"How Conservatives Can Develop A Better Class Of Political Celebrities Than Donald Trump And Ted Nugent"
Writing in the Daily Caller, Matt K. Lewis ponders why conservative advocates and journalists are so quick to get excited–or at minimum, come to the defense of–conservative celebrities, even when those famous people are less-than-articulate, or downright counterproductive advocates for conservative causes. “Like the girl who always falls for the guy who’s bad for her, conservatives keep trusting the wrong people and making the same mistakes. One such mistake goes like this: The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” he writes, going on to discuss in particular, reality star and perpetual potential political candidate Donald Trump and actor and anti-gun regulation advocate Ted Nugent.
The perception of a celebrity gap between liberals and conservatives has long been vexing for many on the right, frustrated by the roster of entertainers who hit the campaign trail for Democrats, turn out for left-leaning causes, the perception (which I’d contest) that entertainment better reflects liberal values than conservative ones, and the grumblings that conservative figures in Hollywood are stuck in some sort of closet. As a result, when a celebrity is willing to advocate for conservative candidates and issues, no matter how poorly they might articulate those messages, or whatever Pigpen-like cloud might surround them, I think some on the right have a tendency to feel that they have to take what they can get. But if conservatives want famous advocates who won’t call the President of the United States a “subhuman mongrel” or throw temper tantrums when they get actual media coverage, they need to start acting more like liberals. Here are three ways to start:
1. Don’t Get Starstruck: The whole point of putting an extremely famous person on stage with a politician, or out in the field with campaign workers or advocates, is to get the folks who will have contact with that celebrity excited, and to draw media coverage to the politician or program that person is associated with. But just because you’re trying to elicit a giddy reaction from your audience doesn’t mean that you should let yourself get starstruck. Sure, it’s exciting when an artist of Clint Eastwood’s stature says he’s willing to speak at your nominating convention. But if you’re a strategist, think clearly about whether it’s a wise move, empty chair or no empty chair. And if you’re watching and commenting, be clear-eyed about whether the celebrity in question is actually doing a good job (or making sense). Defending silliness, ugliness, or incomprehensibility is a quick route to damaging the public perception of your own taste–and it makes it harder in the future to turn down wannabe celebrity endorsers who aren’t cut out to comment on public policy or elections.
2. Help Them Build Political Bonafides: One thing my colleagues at the Enough Project have done well, I think, is to get celebrities, most notably George Clooney, out into the field. When Clooney writes South Sudan, he does so from the position of someone who’s actually been to the country. Actress Martha Plimpton wears pro-choice symbols on the red carpet, but she’s an articulate advocate in part because she does actual advocacy work. Rosario Dawson spends a lot of time working on Latino participation in politics. This sort of experience often has an inoculating effect: rather than hitting the trail with platitudes, or pandering to audiences by saying the most extreme things possible, entertainers can speak in specific terms about their work. And because they’ll have seen what it takes to do the work, they’re more likely to have some sense of strategy, and to avoid imperiling a cause or a candidacy by grandstanding.
3. Demand Message Control: There’s no point in recruiting a celebrity spokesman if you’re going to end up constantly apologizing for horrible things they say. Ted Nugent may have a constituency–there’s a reason he remains on the National Rifle Association’s board–but he makes many more headlines for racial remarks about President Obama than for articulate arguments against gun regulation that convince mass audiences. If what you want from celebrities is an opportunity to double down on the worldview your constituents already share, that’s one thing. But if you want to use their public profile to draw in people who aren’t already acquainted with your message, then for goodness sakes, don’t be afraid to talk about what the most effective version of that message might look like! It’s important to remember that the entertainment industry gets just as much out of appearing engaged in politics and policy as politicians and policymakers do from recruiting them. So in keeping with my first piece of advice, it’s smart for conservatives who are dealing with celebrities to remember that they have messaging expertise and policy knowledge that’s genuinely valuable to their more-famous soon-to-be mouthpieces.