Republicans are putting on their “smug faces” and scoffing at the raft of celebrity performers, Rockettes and now even a member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, who are refusing to raise their microphones, kick up their bare-legged heels or otherwise perform for Donald Trump at his inaugural.
Bristol Palin, despite her own tenuous grasp on celebrity status, took to her blog to snipe at the refuseniks as ”sissies”.
But make no mistake, this disdain drips with envy (and Bristol would be snapping selfies with those A-listers in a heartbeat if they’d have her.) Republicans and conservatives know full well that denying Trump the celebrity and cultural imprimatur he so desperately craves matters, and not just because of the awkward headlines after each new rejection.
America is, in many ways, as much an idea as it is a country. And Americans have long marketed that idea around the world through our popular culture. From jazz, the blues, country and rock to Hollywood movies, culture has in many ways been our greatest export (or our most obnoxious one, depending on your point of view). In decades past, “The Western” defined the image of a cowboy nation; something both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush revived to their domestic political benefit and to the world’s chagrin. The Hollywood of Frank Capra’s era, when Reagan became a minor star, sold the world an image of American pith and patriotism in many ways as defining as the moon landing or the A-bomb.
Our love of Hollywood-style glamour helped elect two presidents: JFK and Reagan, who fulfilled the prophecy that a country so enamored of actors would eventually make one their president. “All in the Family” chronicled the racial and cultural upheavals of the Nixon era. Bill Clinton captured the zeitgeist of young voters in the early 1990s by playing his saxophone on the “Arsenio Hall” show and survived sexual scandal and impeachment in a country reared on “Dallas” and “Dynasty.” It’s arguable that without the mainstreaming power of entertainment shows like “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” and the “Cosby Show” and portrayals of black presidents that became routine in film and on television, it would have been that much harder to get to a real first black president.
Reciprocally, presidents have always sought to rub elbows with celebrities. Actor-singer Gene Kelly served as a master of ceremonies and performed at Harry Truman’s inaugural gala in 1949. Old Blue Eyes crooned “High Hopes” for Jack Kennedy’s campaign and was among the Kennedy boys’ famous pals. Charlton Heston was cultivated by Republicans and the NRA for decades, and not because he looked good hoisting a rifle over his head. Even Richard Nixon relished his Oval Office photo with Elvis Presley, while Ronald Reagan welcomed associations with as varied a bunch of stars as John Wayne and James Brown.
Obama, though, has taken celebrity association to another level. He has been a darling of Hollywood, the music industry and popular culture from the time he declared for president in 2007, when Oprah herself anointed him “The One” and a year later, pop singer/rapper Will-I-Am turned his iconic “Yes We Can” speech into a remixed Youtube hit. Michelle Obama, like Jackie O before her, has become the toast of the fashion world, and a patron of the arts, from Broadway to great American music which she brought into the White House in all its multicultural glory.
As the entertainment world has gone from a bipartisan sphere to an overwhelmingly liberal one, Republicans and conservatives have come to view it with disdain. The Obamas in particular drive the right to distraction. Calling Obama a “celebrity” was considered a real, live epithet during the 2008 campaign, when a bitter John McCain saw his own political star status eclipsed. It infuriates Republicans that this elegant black family is celebrated while, for example, the Palins are ridiculed as rubes and bumpkins (though that could have something to do with the latter’s penchant for street brawls).
Conservatives rail at Hollywood movies that make them feel alienated by presenting capitalists, corporations and moral traditionalists as the villains, and sexual libertines, iconoclasts and the godless (or godlike, in the form of superheroes, witches and warlocks) as the heroes.
They lash out at popular music that they feel coarsens the culture and steers their kids away from Christian dogma. One wonders at the angst in far-right households as their white teenaged children blast hip-hop music on their expensive devices and in their nice cars. It’s a fear of cultural contagion that has driven parents crazy since the sock-hop kids of the 1950s discovered the gyrations of black rock-and-roll.
The Christian right has even been known to attack cartoon characters, from Tinky Winky the Teletubby to Spongebob Squarepants, whom they view as grooming a generation of young Americans to tolerate such presumed sexual heresies as open homosexuality, gender ambiguity and same-sex marriage.
These complaints are not incidental. They’re viewed as part of an existential struggle between traditionalists and an abortion- and birth control-legalizing, secularism promoting, sex-before-marriage practicing, drinks and weed imbibing, “happy holidays” left that long since won the culture wars; and against whom the cultural right has been fighting a half century-long insurgency.
Beyond racial hierarchism and plain old partisanship and hypocrisy, the 80 percent of white self-professed evangelicals who voted for Trump purportedly did so to lay claim to the courts, where they believe they can yet win out on banning abortion and birth control, forcing women back into traditional roles, and undoing gay marriage (or at least exempting themselves from being forced by law to photograph or bake cakes for them.)
Trump, who has spent a lifetime cultivating celebrity status — and not cultivating traditionalists; far from it, in fact — owes his election in large part to the sense of familiarity that being a reality TV star afforded him. That status allowed many of his voters to put aside his misogyny and vulgarity, and to ignore information about his business failings, chicanery and Putinism, because they think that having watched him on “The Apprentice” and at his rallies, they know who he really is.
Now, a man who clearly craves the adulation of the famous; the Queens rich kid who desperately desired the respect of the Manhattan and Palm Beach elite, is being denied it, publicly and in humiliating fashion. The mad scramble by his team to secure famous players for his inaugural festivities coupled with his ad-hoc photo ops with a fading Jim Brown, a bizarre, unmedicated Kanye West and huckster-cum-murderer Don King makes Trump’s existential yearning clear. He can try to deflect with pathetic tweets about really wanting to be surrounded by “the people” on his big day, but the truth is transparent: the germaphobic pouter who lives in an all-gold penthouse built from cheap materials by undocumented Polish migrants wouldn’t wipe his nose on his core supporters. Just look at his billionaire cabinet for a clue.
And yet his vicious campaign, which opened with racism and closed with a bizarre anti-Semitic screed, and which dined out on vows to discriminate against Mexicans and Muslims while unleashing a resurgence of racist hate groups and just plain haters is reaping the cultural opprobrium it sowed. And it’s making The Donald miserable.
Even the proto-Nazis unleashed by Trump’s campaign, some of whom are organizing an inaugural event pitifully dubbed the “Deploraball,” seem to crave pop culture normalization, based on their apparent desire to have Kanye as a special guest performer. One wonders how awkward it would be for the rapper to be on stage when the “Sieg Heiling” begins.
So far, the reaction of the creative community, from Broadway to Los Angeles and from hip-hop to Radio City Music Hall, has been to say a resounding “no” to Trump. It’s not a dismissal born purely of partisanship, but rather a rejection of the entire underlying ethos of his divisive, revanchist campaign. Maintaining a unified front against authoritarianism, xenophobia, Islamophobia and misogyny is no laughing matter, no matter how much Trump’s apologists try to snide it off on cable TV.
Ultimately, denying Trump and Trumpism the cultural cosign they crave is an important statement. It does what so far, the collective media have been unable or unwilling to do: rejecting the normalization of the utterly abnormal. It tells not just the country, but the world, that Trumpism may have a hold on our politics, but it doesn’t have a hold on us. America’s ascendant majority will not so easily slink off into that good night, and will not quietly ingest what Trump has foisted on the electorate.
He and his bilious, Russophile Twitter and comment-section trolls, his apologist surrogates and his zombified, partisan enablers on Capitol Hill will have to do their dirty work — including the horrors of disappointment and lost healthcare and social safety net programs soon to be visited on Trump’s own working class supporters — without the shield of popular cultural will.