One of the big reasons for Donald Trump’s boomlet as a Republican presidential candidate – he’s actually in the lead at the moment, according to at least one poll – is that he is a celebrity, and conservative voters tend to swoon over celebrities who join their team.
That’s not necessarily a knock on either Trump or his supporters. The latter are not foolish or irrational to value the power of celebrity in this deeply unserious age. They’ve seen how much the Left gains by pushing its ideas with star power, especially to young people. It’s an open question whether Democrats could win any significant number of national elections without near-monolithic control of the media, by which I mean both news and entertainment.
We’ve had many recent demonstrations of Andrew Breitbart’s famous dictum that “politics is downstream from culture.” Because so much of the electorate is unserious and ill-informed about major issues – and, frankly, the growth of the State has made some of those issues so complex that hard-working people don’t have the time or energy to fully explore them – cultural influence has become indispensable for political success. Those 2012 exit polls showing Mitt Romney trouncing Barack Obama on every serious issue – and vindicated further, to a darkly comical degree, by subsequent events – but losing everything on the soft “likability” and “identification” questions are an expression of cultural power over politics.
It erases no other strength or weakness of Trump to say that he enters the race as a celebrity, at an early moment when name recognition matters more than almost anything else. For better or worse (okay, make that better and worse) Jeb Bush has a touch of star power due to his last name. None of the other major candidates has anything like it, because Republicans can’t turn politicians into mass-media celebrities the way Democrats can. The machinery simply does not exist.
The bias of news media remains agonizingly obvious – especially in a race where a sizable portion of the press either socially interacts with, or actually used to work for, the Clinton syndicate. As any observer of the media has already noticed, Clinton is granted automatic sympathy by Big Media, treated as a huge star with marvelous personal qualities and certified good intentions, while even the most accomplished and cheerful Republican is treated like an adversary. Clinton’s fame is taken as a given, and if Joe Biden enters the race, his will be too. Every Republican is invariably treated as less of a star than the “reporter” interviewing him, or her. That’s one reason the press savaged Sarah Palin in 2008 when she couldn’t rattle off a list of Big Media publications she enjoyed reading.
The bias of entertainment media is perhaps even more profound. There is no corresponding legion of right-leaning zillionaire Hollywood stars and pop singers ready to gush over a Republican and give them instant pop-culture credibility by association.
The vast sea of center-right people living in flyover country is mournfully aware of how popular culture is stacked against themselves, and their ideals. It is natural to like and admire celebrities, especially when they make their fortunes portraying likable and admirable characters, or performing music that speaks for what many people feel in their hearts. It hurts to find out the famous person in question doesn’t really understand your life at all, or actively hates you.
For the great body of normal people Democrats and their Hollywood allies make perpetual war against, it’s downright exhilarating to discover that a famous actor or musician seems to be “one of us.” They don’t have to be politically active, or aggressively ideological. It’s enough to know that a famous person is a good guy or gal who values patriotism and family life. We’re so accustomed to people making millions of dollars from us, and then sneering about how they can barely stand to set foot in America, that the sight of the world’s hottest actor teaching his kid to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, or taking his time for personal charity without any thought of drawing attention to himself, causes our hearts to flutter.
Donald Trump has celebrity mojo. He’s a TV star, a man with near-total pop-culture recognition, and he’s had it for a long time. It’s understandable that in the early stages of the 2016 primary, a good number of voters who generally view Big Media as indifferent or adversarial to their beliefs would find that a strong point on his resume. It’s not irrational, although it might be misguided, depending on all else that he says, does, and has done in the past. He seems like the sort of brash champion who can’t be intimidated into silence, and that’s appealing to voters who spent the past few months watching the Republican leadership do absolutely nothing with the congressional majority they asked for in 2014. It’s no coincidence that he’s made big waves by tacking illegal immigration, an issue most of the Republican field is institutionally timid about discussing.
Trump’s supporters have a good handle on the importance of enthusiasm to build popular support among the unserious electorate. Perhaps their enthusiasm will fade, but for the moment, they tend to be very insistent about the importance of getting behind The Donald, instead of the Obama-lite RINO shills favored by The Establishment. Sure, that kind of energy can be taken too far – browse through the responses to this very post, and I suspect you’ll find examples of that – but let me offer a general observation: we all know Hillary Clinton will be supported with fanatical enthusiasm despite her many deficiencies, and if she implodes and is replaced by someone like Biden or Bernie Sanders, Democrats will become incandescently enthusiastic about them, too. It’s not easy to run against that with an okay guy who’s very smart, has the right ideas, and is clearly better than the alternative, but doesn’t generate much heat among his supporters. Indifferent swing voters notice which side has the more energetic fans.
At a time when each and every one of the massive problems facing America, both internally and abroad, was swept aside so the elite could hold a nationwide crusade against a 150-year-old flag, is it logically incorrect to believe that the demonstrated ability to hold a mass-media audience would be a powerful asset in the 2016 race?