With 99% of results in, Cynthia Nixon’s bid for the Democratic primary nominee for New York Governor has been brutally crushed. Beaten by a two to one percentage, with Andrew M. Cuomo taking 65.6% of the vote, I was struck by what some senior aides within the Nixon campaign saw as a potential Achilles Heel that lead to such a colossal loss. L. Joy Williams, one of Nixon’s top campaign advisers, argued that in the wake of Trump, Nixon’s status as a famous actress actually harmed rather than helped her prospects for the nomination:
“With $20 million [the Cuomo camp] were able to define her as only being an actress and only being a celebrity…Particularly with Trump in the White House, people did this sort of equation that Trump and Cynthia were the same thing…That was a difficulty to overcome.”
Whether Nixon’s star status had a substantial impact on her campaign, or was just one element of a wider fault within her bid, Williams’ comments are striking in how they give some early ideas on the developing nature of celebrity in American politics under Trump. The Atlantic’s Russell Berman touched on the subject in his May 21st editorial on the primary, posing how Nixon’s celebrity status could act as a useful barometer of post-2016 dynamics: “can Democratic voters trust a celebrity candidate in the age of Trump?” The fascinating history of celebrity in American politics can’t possibly be covered in one short post, and has been researched extensively by the likes of David Haven Blake, who provides some insights in how it has developed under Trump in his interview with Bloomberg’s Virginia Postrel. However, seeing Nixon’s primary defeat under this lens could prove a fascinating, early footnote on how Americans potentially come to see celebrity status as a hindrance when connected with political ambition.
It would be fair to say that the marriage of celebrity and politics met its apex when President Trump took office. However, the controversial nature of Trump’s presidency, and many of the President’s less diplomatic qualities, cannot be easily separated from how he has managed his star status over the past few decades. For instance, Trump’s regular barrage of tweets aimed at football players, reluctant Republican colleagues and CNN anchors is hard to separate from the kind of Twitter spats dealt with by celebrities every day. With his relatively linear succession from The Apprentice to U.S President, there is little to suggest that he has any interest in formalising his behaviour to any substantial degree. In fact, it often feels like Trump sees his position as President as an exciting development in his celebrity status, rather than a realisation of the monumental and complex form of political office he is holding. A more polished celeb president would have a greater chance of separating these elements from his leadership, but with Trump, it’s clear that despite the best efforts of senior White House officials such as John Kelly, the star elements of the Trump White House are ever-present, and even encouraged by the Celebrity-in-Chief.
Political analysis is a graveyard of poor judgements and dud opinions, and most people would have been hard set to try and predict the last five years of American politics, never mind forecast the next six. However, reflecting on Trump’s management of the White House, it is clear that how he manages his time in office will have significant consequences on the future of the Celebrity Politician. While it’s hard to imagine American voters becoming more receptive to establishment politicians, if Trump’s time in office is substantially coloured by his celebrity-like handling of the White House, and his lack of experience leading to poor policy decisions, there could be a major appetite for voters to go back towards degrees of more experienced politicians. An even more severe reaction could take place. While hard to believe in the current, aggressive anti-establishment ethos of the West, there is also the potential for the trauma of a severely mishandled White House under Trump to lead to a wholesale rejection of outsider political figures altogether. Many stars who will be looking to throw their hat in the ring in 2020 and 2024 will be watching closely to see if they would weather the storm of what could become a colossal backlash against star presidents and star politicians. In its place, a category of experienced policy-pros in the range of Hillary Clinton’s “progressive who gets things done” narrative could emerge to take the place of a once insatiable outsider, rogue status ridden by politicians for the last twenty years, and eventually put to bed by Donald Trump. Any reaction that leads to an unexpected embrace of veteran politicians poses its own problems, but it’s clear that with Trump in the White House, the fate of the Celebrity Politician is in his hands.