How Conservative Hollywood Worked to Elect Donald Trump
The inside story of how a renegade group of conservatives working in the TV and film industry beat liberal celebrities at their own political game: Pat Boone made phone calls, Jon Voight worked talk radio and countless actors and filmmakers worked tirelessly out of the public eye.
You probably didn’t get a phone call from Pat Boone ahead of the Nov. 8 election if you live in Democratic states like California and New York, but you may have if you reside in a swing state where polls indicated it was a toss-up between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
“I’m asking, I’m praying, that you’ll vote for the Republican platform and Donald Trump for president,” the legendary singer says in a robocall that went to 3 million registered voters just before Americans elected Trump their next president.
The robocalls, though, are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the many ways — some more stealthy than others — that a band of conservative renegades in Hollywood beat their more vocal, more famous and far more numerous liberal counterparts who stumped ad nauseam for Clinton.
In fact, while Clinton collected about $22 million from media moguls like Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg, and enjoyed the support of celebrities like Miley Cyrus, Bruce Springsteen, Cher, Robert De Niro, George Clooney and too many more to list, Trump collected a mere $300,000 from the entertainment industry.
And while Jon Voight spoke in favor of Trump on conservative talk radio across the country, and 1970s icon Scott Baio and soap star Antonio Sabato Jr. spoke at the Republican National Convention, the bulk of Trump’s support from Hollywood has remained in the shadows, until now.
Conservative pundit Ann Coulter, for example, met at a swanky Hollywood restaurant with a dozen filmmakers and TV executives in the midst of primary season to convince them to support Trump. Afterward, the author of In Trump We Trust: E Pluribus Awesome, gathered with celebrities like Clint Eastwood to pitch her favorite candidate.
Trump himself was one of the earliest Republican candidates to visit Friends of Abe, a private group of conservatives who work in the entertainment industry. That night, he told this reporter that his support in Hollywood was far greater than most people realized, and that he would secure votes from liberals in the industry, as well.
After Trump sewed up the nomination, there were many more initiatives brewing behind the scenes. Liberal celebrities may have been doing more harm than good by outwardly begging Americans to vote for Clinton and smearing Trump supporters as hateful bigots.
“The vote for Trump was partially anti-media and anti-Hollywood,” says Stephen Winzenburg, a communications professor at Grand View University in Iowa and author of TV’s Greatest Talk Shows.
“One of the worst things Clinton could do was bring out high-paid celebrities that have no real connection with Middle America,” he says. “Katy Perry appeared in Des Moines and looked like a joke with a giant red ‘H’ on her chest with her boobs popping out and an American flag cape waving behind her. If she thought she was inspiring Iowans to vote for Hillary, the opposite was happening.”
Along those lines, after The Avengers director Joss Whedon made a pro-Clinton video starring A-list stars like Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson, a Republican ad firm called BrabenderCox countered with a video mocking the celebrities. The $10,000 response video, tweeted by Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck and Eric Trump, was viewed 14 million times prior to the election.
“It would have cost a fortune to get that many viewers on television,” said BrabenderCox CEO John Brabender. “The battle for election content wasn’t won by the 30-second TV spot but by the three-minute Internet video.”
In the Whedon video, Don Cheadle refers to Trump as “a racist, abusive coward who could permanently damage the fabric of our society.” Brabender’s snarky response video features regular Americans thanking the celebrities for their superior wisdom.
“Hollywood liberals were very vocal and the irony is that it worked against Clinton,” says Brabender. “They basically told people, ‘Agree with us or you’re wrong.’ That rubbed even blue-collar Democrats the wrong way.”
“Stars have grand lives and don’t understand the problems of average Americans,” he continued. “Hillary appeared like she was part of the system of elites — like she’d be president to the stars.”
A handful of the 172 California delegates who ushered in Trump’s nomination at the GOP convention in Cleveland are in the entertainment industry, though several chose not speak to The Hollywood Reporter, citing liberal bias in the industry. An exception were actors Mark Vafiades and Mell Flynn.
Vafiades was also a “Trump surrogate” so he made more than a hundred radio and TV appearances stumping for Trump, including a six-hour stint on a liberal-leaning radio station in Los Angeles on election day. Flynn worked social-media on behalf of Trump and walked precincts in Nevada, considered a swing state, with other conservatives in the industry who preferred not to be named.
Like many others, Vafiades says that an abundance of star power probably worked against Clinton.
“There was an undercurrent of frustration over the past eight years with all of the president’s executive orders shoved down our throats, and the Hollywood elite was all for that,” he says. “The people were sick of liberal actors preaching to them.”
Writer-producer Lionel Chetwynd, who has been in Republican politics for decades, was one of several filmmakers who sometimes had the ear of Trump through campaign manager Kellyanne Conway and others close to the candidate. (Many, like Chetwynd, initially supported Sen. Ted Cruz, as did Conway.)
“When you’re part of a chorus, sometimes your ideas reach the boss, sometimes they don’t,” Chetwynd explains.
Chetwynd, whose credits include The Hanoi Hilton and Ike: Countdown to D-Day, has campaigned for Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole, John McCain, Mitt Romney and George W. Bush, but says Hollywood’s reaction to his support of Trump caught him off guard.
“It’s the most intense experience I’ve ever had. Some were outright hostile. ‘I never want to work with you again’ was always implied,” he says. “Some people I’ve known for 40 years looked at me like I was the scum of the earth.”
Just prior to the election, Chetwynd wrote of the hostility he was facing in an article published in the newsletter of the Caucus for Producers, Writers and Directors.
