented by a storied business career, but also a career that established political legitimacy through his policy advocacy work, donor-ism, and outspoken social media accounts. Trump often made the rounds of talk-shows, both political and variety, and he also frequently attended celebrity events, often as a high-profile “star,” invited by the event organizers.
More and more celebrity candidates are now declaring their run for office as Republicans. For example, JD Vance is currently evaluating a U.S. Senate bid in Ohio and Caitlyn Jenner is running as a pro-LGBTQ Republican for Governor of California against “Gabardine” Gavin Newsom. These exciting new candidates should beg the questions: how does ‘celebrity-ism’ square with the Republican agenda? What do celebrity candidates bring to the table that more traditional candidates cannot? Are they worth our Republican votes?
Celebrity And The Republican Agenda
There is no question that Donald J. Trump made politics significantly more accessible because of his very celebrity. However, Trump was an outlier celebrity in that he had a storied history of policy advocacy and is a political genius in his own right. Nevertheless, many felt that Donald J. Trump spoke to the American general public like never before because that same general public had spent their lifetimes reading his books, seeing his celebrity or ‘guest’ appearances, and watching his numerous cameos or appearances on TV and film, of course most notably his work on ‘The Celebrity Apprentice.’ Mr. Trump embraced celebrity and even reality TV as a visionary pioneer in this field. Subsequently, he used his celebrity to offer a populist conservative agenda that celebrated and improved the lives of the American worker in a more nuanced and careful manner than many Republican politicians before him.
Of both of the major political platforms, ‘celebrity-ism’ most costly aligns with populist conservatism. For example, JD Vance’s story about growing up in abject poverty in rural Appalachia has lent itself positively to the big screen and the autobiographical version of his story became a longstanding New York Times best-seller. It seems that JD Vance not only overcame his own personal shyness to share his populist roots and background with the world, but that openness became celebrated in the Republican Party as support for his candidacy for higher office grows steadily.
Caitlyn Jenner likely had the most successful celebrity career as the star of KUWTK, which has gone onto multiple spin-off series, broadcast syndication, and numerous product spinouts. Caitlyn’s step-daughter, Kim Kardashian, and her then-husband Kanye West, successfully partnered with the Trump Administration to enact criminal justice reform policies in one of the Trump Administration’s largest bi-partisan policy initiatives to date.
It seems that celebrity political candidates are not only capable of running and winning, but they tend to adhere to the conservative movement’s support of the American worker. This would make sense as celebrities are likely more attuned with the needs, wants, and dreams of the American worker given that these men and women form their fan-base. Aspects of the political campaigning process likely also come natural to celebrities such as media relations and demographic analysis and the constant spotlight that higher office demands.
Surprisingly, we have not seen celebrity candidates begin to take on Corporate Hollywood from the right, which is notably a liberal bastion with questionable ethics (Weinstein) and a monopolistic business environment similar to big tech and social media. It remains to be seen if the push by celebrities into politics manifests itself in a reform movement of media and entertainment, much like is underway against big tech, led by courageous Senators such as Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Josh Hawley.
Celebrities And The Institution
An interesting debate has emerged with respect to celebrity’s impact on the prestigious institutions of governance. When Donald J. Trump won the Republican primary, many Bush-era Republicans felt that his public history, much of what would be captured due to his celebrity, his very public marriages, for example, would somehow taint or mar the institutions of Government. In Trump’s case, his last contribution has proved these critics wrong as he received more votes than any Republican in American history in the ’20 general election. Also notable, Trump’s celebrity likely drove historic voter turnout in each of his elections, which as many voting and democracy advocates would echo, was a stunning achievement in terms of voter participation.
Critics held, and many critics still hold this, that Trump’s celebrity somehow threatens the institution of Government because much of his past has been lived in the public eye. For example, his ‘hot mic,’ likely leaked by the Bush Family in the ’20 general, was decried as unpresidential or unbecoming of a Presidential figure. To much of the general public heretofore, the President was to be viewed as stodgy, stuffy, or stiff, never wanting to bring dazzle or exuberance to the office. In many ways Trump’s historic Presidency offered a welcome alternative to this type of politician because he stood by his past remarks without shame or apology. We all engage in ‘locker room’ talk, whether guy or girl, black or white, we have all said and done things that we regret or would likely have ‘couched’ if given the opportunity to revise our statement. In Trump’s case, and unlike most of the American general public, his comments were recorded as a private citizen, while our comments are not recorded.
This fact of life is changing, however, with the onset of social media. One additional consideration when it comes to ‘celebrity-ism’ is the idea that we should have freedom to be ourselves on social media without retribution or reprisal from those who do not share our political views, or even our worldviews about unique topics across society. The Bush-era Republican argues for “civility,” with politicians such as former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge making this case publicly as he infamously supported Biden’s Presidential campaign in ’20. Ridge argues that “civility” is required in a world increasingly ‘online’ or in a world where much of the American general public’s opinions are recorded indefinitely across their social media accounts.
I would argue against Tom Ridge, and that the celebrity politician who acts honestly, transparently, and openly under the public spotlight, actually provides a much needed relief and release to the American general public who feels like they are under the constant threat of digital tyranny, not able to speak their minds on social media without getting demoted from their jobs or getting attacked by the liberal ‘mob.’ In this environment, individuals like Tom Ridge and arguments for “civility” from the Bush-era Republican are simply outdated and ill-defined for the great challenge of the silent digital tyranny that threatens our freedom of speech daily.
As Trump demonstrates, one can still be a great politician having lived their life in the public eye, even if that life was recorded in every aspect, even a toss-aside comment to a buddy. Trump once again proved ahead of his time.
The last point of consideration, with respect to the celebrity politician, is in how social media engagement or, more generally, ‘media impressions’ contribute to the prestige and legacy of our hallowed Governmental institutions. In the ‘old’ media environment, media was easily managed by the establishment press, local and national newspapers, journals, or magazines primarily. Now these outlets are declining in readership and popularity, replaced by the citizen journalist or opinionists’ social media account. In this environment, the reservedness so often displayed by politicians simply does not generate enough impressions. Adding a little dazzle, intensity, or fire to one’s ‘tweets’ offers the general public more personality, more identifiability with the extraordinary responsibility of Government.
In today’s media landscape, a lack of impressions generated by politicians on social media may have a lasting impact that actually diminishes the prestige of the institution. For example, if a United Senators, which is typically the case with many, fail to even get a few thousand engagements on their posts, then they are being ‘drown-out’ by users who are posting junk or substance-less content and information. This ruins the prestige of our Governmental institutions by de facto, since politicians can no longer leverage ready-made impressions through traditional press outlets, but must earn those impressions through fun, witty, engaging, or intense social media posting.
I argue that in today’s world, we should not discount the celebrity politician or policymaker simply because they may appear to have more ‘dirt’ on them given that their life has been lived in the public eye. These politicians may be bolstering the prestige of our public institutions by offering these institutions more impressions and user engagement on social media channels, which would be a welcome development for Government. This aspect of President Trump’s legacy will likely be remembered as one of the most favorable components despite the longstanding argument from Bush-era Republicans that Trump was damaging public institutions.
William E. Scholz is a conservative from Pennsylvania. His first book, published at the height of pandemic bail-outs, argues for a renovation to the world financial order, and is currently available via his publishing company Dignified Publishing. You can follow him on Twitter @wstweetsnews.