Trump’s ascent reflects change in nature of celebrity, says Showbiz Politics author Kathryn Cramer Brownell

Donald Trump, photo: ČTK/AP/Andrew Harnik

How has the US entertainment industry shaped how politicians are presented to American voters? How liberal is Hollywood in reality? And is Donald Trump the ultimate showbiz president? Those are just a few of the issues I discussed with historian Kathryn Cramer Brownell, author of Showbiz Politics: Hollywood in American Political Life. The Purdue University academic was in Prague recently to deliver a talk on just that subject at the city’s branch of New York University.

Kathryn Cramer Brownell,  photo: Ian Willoughby
Was it the case in the early days of the Hollywood studios that for the executives, many of whom were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, being connected to politicians gave them a kind of legitimacy or social acceptance?

“Absolutely. That was what actually drew Hollywood into politics from the beginning.

“The Hollywood studios in the 1920s and 1930s were run by Jewish immigrants, who were very eager to gain acceptance into American life.

“This is at a time when anti-Semitism ran high in American society, so they were very eager to show that they had value and a contribution to make to American politics and culture.

“So the early days of political mobilisation is overwhelmingly defined by figures like Jack Warner and Louis B. Mayer, eager to cultivate those political relationships, to assert their social legitimacy.

“And it helped their pocket books too, because they were able then to negotiate favourable economic conditions as well.”

I guess their backgrounds would have also been one reason they were so keen to support the war effort. Was Hollywood more powerful after the war than it had been previously?

“Actually before war broke out it was very controversial. Studio executives were slow to support intervention.

“Because there was a pushback from many senators, who feared that they were promoting a war fever, with films like The Great Dictator, for example.

“But they felt like they needed to get involved. And especially once Pearl Harbor happened, the entire industry – regardless of whether they were conservatives or New Dealers – got on board.

“They used motion pictures as what they called weapons of war, weapons to raise awareness about the importance of fighting.

“During the war people recognised how powerful motion pictures could be in American political life.”

“And also to raise important money, in terms of war bonds.

“What happens during the war is that people, the broader public and the American government, recognised how powerful motion pictures could be in American political life.”

Notoriously in the 1950s many Hollywood writers and directors were blacklisted, during the time of the House Un-American Activities Committee headed by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Were there many Communists in Hollywood?

“There were Communists in Hollywood, just like there were Communists all across the country.

“But the reason they went after them is linked to what happened during WWII – that recognition by politicians that Hollywood is powerful.

“There was a concern that if entertainment was deployed by the other side, then that’s dangerous.

“You see that a lot of Republicans and conservative Southern Democrats did not like the kind of politics that was happening in Hollywood, which during the 1940s was overwhelmingly liberal and progressive – and of course you do have some Communists in there as well.

“So they were quick to attack entertainment for ‘bedazzling’ audiences, and they thought that was very dangerous.

“But then they were also very quick to deploy the exact same strategies to advance their own agendas as well.”

Today we’re used to Hollywood stars endorsing politicians and speaking about politics. When did that begin?

“Well, during the 1930s you had some celebrities that would work on campaigns.

“But again it was a little controversial for them to be involved in politics.

“It was something they did very carefully in terms of promoting charities.

“In terms of promoting particular candidates, this does happen in the 1940s and 1950s, but you really see it expand in the 1960s.

“In many ways that’s linked to changes in the studio system. When the studio system broke down, its control over the public image of actors really started to dissipate.

“So actors had more authority to negotiate their contracts – and also negotiate what they wanted to do in the public sphere.”

Were there many well-known endorsers? I know for example that Sinatra had a song about Kennedy.

“Kennedy had many celebrities on his side, although Nixon did too, in the 1960 election.

“But Kennedy was more effective at deploying them to promote his own celebrity. That’s a distinctive difference that you see in the 1960 election.

“Somebody like Sinatra added to the star power that Kennedy saw as central in terms of how he was going to gain political legitimacy.

“His theme song extended and expanded the appeal of Kennedy.

“While with Nixon he also had people who promoted his candidacy, most famously John Wayne.

“But Nixon didn’t put those celebrities at the centre of his campaign. He saw that as something that could perhaps help him win in California, but not as a national strategy.

