Republican Party leaders have dismissed Donald Trump as “just” a celebrity since last summer. Yet, as much as the Republican establishment might want to deny it, Trump’s improbable candidacy in the 2016 presidential election is actually a product of the GOP’s decision 60 years ago to elevate actors to the rank of politicians. And Trump’s loss in last night’s Iowa caucuses does nothing to change the pattern.
Though liberal celebrity activists have often gained publicity by pressing specific policies, conservative celebrities have carved far deeper into U.S. electoral politics and made more lasting changes.
Republicans have a history of recruiting celebrities into the party ranks, even supporting them as candidates. Wealthy actors Robert Montgomery and George Murphy, studio mogul Jack Warner and stars such as Shirley Temple helped revive the Republican Party in California — paving the way for Ronald Reagan’s election as governor of the state.
Future President Ronald Reagan (L) and future Senator George Murphy starred together in ‘This Is the Army’ (1943). Courtesy of Warner Bros.
With Trump, however, the GOP finds itself at a crossroads. Electorally, the Republican Party has been more successful at running celebrity candidates — from Murphy to Reagan to The Love Boat’s “Gopher,” Fred Gandy, to Sonny & Cher’s Sonny Bono and, of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger. But, though a new Republican entertainer has entered the presidential ring, “The Donald” does not have the long experience in party politics that was once required of “The Gipper.”
The GOP’s decision to recruit Hollywood talent began largely in reaction to Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1941, early in his third term, Roosevelt seized the opportunity to use the Academy Awards, and the Hollywood community more broadly, to advance his political agenda. In the first presidential address to the Academy Awards in 1941, Roosevelt declared the industry’s “message films” as integral to the triumph of American ideals then being threatened by the war that waged across the Atlantic.
Roosevelt’s proclamation, as well as his public and private friendships with film personalities, motivated GOP opponents to launch a Senate investigation into propaganda collaboration between the entertainment industry and the Roosevelt administration before World War Two.
During FDR’s 1944 re-election campaign, liberal and progressive celebrities stumped for Roosevelt. In the process, they overtly melded their patriotic efforts to sell war bonds with partisan efforts to promote the president’s re-election. Again, conservative Democrats and Republicans took notice. After the war, they took action.
The postwar House Un-American Activities Committee investigated the same left-wing networks that had mobilized so effectively during the war to send progressive candidates to Washington and help Roosevelt win his fourth term in the White House.
Robert Montgomery (R), future media adviser to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, starred with Cluade Raines in ‘Here Comes Mr. Jordan’ (1941). Courtsey of Sony Pictures.
The HUAC investigations, devised t0 hunt out communists and communist sympathizers, or fellow travelers, ultimately served to distance Democrats from Hollywood. Yet, they helped forge new bonds between the GOP and the film industry.
In the wake of the Hollywood Ten trials, when screenwriters and movie directors were convicted of contempt of Congress for refusing to answer the House committee’s questions, Democrats viewed collaboration with Hollywood celebrities in a national presidential election as potentially dangerous. It could arouse charges of propaganda and manipulation, as HUAC investigators so dramatically, and effectively, charged.
During the 1950s, Democratic leaders, including two-time presidential nominee Illinois Governor Adlai E. Stevenson, kept their distance from Hollywood supporters. They relied more on celebrity fundraising abilities than their personal involvement with national campaigns. Though John F. Kennedy reversed this trend with his social ties to Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and the Rat Pack, he endured extensive criticism for this. The new president eventually decided his friendship with Sinatra was a liability and snubbed him in favor of Bing Crosby.
Meanwhile, Republicans sought to outdo Roosevelt. They didn’t just rely on celebrities to boost Republican candidates; they wanted Hollywood players to be a permanent part of the GOP. Perhaps even becoming candidates themselves.
During the early 1950s, MGM star Montgomery became the first star with an office in the White House as President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s media advisor, consulting on everything from news conferences to campaign advertising strategy. Former Roosevelt supporter Warner crossed party lines to revamp and resurrect the California Republican Party.
Future Senator George Murphy tap dances with future U.S. Ambassador Shirley Temple in a scene from ‘Little Miss Broadway’ (1938). Courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
In 1964, the famous “song and dance man” George Murphy took it to the next level. When he ran as the Republican candidate for a Senate seat from California, he found that late-night reruns of his movies had left voters with a sense that they knew — and could trust — him.
Reagan followed Murphy’s example when he ran for governor of California. He again showed the Republican Party how celebrity could be leveraged in appeals to voters.
While the Democratic Party cautiously sidelined celebrities, the GOP headlined them. Richard M. Nixon watched Reagan closely, and in 1968 he followed in the actor’s footsteps when he appealed to the heart, not the head. He might not have been a Hollywood star himself, but he studied how to use stars to sell his policies.
By Nixon’s 1972 campaign, the Committee to Re-Elect the President recognized the publicity possibilities of having Republican stars “work for the party all year round.” Celebrities did not just headline GOP fundraisers; they got deeply involved in party politics, too. Pam Powell, the soap-opera star and daughter of two above-the-title parents, June Allyson and Dick Powell, gave up her television career to head up Nixon’s youth outreach committee. Nixon appointed former child star Temple as U.S. representative to the United Nations after she lost her congressional bid.
The Hollywood left continues to capture attention surrounding hot-button political issues. Celebrities have raised millions of dollars for the environment (Leonardo DiCaprio), AIDS (Elizabeth Taylor) and international poverty (Angelina Jolie). When Jon Stewart hosted the 2006 Academy Awards program, he looked out at the star-studded audience and commented that the Oscars was the one night “where you could see all your favorite Hollywood stars without having to donate any money to the Democratic Party.”
President Barack Obama has used fundraising star power to his advantage, while also relying on celebrity supporters to promote his presidential agenda, including Kal Penn prescribing Obamacare and Eva Longoria’s advocacy for immigration reform. The 2016 Democratic Party nominee will inherit a powerful fundraising machine and a list of prominent celebrity activists willing to promote specific issues on the liberal agenda.
Trump, however, is using his celebrity power to attack rather than to revive the Republican Party.
Trump ran a strong race to come in second in Iowa on Monday, gaining momentum for the New Hampshire primary. But can his celebrity experience undermine the GOP establishment? Past Republican entertainers-turned-politicos had to demonstrate their party loyalty. In fact, conservatives backed Nixon over Reagan in 1968 in part because they did not consider the latter’s acting years as a legitimate part of his resume.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses a Trump for President campaign rally in Macon, Georgia November 30, 2015.... © Christopher Aluka Berry / Reu February 01, 2016.
Trump’s reality-TV style has certainly helped him appeal to and even embolden angry, frustrated and cynical crowds. He has transformed campaign rallies into Jerry Springer-style events, where audiences harass and berate people with whom they disagree. He even likened his veterans’ fundraiser on Thursday night to the Academy Awards — with him, of course, winning all awards categories.
If the GOP does cash in on Trump’s candidacy, celebrity politics may not just transform partisan strategy, as it has in the past on the left and the right. It may make party politics, even the media-driven party politics of Glen Beck, Roger Ailes and FOX News, obsolete.