Fort Lauderdale, Florida
This morning the American news cycle has taken a brief respite from the now mind-blowingly heated GOP primaries to reflect on Hollywood’s night of nights.
Leonardo Di Caprio won his elusive Oscar – one that those of us who are Baz Luhrmann fans think is long overdue – thereby giving media consumers a more appealing alternative to Trump’s spray-tanned and surly mug.
He used the spotlight to call for action on climate change, describing it as the “most urgent threat facing our entire species”, in a speech warmly welcomed by zika mosquitos, cancer cells and violent Jihadists.
Musician Sam Smith fumbled a shout-out to the LGBT community by falsely declaring himself to be the first openly gay Oscar winner and host Chris Rock peppered the whole evening with (often hilarious) references to the #OscarsSoWhite melodrama.
The tireless foray of actors and singers into the world of legislative advocacy can often be cringe-worthy (if not downright hypocritical), but it’s understandable that those in show business take an avid interest. After all, what is the use in power un-wielded?
The ties between art and politics are as old as time itself. While this year’s Academy Awards were perhaps a little more pointed than ceremonies past, it is Hollywood’s influence on politics (and not the other way around) that is the more noteworthy trend.
Oprah Winfrey’s backing all but clinched Barack Obama’s nomination in 2008, taking the wind of out the sails of the Clinton Machine just as endorsements of Bernie Sanders by stars like Will Ferrell, Danny DeVito and Spike Lee have done again in this race (although admittedly not to the extent of the Queen of TV, who is so far staying Mum on the 2016 election).
Republicans have also taken a few pages from the winners’ playbook, with a battle emerging early for the endorsement of the Robertson Family, stars of a popular reality TV show about duck hunters in Louisiana (Trump got a nod from Willie Robertson while the patriarch Phil went for Cruz).
And then there is the ‘Orange Menace’ – Donald J Drumpf – as anyone who follows social media is now calling him.
As I write, his face and hairpiece have once again reclaimed their rightful spot on the television screen above me here in the Fort Lauderdale airport. He has just received an endorsement from a bunch of NASCAR drivers – there go poor Leo’s chances of a climate action groundswell.
Celebrity culture is in large part why Trump is experiencing so much success (for those that are tuning into US politics only peripherally right now, he is killing it in the recent primaries, with a CNN poll now putting his support at more than twice his closest competitors Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz).
Yes, he is tapping into some deeply-held fears and anxieties of the working masses. Yes, he is demonstrating an unexpected political talent, outmanoeuvring the apparatchiks and controlling the news cycle. But he is also just really famous.
Before living here, I didn’t realise quite how famous Trump is. The Apprentice was NBC’s highest-rating show after Friends in its early seasons and his brand is more widely recognised than that even of fellow hopefuls with names like Bush and Clinton.
In a country where voting is voluntary and party primary elections open to the general public, the importance of name recognition cannot be underestimated.
While this is arguably more democratic than the Australian system for example (where candidates are still selected in the smoky backrooms of Chinese restaurants) it also allows for high profile people to attain positions of power with very little policy experience or party support, able to mobilise and motivate large throngs of voters.
Let’s not forget that it was a public primary system that saw Arnold Schwarzenegger elected as Governor of one of the world’s largest economies, and fellow former actor Ronald Reagan before him.
Trump doesn’t have Arnie’s affable nature or The Gipper’s old school charm, but he does have a comfort with the medium of television and, more importantly, a direct relationship with voters that the others cannot emulate.
Even when candidates come from a more traditional politico background, the 24-hour press and a voting public with ever-diminishing attention spans demand they become celebrities overnight, condensing inspiration into 10-second soundbites and selling out stadiums to build precious ‘momentum’. Once considered beneath the prestige of the office they seek, appearing (and getting roasted) on the late night talk shows is now mandatory for presidential candidates.
Had he chosen a different path in life it’s not hard to imagine Obama, for example, making a teary plea for social justice while accepting an Oscar. His telegenic coolness was undoubtedly a factor in overcoming his more experienced but less likeable primary opponent. He mastered Hollywood-style campaigning and by all accounts, it’s here to stay.
Many pundits and GOP elders are up in arms that Trump has ‘hijacked’ their party and the campaign. They claim his newfound adherence to conservative principles is all an ‘act’, the latest ego exercise of a reality TV superstar.
Should he not occupy the White House this time next year (and we all have to acknowledge there is now a chance he will) there’s always the 2017 Academy Awards.
Published on 29 February 2016