A popular but second-tier Hollywood actor and a real estate developer/reality TV host, Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump, respectively, became president of the United States. But their rise to the White House is not the rule, it’s the exception. And celebrities winning elections is an aberration; it shouldn’t be a blueprint.
Trump’s endorsement of two celebs this year will end in mixed results at best. His Pennsylvania pick, TV celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz lost to John Fetterman, a guy whose aftereffects from a stroke left him reeling on the debate stage days before the election, at which he greeted the crowd “Hi, good night, everyone.”
Trump’s Georgia endorsement is former football superstar Herschel Walker, who couldn’t fend off incumbent Raphael Warnock, and now the two will face off again in a December 6 runoff, the result being pivotal to balance of power in the Senate.
Many Republicans, frustrated that the highly anticipated Red Wave that was supposed to give them decisive control of both houses, positioning them to take back the White House in 2024, didn’t materialize, squarely blame Trump for their diminished returns. But it’s not that simple.
Did Trump’s immersion in Republican campaigns nationwide help or hurt the party? Actually, both. It is important to note that above all, Trump is a showman. Image to him is everything. He wants to highlight his importance as kingmaker. Accordingly, as critics love to emphasize, he often endorses candidates who are frontrunners anyway, thus padding his record of wins. But he also elevates candidates from obscurity, as he did most famously in 2018 with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who just won reelection resoundingly and appears to have a very bright future in presidential politics.
Trump’s base of MAGA Republicans clearly adores him and will unconditionally do his bidding, but determining who comprises that base is tricky. The group who’d vote for Trump again in 2024 if he’s the GOP nominee is much larger than the subset who thinks he walks on water and can do no wrong. That smaller bunch will vote for Oz and Walker just because Trump says so, not so much the larger one.
Moreover, it is important to remember that political endorsements only go so far. For example, even though Ronald Reagan is my all-time favorite president, he encouraged Americans in both 1988 and 1992 – albeit lukewarmly – to vote for George H.W. Bush, but I turned him down both times.
Times are different now. The two major parties have dug in their heels, exhibiting the starkest contrast between them since the days of the Civil War. As recently as 15 years ago, I would’ve voted for the best candidate, regardless of party. No longer. I’m tuned in to Newt Gingrich’s philosophy of looking at the big picture: party control of both houses of Congress and the White House. That’s what will prevent the Democrats from getting their way, a way I consider increasingly alarming. And many Democrats share the same sentiment, which is why it’s understandable that they voted for Fetterman, even knowing full well that unless he makes a substantial recovery, he is medically unfit for office.
Interestingly, the group most influential in determining close elections is the one most overlooked: political independents, appropriately labeled ‘swing voters’. They don’t think in terms of party dominance; rather, they vote candidate-by-candidate.
They’re the ones who vote for some Trump endorsees but not for others. Not so coincidentally, the ones for whom they don’t vote are celebrities.
By and large, American voters appreciate experience. They value dignified candidates who possess gravitas. That’s a big reason why they picked the declining Biden in 2020, and if Hillary Clinton wasn’t so widely detestable, they’d have elected her too. They’ll only go for carnival barkers with catchy slogans once in a while.
In the cases of Reagan and Trump, they fortified their presidential run for decades. It wasn’t during a break from filming Bedtime for Bonzo (in Reagan’s case) or The Apprentice (in Trump’s) that they decided on a whim to try their hand at ‘presidenting’, the way George W. Bush took up painting after he retired. Effete, pseudo-intellectual snobs characterizing them as simpletons notwithstanding, Reagan and Trump, unlike Oz and Walker, formulated and honed strong opinions on a variety of domestic and foreign policy issues.
Oz, a New York Metropolitan area staple, practically strolled off the set of his TV show and started lovingly referring to Pennsylvania as ‘the Commonwealth’; the locals didn’t buy it. Walker ran with troubling baggage from his personal life, including more than one ex-girlfriend who’s said he paid for her to abort their unborn child, even as he campaigns as a staunch pro-lifer. Like Pennsylvania, Georgia is purple. You can field marginal candidates in reliably red Oklahoma and Wyoming, but not in many places beyond those. Heck, even Texas’ blue patches are growing like weeds on a red lawn.
Trump should’ve been more careful in endorsing stronger candidates. It’s not a binary choice between quality and loyalty. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, for instance, after a bitterly contested 2016 primary, accepted Trump as the party leader and now stand with him firmly. No matter how one feels about their politics, they’re clearly not empty suits.
As for getting away with outrageously abrasive remarks, breaking norms only works for the elite. Muhammad Ali won with hands held dangerously low. Giannis Antetokounmpo takes as many as five steps to the basket but isn’t called for traveling. And Trump says he likes war heroes who aren’t captured, because he can; most others cannot.
Celebrity politics is not a good blueprint. Athletes and entertainers, please stay in your lanes.