In The Know

‘Trump effect’ propels Hollywood’s political hopefuls

More and more famous faces are dipping their toes in the political waters, and some Hollywood stars are ready to dive into the deep end.

Olympic gold medalist and former “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” star Caitlyn Jenner launched her campaign to become California’s next governor last week. Announcing that she would run in the recall election aimed at deposing Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), Jenner said, “Sacramento needs an honest leader with a clear vision.”

Meanwhile, Matthew McConaughey’s book tour to promote his memoir “Greenlights” has seemed at times to be a warmup for the campaign trail, with the “True Detective” actor repeatedly teasing a potential gubernatorial run in his home state of Texas.

And Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who has flirted with a White House bid for years, has put some more muscle into the POTUS chatter in recent weeks, saying he’ll trade action movies for the Oval Office if that’s “what the people want.” The former WWE wrestler’s new semibiographical NBC sitcom shows him running to be commander in chief in the near future.

From Ronald Reagan to Sonny Bono, swapping the stage for stump speeches is nothing new, but experts say the recent wave of performers turning to politics can at least partially be attributed to the rise of “Celebrity Apprentice” host-turned-45th president Donald Trump, or the “Trump effect.”

“When Trump got elected, a lot of people took it to mean you didn’t have to come from the world of politics to run,” says veteran GOP strategist John Brabender. The chief creative officer of BrabenderCox says he’s been on calls recently with two “pretty high-level national celebrities” who reached out to him with interest in entering specific races.

“In a strange and odd way, Trump sort of broke some barriers and shattered some glass ceilings … and showed there are alternate paths,” says Brabender.

David Jackson, a professor of political science at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, says the Trump effect can “be one of saying, well, you know, I could run for a higher office than I normally would’ve thought of running before.”

“There’s no sense of an apprenticeship required before seeking the highest office,” Jackson added.

Buoyed by their massive fan bases, entertainers could find it easier to leap into the political arena than average Joes and Janes, says radio personality Cooper Lawrence.

“With social media, once you have millions of followers and people already on board with you, it’s really easy to make that transition,” says Lawrence, the author of “Celebritocracy: The Misguided Agenda of Celebrity Politics in a Postmodern Democracy.”

Jackson tole ITK that “other candidates just simply have to spend a lot of money to try to develop” the name recognition that comes with fame. “A celebrity sort of automatically has that notoriety,” he says.

That can help, particularly in a recall election such as the one in the Golden State, where potentially hundreds of candidates will be attempting to hog the spotlight.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, who famously won in a recall election in 2003 to become California’s Republican governor, said in an interview on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” this week, “When I was in the recall election, there were 150 candidates there, and there was a huge circus.”

The “Terminator” star and bodybuilder-turned-politician advised Jenner and the other candidates ahead of November’s recall, “The key thing about all of this: It doesn’t matter if it’s Caitlyn or if it’s anyone else if you have a clear vision of where you want to go. What are the kind of changes you want to make? And why are you qualified to become governor?”

Yet just as much as their fame can benefit Hollywood’s political hopefuls, the limelight could also prove to be too scorching to their potential campaigns.

Celebrities, Lawrence says, can have a sordid and very public history.

“Most candidates when they run, maybe they’re squeaky-clean, maybe they’re not, but you really have to dig. You really have to find out where things went wrong, whereas celebrities have always been in the news and pop culture and interviews,” she says.

Resurfaced past comments that could get someone “canceled,” Lawrence says, are more of a risk factor for artists who have long been in the public eye.

Jenner, a longtime Republican, has been on the receiving end of criticism from LGBTQ groups because of her past embrace of Trump. While Jenner later said she rejected President Biden’s predecessor — in 2018 calling him the “the worst president we have ever had” for “all LGBT issues” — she has at least one alum of the Trump White House working on her campaign.

Also a possible stumbling block? The “rich” part of “rich and famous.” Although Hollywood’s big names could attract campaign donations from a built-in network of fans, even supporters might not be willing to cough up cash for actors they perceive to be rolling in personal dough.

“The other problem they have sometimes is fundraising because people know their net worth,” Brabender says.

Plus, politics has a way of alienating even the most loyal fanbase.

Former President George W. Bush said in an interview last month that McConaughey could have a shot at being the Lone Star State’s next governor if he has the “principles” to tune out his critics.

While an April poll from The Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas at Tyler found that more Texas voters would back McConaughey over Gov. Greg Abbott (R) in a hypothetical matchup next year, Bush warned, “The criticism can be pretty harsh.”

“The question would be, does he have a set of principles firm enough to not worry about what the critics say?” Bush said.

Running for office is “way more adversarial” than staying afloat in Hollywood, says Brabender. “You have an opposite party that’s after you, you have news media that’s going to challenge you, there’s other opponents in the race that are going to challenge you. So all of the sudden, your brand is going to come under attack.”

Brabender, who in 2016 created a viral political ad parodying celebrities who had railed against then-President Trump that racked up more than 14 million views, says by the time he’s done outlining the stakes and potential pitfalls to performers interested in political runs, they often decide against the career change.

Plenty of stars have thrown their names in the political ring and expressed interest in running for office, only to ultimately decide against it. Ashley Judd’s name was floated as a challenger to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), but in 2013, the “Divergent” actress took herself out of the running, citing a need to focus on her family.

“I might run some day,” Judd told ITK in 2015.

“All Summer Long” singer Kid Rock teased a possible Michigan Senate run in 2017 for months before finally putting the kibosh on political plans, saying in an interview with Howard Stern, “F— no, I’m not running for Senate.”

Critics could accuse some celebrities of suddenly considering a life in politics whenever they have a new movie hitting theaters or an album to promote, using the possibility of a campaign as a means of manufacturing a PR lift, without actually running.

“That’s a concern — it’s just a cynical ploy by celebs to use the political media to their advantage,” says Jackson, author of “Entertainment and Politics: The Influence of Pop Culture on Young Adult Political Socialization.”

Running for office could also give an ego boost to performers, says Lawrence, who holds a doctorate in psychology.

“Celebrities have really big egos. These are people that are statistically and scientifically higher in narcissism. So what does a narcissist want more than to have power?” Lawrence asks.

But Brabender notes that stars who are willing to put fame and fortune on the line to suit up for the often bruising political battlefield should also be applauded.

“I think that they need to be commended on some level because what they’re also saying, it seems to me, is I’m not just going to be a Hollywood critic who stands up and says what’s wrong with everything in Washington, and now I’m going to go back to my real world,” Brabender says. “They’re willing to put their name on a ballot, and anybody who has the courage to do that — I don’t care what side of the aisle you’re on — deserves a lot of credit.”

Political aspirants from the entertainment world, he predicts, certainly aren’t going to fade away anytime soon. Trump’s 2016 victory and future wins could also inspire more campaigns from candidates — such as CEOs and professional athletes — who didn’t take the traditional path to politics.

“I think that it wouldn’t be unusual to see one of them break through this cycle. And if that happens, I think you’re going to see double the number of potential celebrity candidates in 2024,” Brabender says.

Jackson says that, despite the star-studded obstacles, celebrity candidates simply can’t be written off in the wake of Trump’s success.

“No celebrity running for office can be dismissed out of hand anymore. That’s just where we are,” he says.

Tags 2022 2022 midterms 2024 2024 election Ashley Judd Caitlyn Jenner California Donald Trump Dwayne Johnson Gavin Newsom Jimmy Kimmel Joe Biden John Brabender Kid Rock Matthew McConaughey Mitch McConnell Texas trump effect trumpism
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video