Filmmaker Joel Gilbert was also helping Cruz — he made an online short called "The Constitution Strikes Back" where the senator is portrayed as a Star Wars Jedi — but jumped ship, unofficially, to Trump. And he took some Cruz ideas with him. For example, he concocted a scheme whereby Cruz would be portrayed as Superman, but instead it was Trump who appeared on a giant digital billboard in Times Square as the man of steel, paid for by a super PAC called the Committee to Restore America’s Greatness.
Gilbert has made a slew of films about politics and music, but ran into a buzzsaw of media criticism for writing and directing Dreams From my Real Father. The documentary alleges that leftist radical Frank Marshall Davis, who died in 1987, was President Obama’s mentor and biological father. When three members of the Federal Election Commission tried to censor the film, it cost Gilbert $15,000 to fight back.
Like Chetwynd, Gilbert fed lines and ideas to Trump staffers for months leading up to the election. He suggested, for example, that Trump should make the point during a speech in Detroit that years of Democratic rule had failed in that city.
“Sometimes I’d hear things I suggested word for word,” says Gilbert, “and sometimes I’d think, ‘I wonder if that came from me?’ But there were a lot of us and, thematically, we were all on the same page.”
A former writer for a popular Comedy Central show wrote some of the jokes Trump delivered at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner in October. Manhattan’s elite jeered and the media skewered him for his mean tone at the gathering hosted by the Catholic church, but his presentation helped shore up an anti-politically-correct image that resounded with voters.
Five years ago, filmmakers Robert Perkins and Justin Folk, whose credits include The Matrix Trilogy, joined Owen Brennan, a former producer on The O’Reilly Factor and Morning Joe, to found Madison McQueen. The firm is a GOP-friendly creator of advertising that made 30 TV and online commercials for four super PACs, targeting millennials and women in swing states.
“Our mission is to bring Hollywood production values to the war of ideas,” says Brennan. “The center-right has the best ideas for the country but are the worst storytellers.”
The company’s most successful video this election cycle was called Pay My Foundation and consisted of a faux-Clinton rapping about selling influence. The online ad (watch it below) was viewed 32 million times at sites like MTV, Vice, AOL and Yahoo Sports.
"Millennials weren’t suspicious of Hillary Clinton because they watched Fox News or read The Wall Street Journal,” says Brennan, “you have to reach them digitally. Anyone who spends $100 million on broadcast television will get the same results as Jeb Bush.”
Arguably the most prolific maker of online political videos, David Zucker of Airplane! and The Naked Gun fame, sat out this election, but there were plenty of other actor-comedians who picked up the slack.
Alfonzo Rachel, for example, has a slew of them at his YouTube Channel, where he has 55,000 subscribers and 106,000 more on Facebook. One called Sinisturbia that made the rounds with conservatives is about a mixed-race family (Rachel is black) dealing with a talking Hillary Clinton doll. In 19 minutes, it manages to skewer just about every liberal talking point related to feminism, race relations, public schools, climate change, sexual orientation and more.
More prominent attacks on Clinton, of course, came by way of feature films like Dinesh D’Souza’s Hillary’s America and Peter Schweizer’s Clinton Cash, produced by Stephen Bannon, Trump’s campaign CEO.
But there were many more that were under the radar but still made an impact. For instance, the documentary The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing excoriates Clinton's alleged mentor, '60s radical Saul Alinsky. Not only did it air more than 20 times on Catholic channel EWTN the month prior to the election, but fans in 10 battleground states hosted multiple viewing parties.
“Many bought DVDs in bulk and gave them to friends,” says producer Stephen Payne. (Alinsky Center president Ralph Benko called the film “crude, clumsy propaganda").
“About 50 people showed up, and it was totally quiet. Everybody was very attentive to the movie, and I think you saw a real stunned look on their faces,” says Elizabeth Warynick, who saw the film at her church in Tennessee. “The pastor encouraged people to buy the DVD … people are so stunned they’re spreading the information to five of their friends. It’s kind of like a wildfire that started.”
Another filmmaker, Phelim McAleer, made several online films based on testimony surrounding Clinton’s email scandal, and they were viewed 500,000 times. Plus, he made a video called Hillary on Fracking in America that was viewed 876,000 times in energy states like Pennsylvania and Ohio. “By the time we get through all of my conditions, I do not think there will be many places in America where fracking will continue to take place,” Clinton says in the video.
Plus, there were countless pro-Trump articles from Hollywood insiders, starting a year ago with actor Robert Davi comparing him to John Wayne. Dozens more came from Roger Simon, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Enemies, a Love Story, and from Larry Elder, a radio talk-show host who also made Michael & Me, a documentary challenging Michael Moore, and was the star of TV's Moral Court. Elder also campaigned for Trump in battleground states alongside Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, a tough and controversial lawman who is allegedly in the running to be secretary of Homeland Security under Trump. As one of the few conservative actors in Hollywood, Davi was a sought-after guest, so did about three hours of TV and radio each day promoting Trump in the three months prior to the Nov. 8 election.
Post-election, liberals and conservatives alike have been passing around a passionate, ranting video from Tom Walker (AKA Jonathan Pie), a progressive U.K. satirist who analyzes the Trump victory over Clinton.
“Not everyone who voted for Trump is a sexist or a racist. How many times does a vote have to not go our way before we realize that our argument isn’t won by hurling labels and insults?” he asks in the video, embedded below. “Instead of persuading people to vote, she just courted celebrity endorsements, and then lost. What’s going on? It’s almost as if the political acumen of Beyonce and Jay Z count for nothing!”