The drawn out US 2016 election cycle began in 2014 and is still continuing on with the outrage of the surprising and disappointing election of Donald Trump. Given the results, it is important to discuss the impact of the heavy involvement of celebrities in this election. Celebrity involvement is not exactly new in American elections. We all remember JFK’s popularity amongst Hollywood stars (especially Marilyn Monroe). Ronald Reagan, who started out as an actor, became President of the United States and served two terms. Arnold Schwarzenegger was another actor who was involved in politics and later became Governor of California. In 2016, we saw Beyonce, Jay Z, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Adele and many more announce their support, speak at rallies, and fundraise for their candidates. Let’s make an attempt to analyze the impact of celebrities and their involvement to the narrative of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton’s campaigns. Do celebrities make elections more legitimate or less legitimate?
Clinton was criticized for being an establishment candidate whose support lay predominantly in donors from Wall Street. Her opponent, Donald Trump used this fact about her candidacy against her and used the presence of celebrities at rallies to argue that Hillary was not strong enough to gather crowds on her own. The way Trump and Republican supporters saw it, Hillary’s candidacy was the establishment’s big attempt to retain control of American politics. For the Clinton campaign, to have popular and loved celebrities attend rallies and fundraisers was a way of generating buzz in the news, as well as gathering attendance at rallies. Also, it doesn’t hurt to have an assembly of popular celebrities and figures rooting for you. Having a member of the Beyhive on your side who exclaims, “Queen B is voting for her, so I am definitely voting for her!” is surely an asset.
This strategy encouraged the public to vote in addition to generating buzz about a candidate. The strategy also helped Clinton win the popular vote by a decent margin. It’s sad that the electoral college can’t be influenced by celebrities.
The celebrities that did support Trump seemed to like his stance on economic protectionism and his business background. Presumably, many think these traits would be helpful in strengthening the economy and creating jobs. Many of the celebrity supporters were quick to defend his racist and sexist remarks and also said it should not reflect on his character or good intentions to work for Americans. Surprising how that works; Trump’s misogynistic comments in 2005 should be disregarded but the entire existence of Clinton is up for debate and criticism. For instance, Clint Eastwood famously said that racism did not exist in his time and he does not see the big deal with Trump’s comments.
Celebrity endorsements are big. Celebrities are popular, noticeable and bring recognition and awareness to a brand, or product they endorse. The same applies to elections. It is argued that Oprah Winfrey got Obama the primary win against Clinton, as well as the presidency. That can be argued for or against but it is difficult to say that celebrities don’t provide publicity. According to The Conversation (an online blog), the public believes celebrities are considered more credible and trustworthy than politicians. Research shows that young adults (“millennials”) think celebrities can influence the way people think. This was especially important for Hillary Clinton who had a challenging time gaining traction and support amongst young people and Bernie or Bust voters.
The argument that celebrities should not get involved in politics because their presence makes politics less legitimate is often raised. That is not a fair stance. Celebrities are first and foremost human beings and most likely citizens of their country and have the right to vote and participate in democracy as any other citizen does. Yes, their celebrity can afford them a platform and a voice that is heard by more people than an average person; however, that cannot and should not deny them the right to speak about issues that affect society. This includes elections. It is important to remember that outside of their characters and albums, celebrities are regular people who could be and are affected by the outcome of elections. An example of this would be LGBTQ+ celebrities who, under a Trump administration, could risk losing their right to marry a loved one.
Robert De Niro raised eyebrows when he took part in a non-partisan video to encourage people to vote by not exactly being non-partisan, and calling out Donald Trump. Some of his words were, “This is somebody that we want for president? I don’t think so. What I care about is the direction of this country and what I’m very, very worried about is that it might go in the wrong direction with someone like Donald Trump. If you care about your future, vote for it.” De Niro received criticism for not remaining non-partisan and using unsavoury language to describe Trump and his platform. In his defence, he did not beat Trump’s insulting remarks and actions against women, Latinos, Muslims and other minorities. His critics would state that he failed to respect the non-partisan nature of the video and did not meet the intended goal to encourage Americans to head out and vote for their future. I think the second criticism is incorrect. De Niro made the exact arguments he felt were important to encourage people to vote and understand the urgency of the election.
Despite Clinton’s electoral loss, celebrity endorsements and involvement will not stray away from politics. Art of any form is always political. A testament to that belief lies in the recent address to Vice President-elect Mike Pence from the cast of Hamilton. With growing traction and support for a Tom Hanks or Kanye West 2020 presidential candidacy, as well as with a reality television show celebrity in the White House come January 20, 2017, America has not seen the last of celebrity action in politics.