After all that effort and wasted broadband, maybe celebrities are not worth much to a person trying to be president.
A standing joke during the later months of the 2016 presidential campaign was that it was much easier to count Donald Trump’s celebrity supporters (on one hand – Scott Baio, Stephen Baldwin and . . . who else?) than to tally the vast army of Hillary Clinton’s superstar endorsements, from the A-list all the way down. In the hours leading up to Election Day, Clinton made jubilant get-out-the-vote appearances with some of the biggest names in popular culture: Beyoncé, Jay Z, Lady Gaga and Bruce Springsteen, among others.
In the President Barack Obama era, that sort of celebrity firepower has been seen as a crucial part of winning the most voters – and perhaps it still is, seeing as how Clinton did narrowly win the popular vote on Nov. 8 without winning enough states.
For all the people willing to draw a straight line from the president-elect’s years spent hosting NBC’s hit reality show “The Apprentice” and “Celebrity Apprentice” to the White House, the fact remains that Trump’s celebrity status was always an amorphous and complicated beast, more akin to notoriety than celebrity.
In hindsight, celebrity wasn’t the essential component to his appeal with voters; celebrity was meaningless in the face of notoriety. The kind of fame that comes with reality TV is indeed powerful, but it’s negligible for those of us who tend to connect being famous with being cool. That’s why we overlook the ratings for highly rated crime procedurals and dopey sitcoms or the latest sales on bro-country albums.
Some of us develop an expertise in separating plain fame from superstar wattage; over time, it leads to near-blindness. Thus the rush to write about Donald Glover’s “Atlanta” on FX, with nary a word for Kevin James’ “Kevin Can Wait” on CBS, which gets four times the viewer ratings.
What this election suggests is that celebrities – those with the most cachet, from Queen Bey all the way down to the snarky-cool comedians who make endless rounds on talk shows where the hosts are friends of friends – are fun to have around but cannot be relied upon to deliver votes. Their presence, in fact, is cited as a deterrent by those on the right. Their emphatically liberal politics, coated in the rainbow-colored candy shell of diversity, send out only one truly clear signal, and it’s precisely the thing that gets under the skin of all those “mysterious” voters who rose up and took this election’s data experts by surprise.
A raft of celebs at a rally is now just one more example of how the movie, music, fashion and TV industries keep force-feeding an “elitism” to lesser Americans. You can only turn your nose up so much at country music, mixed martial arts and Jeff Dunham puppet shows before your audience gets sick of hearing how “Hamilton” and “Lemonade” are going to permanently alter the culture.
You only had to watch the ever-increasing number of late-night shows this year to recognize that the contours of the fun house had formed an echo chamber, with viewers enthusiastically sharing viral video clips that reinforced their own politics and the politics of their like-minded friends. Stevie Wonder came on CBS’ “Late Show With Stephen Colbert” the night before Election Day to compare the notion of trusting Trump with the presidency to trusting a blind music legend with driving a car.
It was amusing, but it was also an example of just how far and how deeply celebrities had involved themselves in endorsing Clinton. Eight hours before polls opened, what possible difference would it have made to hear Wonder’s political metaphors? What use, in the end, were all those viral video sketches and pantsuit formations and get-out-the-vote harangues from your favorite actors, musicians and comedians? Who decided that to be the cool candidate, you had to submit to the bizarre ritual of being interviewed by Zach Galifianakis on one of his “Between Two Ferns” videos? If someone is making a montage of awkward missteps and miscalculations by the Clinton campaign, be sure to include the footage of Mary J. Blige ridiculously serenading Clinton during a face-to-face meeting.
After the election, of course, it’s easy to see that Hollywood was breathing in its own fumes of hubris. Going back as far as Frank Sinatra singing “High Hopes” for John F. Kennedy’s campaign and continuing with Hollywood’s embrace of antiwar and countercultural activism in the late 1960s, celebrity buy-in became a part of the political experience. You only have to look at coverage of the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner over the past two decades to see the glitzy evidence of how Washington and Hollywood forge mutually beneficial uses of publicity.
This paved the way for another fairly recent phenomenon: relying on celebrities and performers to affirm one’s own political beliefs. Looking for the answers to misogyny in a sketch (or two or three) from “Inside Amy Schumer” and then sharing with friends who reaffirm it with likes. Looking to have a depressingly corrupt world explained on “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” and then, once shared enough, considering the problem licked. Looking for the answers to race relations in music videos or the demographics of the “Saturday Night Live” cast. Looking for validation by counting the number of TV characters who look like you and share your opinions. And, finally, believing that all of this will somehow coalesce into an undefeatable party of the woke and beautiful, voters who sing along to the hit lyrics and already know the dance moves and have agreed to be part of the flash mob.
When polls and primaries challenged their notion of this nirvana-like existence, as Trump grew more successful in his campaign, celebrities started talking about moving to another country. This has become a standard feature of petulant, star-struck politics. Celebrities, as we all know, aren’t much fun to be around when they are displeased, and the list of those who’ve joked, with varying degrees of seriousness, about leaving the United States in the event of a Trump presidency includes Lena Dunham, Cher, Samuel L. Jackson, Chelsea Handler, Miley Cyrus, Ne-Yo, Barbra Streisand and Bryan Cranston – to name a few. They never quite get around to delivering on the ultimatum. Maybe some celebrities with the means to travel are already gone.
What is gone – along with polling science, punditry and the general idea that anyone can get an accurate read on the whole of this hurt nation – is the idea that one must be surrounded by celebrities to become the most important American alive. The only fame a president truly ever needs is his (or her) own.