“Trump builds on changes that would allow for someone to assert their credibility and their legitimacy based on their skills to entertain.”

“Ultimately that changes in 1968.”

Why did it change in 1968?

“It changes in 1968 because Nixon looked back at why he lost in 1960 and he firmly believed it was because Kennedy had this celebrity persona and that he had the support of Hollywood – and most importantly that he had turned himself into a celebrity to gain political power.

“There are many reasons outside of that that Kennedy won the 1960 election. It was very close.

“But Nixon believed that this showbiz politics was why he won.

“So he emulated Kennedy when he ran for the presidency in 1968.”

In what specific ways has Hollywood influenced US politics, especially when it comes to the presentation of politicians?

“Hollywood has brought entertainment into the American public sphere and the American political sphere more generally.

“It has made media mobilisation central to gaining political power. Hollywood entertainers have taught politicians the tools of the trade to do that.

“But most importantly it shifted the way people think about entertainment.

Photo: The University of North Carolina Press
“It’s seen as a valuable addition to American politics – making emotion, appealing to the hearts, not necessarily to the minds, of voters a central tactic of political communication.

“This has shifted the power away from the party and urban party machines, which used to control messaging and strategies of communication to voters, to now where you have showmen and professional PR figures and entertainers – they’re the ones that are really controlling the message from candidates to voters.

“Overwhelmingly this shift away from the party to the media has also shifted the focus onto the personality of individual candidates who are running for office, and not just the platform for the party.”

There are a few conservative actors who really stand out, like John Wayne, Charlton Heston and, of course, Ronald Reagan. But actors often tend towards the liberal. When did the acting profession become essentially liberal?

“It’s really interesting, because that is the perception – that Hollywood is liberal.

“But there are many conservatives in Hollywood even today. And in fact the Republican Party has been more successful at turning entertainers into candidates.

“This was a conscious strategy by Republicans in the 1960s to capitalise on the age of television and those figures who are well-known to American television viewers.

“So they started to recruit actors to run for office themselves as the Republican Party was trying to rebrand and rebuild itself in the 1960s.”

If we could speak about Trump, is he the ultimate showbiz president? He wasn’t a politician before and was known to most Americans as a reality TV star, I guess.

“Yes. Donald Trump builds on the changes in the party and the changes in American culture that would allow for someone to assert their credibility and their legitimacy based on their skills to entertain.

“Trump’s celebrity relies on spontaneity and impulse and very much reality television.”

“So he absolutely follows the trajectory that I chart out in my work.

“But he also changes it, because he embodies a different type of celebrity.

“His celebrity is not artfully crafted and honed in a production studio. It doesn’t rely on years of training in terms of studying how to be an actor, how to present a message.

“It relies on spontaneity and impulse and very much reality television.

“The difference between Hollywood production and reality television in many ways shows a different approach to celebrity that’s happened over the last 30 years with cable television and the internet that has democratised celebrity.”

Looking to the future, what happens after Trump? Do you think it’s possible there could be another showbiz personality, like an Oprah Winfrey, who could, now that he’s broken the mold, do something similar?

“I think of this moment as very much similar to the 1960s when figures such as George Murphy and Ronald Reagan did run for office, and it forced both sides, both parties, to think about, What now? We see that this works, so how can we channel this media strategy to our advantage?

“Both sides are figuring out how to respond to new media and the opportunities that something like Twitter has to bypass the press and present candidates directly to American voters.”

I saw a [Washington Post] piece recently by you in which you suggested that even though Trump is the “ultimate showman” his stagecraft isn’t actually that great.

“Yes, this is something that’s actually very different about Trump.

“He has very much promoted himself, his brand, what he wants to do, and he has not actually deployed the production team that so many celebrity presidents in the past have.

Donald Trump,  photo: ČTK/AP/Andrew Harnik
“They’ve relied on the Office of Communications, on speechwriters, on press secretaries to coordinate the messaging so its packaged in a polished way.

“Trump is not polished. And he doesn’t have that packaging team really working for him.

“This is something that he tried to use to his advantage during the campaign against Hillary Clinton, who was very polished and very packaged.

“But it also infringes on his ability to actually govern or legislate. Because there isn’t a coherent message that he’s putting forth.”