Trump and the Future of the Celebrity Candidate

Trump, Oprah and Dwayne Johnson
Joe Raedle/Getty Images; Steve Jennings/Getty Images; Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images

After 2016, many Democrats believed the only way to take back the White House was to run their own high-wattage entertainer like Oprah or the Rock. Has the conventional wisdom changed?

Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential victory cemented, in some quarters, a new conventional wisdom: Now you need to be a celebrity to take the White House. During his term, liberals have sought to draft Oprah Winfrey, who was forced to issue a statement declining to run — “It’s not something that interests me. I don’t have the DNA for it.” — and decided Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is the kind of strongman they could get behind. “I’m not ruling it out,” he’s said of future cycles.

Yet four years later Joe Biden, a veteran politician famous only for being a veteran politician, has run a campaign that polls indicate retains a strong lead over Trump a day before the election. Meanwhile, Kanye West’s own quixotic, high-profile independent bid this time around hasn’t even gained enough traction to work up partisans as a potential spoiler. (He only appears on the presidential ballot in 12 states.) We are left to ponder how — if at all — Trump’s presidency and its fate will inform future celebrity candidacies.

Some experts in presidential campaigning caution against seeing Trump as much more than a unique phenomenon. “It’s important not to over-read what his candidacy means for future elections,” says Stephanie Cutter, who served as deputy campaign manager for Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign and held similar positions for John Kerry and Ted Kennedy. But others contend the fresh dynamics in star power are just beginning to play out and, regardless of what happens on Nov. 3, have already changed the calculus. “Donald Trump rang a bell that a lot of people heard: ‘If he could be elected president, then I can be elected president.’ A lot of celebrities with a big platform now believe that,” says longtime political advisor Mark McKinnon, who’s held senior roles in the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush and John McCain.

“Trump has shown how celebrities can use their instinctive grasp of social media and the media's breathless fascination with them as key strategic assets,” says David O’Connell, a professor of political science at Dickinson College in the swing state of Pennsylvania. Trump did not simply ascend as an entertainer, he governed as one. For him, the role of commander-in-chief remained performative as much as executive, hyper-cognizant of big narrative storytelling moments and how best to frame them. Exhibit A: His self-orchestrated exit from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in October, while still recovering from COVID-19, before waving from a balcony at the White House at an evening photo-op. (It was quickly packaged by the administration as a video, with a stirring score, in the style of a blockbuster movie.)

Dr. Peter J. Bergerson, a political science professor at Florida Gulf Coast University who’s spent five decades studying national elections, observes that “what entertainers are able to wield particularly well is their personalities, and personalities play an important role in voting preferences. There are a significant number of people who are attracted to a candidate by charisma, which is another way of saying star power. Think of Reagan.”

Ronald Reagan is disputed among observers as the gateway phenomenon. Yes, he was an actor and TV host (of General Electric Theater) before entering politics. But compared to today’s buzzed-about Hollywood aspirants to the White House he was a B-lister, and by the time he became president in 1980 he’d already served two terms as governor of California.

Entertainers styling themselves as populist outsiders, whether former actor and wrestler-turned-Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura or West, may be better able to find footing because their would-be electoral base already rejects the legitimacy of the Washington establishment. “It’s much more likely that a celebrity is going to rise as a voice of independence from party politics,” says seasoned Democratic political strategist Jennifer Palmieri, who was the director of communications for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.

Democrats embrace star power to get out the vote and raise awareness around important policy issues. Yet they appear to value traditional political credentials more than Republicans do. As a result, Hollywood conservatives have more often peppered the GOP, from actor-turned-senator Fred Thompson and actor-turned-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to singer-turned-congressman Sonny Bono.

Paul Levinson, a professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University and the author of Fake News in Real Context, ascribes the discrepancy in part to General Dwight Eisenhower’s back-to-back victories. “He arrived having not previously served in elected office,” he explains. “Republicans learned a huge lesson there: that political experience isn’t the be-all-end-all for electoral success. Then came Reagan and Trump.”

Palmieri contends that the parties’ priorities are the tell. “Democrats want to use government to make change, so they value policy experience — it just matters more,” she says. “Republicans are largely looking to limit government anyway, so they put less of a premium on that experience.”

To McKinnon, who along with Palmieri hosts The Circus on Showtime, it’s all about opportunity. “I think Democrats would run a celebrity in a heartbeat if they thought they could win with one. They’d take Oprah Winfrey if she’d do it.” Cutter agrees. “For some reason, celebrities who vote Democratic have been less interested in running,” she says, “though I would love to see a President Winfrey.”