Has President Trump Opened the Pandora’s Box of Celebrity Politicians?
Eric Lendrum, Politics Contributor
Opinion -- One of the many stunning aspects of Donald Trump’s meteoric rise into the world of politics was the fact that not only did he have zero political and military experience, but he was also a celebrity. As a reality television personality, with many film and television appearances to his name, his celebrity was seen as one of the key factors that boosted his campaign and garnered him the free media attention that arguably helped carry him to the White House.
But as he drew closer to victory, one of the major possible outcomes that was speculated upon was the possibility that, upon his election, it would signal once and for all that celebrities could run for political office.
And that appears to be just the case in the aftermath of his historic victory.
As of now, we are seeing a handful of celebrities openly - and apparently seriously - talking about running for office in the near future. One such celebrity, musician Kid Rock, has already announced his candidacy for office, running for the U.S. Senate in Michigan next year. Kanye West, rapper and husband of Kim Kardashian, maintains that he is serious about running for President in 2020. Perhaps most notably, actor and wrestler Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has repeatedly hinted at his interest in running as well in 2020, admitting that he is directly inspired by Trump’s unexpected rise. An exploratory committee, called “Run the Rock 2020,” has been independently formed for the purpose of fueling a potential candidacy.
A handful of other potential celebrity candidates include Mark Cuban - also a billionaire businessman and reality TV star - and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (yet another billionaire), whose names have been floated as potential 2020 candidates even though both have denied an interest in running. In the latest development, transgender reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner has expressed interest in running for the U.S. Senate in California in 2018.
At the very least there are two celebrities - Kid Rock and Kanye - who have declared their candidacies and maintain that they are serious about doing so. Even if none of the others listed here actually run, the fact remains that Trump appears to have opened the Pandora’s Box of celebrities running for office.
Now this isn’t to say that celebrities have never run for office before. There have been at least four major instances of celebrities winning election to office, primarily from the state of California: Actor George Murphy, elected to the Senate from California just two years before another actor, Ronald Reagan, was elected Governor of that state - and later President. Several decades later, actor and bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger won an upset victory in the California gubernatorial recall election of 2003. All three men were Republicans. The fourth instance, outside of California, was actor and wrestler Jesse Ventura - who co-starred with Schwarzenegger in films such as “Predator” and “The Running Man” - who was elected Governor of Minnesota as the nominee of the Reform Party (founded by two-time presidential candidate Ross Perot) in 1998.
More recently, there was the oft-overlooked instance of singer Clay Aiken - who, coincidentally enough, was a finalist on the fifth season of Trump’s “The Celebrity Apprentice” - running for Congress from North Carolina’s 2nd congressional district in 2014. He narrowly won the Democratic nomination by 390 votes, but lost the general election in an 18-point landslide.
But what makes this new wave of celebrity runs so much more different is two-fold: First, many such celebrities in question today have minimal to no experience with political organizations of any kind, and the extent of their political involvement is simply voicing support for particular causes or candidates. Both Murphy and Reagan were presidents of the Screen Actors Guild and had been vocal in politics in the second half of the American Century - Reagan supported Republican candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964, while Murphy was the director of entertainment for three consecutive presidential inaugurations (Eisenhower’s and Kennedy’s). Ventura had served political office once before, prior to becoming Governor - he had been elected mayor of Brooklyn Park in 1990, eight years before his successful gubernatorial bid. And Schwarzenegger had similarly voiced support for Republican presidents since Nixon, even appearing at a 1988 campaign rally for George H.W. Bush. He also served as chairman of both Bush’s national Council on Physical Fitness, and Governor Pete Wilson’s Council on Physical Fitness in the state of California.
Conversely, many of these celebrities talking about running for office today do not have the same levels of experience. Aiken, Kid Rock, West, Cuban, Zuckerberg have been more active in philanthropy rather than serving in specific political organizations such as the Screen Actors Guild, and Cuban and Zuckerberg in particular were vocal in their support of left-wing policies and candidates since 2010, while Rock has been vocal about his conservative beliefs since 2012. Conversely, Jenner and The Rock have next to no experience in any such organizations or even philanthropy, and both have kept quiet about their views compared to their more openly left-leaning counterparts - Jenner identifies as a Christian and conservative Republican, while The Rock was a registered Republican his entire life up until Trump took office, even speaking at the Republican National Convention in 2000.
This lack of experience constitutes the first major difference between the old guard of celebrity politicians and the new generation. This is most likely born out of the fact that President Trump himself is widely perceived to have no political experience - never running for any kind of office beforehand or serving in any position - although he has been very vocal in politics since the 1980’s. This will undoubtedly result in a “high-risk, high-reward” scenario where celebrities with such little experience have the potential to either be surprisingly effective in office - such as President Trump - or could fail disastrously.
The second major aspect that sets this new wave of celebrity candidates apart from the old is the permanent suspension of disbelief. In 2012 and the years leading up to 2015, many felt that his hints at running for President were just publicity stunts and he would never actually run. When Trump actually declared he was running, few believed he would actually win, or even make it through 2015. When he won the nomination, many thought he would easily lose the general election. Every time, he proved them wrong: He ran, he won the nomination, and he won the presidency.
As a result, the shock of President Trump’s victory - especially against a candidate as formidable as Hillary Clinton was - has sparked this new sentiment of “If he can do it, anyone can.” Now, everyone watching the political scene - the media, commentators, donors, and the voters - must take just about everyone seriously when they say they are going to run. When they run and win their respective nominations, their chances of winning the general must also be taken more seriously. When they win the general election, it must be considered that they could actually do a fine job in office - maybe.
You can follow the author on Twitter: @EricLendrum26.
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