To win this year’s presidential election, Donald Trump didn’t need to get much support from celebrities — he was the celebrity himself.
Celebrity appears to have become more central in recent presidential contests, with Trump taking the cult of personality to new heights. His personal appeal, and favorable timing for his brand of bluster, was enough to trounce an entire field of candidates that the GOP considered among its strongest in recent history.
Olivier Driessens, a lecturer in the sociology of media and culture at the University of Cambridge, said in an email that celebrity has been an important aspect of the presidency from the very beginning.
“George Washington, for example, was famous as the leader of the Continental Army in the American Revolution,” he said. “The desire to be seen or photographed together with entertainment celebrities has always been important for presidents and presidential candidates.”
Driessens said that Trump has some commonalities with former President Ronald Reagan, who was also a celebrity before setting foot in the political world, and who managed to turn one kind of fame into another. Action movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger was another who was able to turn big screen fame into unexpected political victory as governor of California.
Even President Barack Obama, whose campaigns and presidency have been the major media events of the moment, and whom Republicans have mocked as more celebrity than statesman, reflected a more traditional relationship between politician and the media. Obama tweeted, but the tweets were clearly the work of a disciplined messaging team. Attention focused on him, but his policies were the Democratic Party’s policies, and they stayed consistent. High-profile associations with some of the biggest celebrities in the world, such as Oprah Winfrey, were hallmarks of his campaigns.
And though a John McCain ad diminished Obama as a “celeb” in 2008, the Arizona Republican chose soon-to-be reality TV star Sarah Palin as his running mate.
Obama’s star power and hopeful message overshadowed his limited government experience, and helped him win out over more experienced rivals such as Hillary Clinton and McCain in 2008, but Trump took the lack of experience to an entirely new level.
Driessens said Trump’s positioning as an anti-establishment outsider, “depicting religious and/or ethnic groups as enemies and threats to American’ values” established him as part of the lineage of strongmen and fascist governments of the last century. His supporters were drawn to his personality and attitude, more so than a set of policies, and he offered up himself and nationalist slogans such as “Make America Great Again” as a substitute for detailed positions.
Trump makes news constantly by tweeting a startling statement, accusation, or new position, and he used his Twitter prowess to wrangle a huge amount of coverage from a press that was dismissive of him at first, and downright hostile later. But media outlets saw ratings gold for the same reason that NBC greenlighted “The Celebrity Apprentice.” In comparison to Clinton, who broke out Beyonce for a concert in the home stretch, Trump received a small number of low-profile celebrity endorsements, and he didn’t feel the need to share the stage with too many of them.
Driessens said there’s also something particular about Trump’s type of celebrity, the fact that his wealth is seen “as something he worked for, which resonates well with the American dream and the neoliberal idea that one is responsible for his/her own success or failure.” Especially in his most famous role as host of the “Apprentice” franchise, Trump has “been present as a leader, as the one who decides on success or failure, in many American households” for years, Driessens said.
Clinton’s team tried to take an approach closer to Obama’s, with some attempts to sell her as a beloved cultural figure at the same time that they emphasized her appeal as a skilled technocrat who could make sober policy decisions.
Many celebrities wanted Clinton to be the next president, and they really didn’t like Trump. But despite — or perhaps, because of — a video in which self-described “lots and lots of famous people” talked about the importance of keeping him out of office, Trump still won.
Actor Mark Wahlberg told Task & Purpose, a veteran-oriented publication, that celebrities should stop talking about politics.
“You know, it just goes to show you that people aren’t listening to that anyway,” he said after the election. “They might buy your CD or watch your movie, but you don’t put food on their table.”
After an election where anti-elitism was the byword, but a billionaire won on an anti-elite message and immediately started appointing wealthy people to his Cabinet, it’s hard to say whether a celebrity endorsement helps or hurts anymore.
Trump and Clinton went into the election as among the most well-known presidential candidates in the world to date. Both have been prominent media fixtures and household names for at least the last 25 years.
But Trump’s unique cult of personality was enough to secure his victory over the candidate that even some elite Republicans felt was the better choice for the presidency.
Though it looks like the future of politics may be all about celebrities, Driessens offers some encouragement in the form of the U.K.’s opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who’s defined himself more by his strident progressive policies than his personality. “We could even call him an anti-celebrity who explicitly says he does not want to practice personality-driven or individualized politics,” Driessens said. “And yet he easily won the leadership contests for the Labour Party.”
“Whether that will translate into national success is yet to be seen, but it demonstrates that there is not one route to power,” he said.