Every once in a while, it’s instructive to stop and remember how low Republicans have sunk—and how fast. Imagine if ten years ago I had described the future of the Republican Party as follows:
The most beloved figure in the party of family values is a thrice-married casino magnate who starred in a reality show, raved about how hot is daughter is, bragged about trying to have sex with a married woman, and allegedly had sex with a porn star just months after his wife delivered their child.
Second, the party’s most celebrated star of the moment is a rapper who struggles with bipolar disorder, sends anti-Semitic tweets, and married a woman who became famous after starring in a supposedly leaked sex tape. Despite his incoherence and disturbing instability, right-wing media fetes the superstar whenever he spouts particularly shocking MAGA rhetoric.
Third, Republican control of the Senate hangs on whether a long-retired football star (who lied about fathering multiple illegitimate children and allegedly paying for an abortion) and a quack TV doctor (made famous by Oprah Winfrey) win their respective races in Georgia and Pennsylvania.
If this were a decade ago, your first response would have likely been to call bullshit. After all, it’s ten years ago. Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are the current Republican nominees. Your second response probably would be shock at how decadent and depraved the party of the “moral majority” had become. And your third response might have been to point out that the party has been taken over by celebrities.
This third observation—how celebrities have conquered the GOP—is probably the most underrated.
This phenomenon is broader than the GOP. It’s a commentary on American life. Mike Judge’s 2006 comedy/sci-fi cult classic Idiocracy seemed to have foreshadowed this.
At the time, the President Camacho storyline felt like bad satire (presumably mocking developments like the former professional wrestler Jesse “The Body” Ventura becoming the governor of Minnesota). It also seemed to predict a dystopian future that might manifest in maybe 100 years—if we made bad decisions for many decades.
Instead, it has essentially come true in record time. (In case you haven’t guessed, I was talking about Donald Trump, Kanye West, Herschel Walker, and Dr. Oz).
Another surprising fact is that celebs took over the Republican Party, not the Democratic Party.
Even though Democrats had long been more attractive to glamourous showbiz stars, in a weird way, this disconnect makes sense.
Because the GOP was so devoid of celebrities, Republicans coveted them. Sure, conservatives would mock celebs who dabbled in politics (telling them to “shut up and sing,” etc.), but deep down, they desperately craved their attention and approval. And then, they literally turned one into an American idol.
If you doubt the truth of what I am telling you regarding the GOP’s hunger for a celebrity, think back to a decade ago; the Romney-Ryan ticket gave a prime-time spot at the Republican National Convention to Clint Eastwood—who proceeded to give a speech to a chair.
The Republican Party was so desperate to be loved by celebrities that, in the ensuing years on their way to Trump, they embraced the likes of Ted Nugent, Kid Rock, and the Duck Dynasty guys.
In hindsight, any of them could have probably taken over the party. That’s how thirsty they were for even C-list celebs to call their own.
Think of it. It’s hard to imagine that a real estate mogul who didn’t have his own reality show on NBC could have hijacked the GOP the way Trump did. Likewise, would Herschel Walker be the GOP nominee for the U.S. Senate if he hadn’t scored all of those touchdowns? Would the American people, much less Kim Kardashian, have given Kanye a second look if he wasn’t a successful musician? What if Dr. Oz was just a…doctor?
I think we know the answer to these questions. Not that this phenomenon is entirely new. But there was a time when being a celebrity was merely a jumping off point for a political career. Ronald Reagan was a Hollywood actor, but he was also the head of the screen actor’s guilt and the host of General Electric Theater (a job that had him travel across the country, turning audiences into a sort of “focus group” and allowing him to hone his message). Then, he was governor of California for eight years before ever running for president (and he lost his first bid).
Athletes like former Sens. Bill Bradley of New Jersey and Jim Bunning of Kentucky certainly benefited from their star status, but they also put in the work—Bradley was a Rhodes scholar who worked in politics for years before running for Senate, and Bunning climbed from the Fort Thomas, Kentucky city council all the way to Congress’ upper house. Likewise, NFL quarterback Jack Kemp was a policy wonk. He parlayed that into a House seat and, eventually, a doomed bid for vice president as Bob Dole’s running mate in 1996.
Today’s “no experience necessary” celebs start at the top. And it’s all downhill from there.
I’ve seen the future. And it doesn’t work. It’s too bad we can’t just change the channel.