It took mere minutes after Cynthia Nixon announced her run for New York governor on Monday for the photo to surface, as if summoned in response to the news: The actress accepting her first Emmy Award for her work in Sex and the City from Donald Trump, who happened to, during his tenure as host of The Apprentice, be presenting it.
The connection meant to be made is fairly obvious, and intentionally foreboding. Here we go again with the celebrity running for office, because it went so well the last time!
Ostensibly, we’re supposed to lump Nixon into the illustrious group that includes Antonio Sabato Jr., Stacey Dash, and Kid Rock—and, according to different speeds of the rumor mill, Curt Schilling, Mark Cuban, Tim Tebow, Caitlyn Jenner, and Kanye West. Let’s not forget, too, the country’s collective hysterical episode over Oprah Winfrey's wholly imagined presidential run.
There has been a clear spike in celebrity candidates in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, and an even greater surge in speculation that a politically minded celebrity or gregarious personality might consider a run for office.
In the case of Nixon, who historically has been politically active with LGBTQ rights, the Alliance for Quality Education, Planned Parenthood, and local New York City politics, associating her with that D-list red carpet of reality stars, has-beens, fame whores, and pipe dreams is an egregious case of “one of these things is not like the other.”
But that still doesn’t shield one from the mind grenade that is the headline: “Sex and the City Star Announces Run for New York Governor.”
It’s true that the litany of Sex and the City-inspired jokes about her candidacy being “such a Miranda thing to do,” referencing her character on the HBO series, or the tweeting of embarrassing .GIFs and salacious moments from her time on the show isn’t exactly a particularly dignified or elegant start to a major political push.
Challenging incumbent Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is seeking his third term, in the democratic primary is an endeavor The New York Times called a “huge undertaking,” given Cuomo’s flush $30-million campaign bank and legacy name. That’s not to mention the presumption that her celebrity status, as much as it will generate the kind of media attention most challengers could only dream of, will, post-Trump, be a liability.
The Times cites a pollster who scoffed at Nixon’s longevity as a candidate for that very reason, saying that Trump has made celebrity leaders toxic in the minds of Democratic voters, who prefer candidates who can “counter what they see as the chaos of the inexperienced.”
If the question is whether Nixon’s candidacy should be dismissed as more celebrity nonsense, filed in the same folder as sideshow candidates like Stacey Dash and Antonio Sabato Jr., then her campaign is by nature already different. (And not just because of her superior intelligence on the issues facing voters than those other celebrities mentioned.)
For all the talk arguing that the Hollywood liberal elite should keep their noses (and their egos) out of politics, it’s worth noting that the majority of fully-realized celebrity political bids—and yes, elections—have been on Republican tickets.
Arnold Schwarzenegger (Governor, California), Sonny Bono (U.S. Representative, California), Fred Thompson (Senator, Tennessee), Clint Eastwood (Mayor, Carmel, California), Ronald Reagan (President of the United States), and Donald Trump (President of the United States) all ran as GOP candidates.
While there are certainly examples of liberal celebrity politicians—Al Franken, a failed bid by American Idol’s Clay Aiken—it’s an exception to the trend. The Democratic party’s skepticism of the very idea of celebrity candidates could be both Nixon’s greatest challenge and, should she survive the scrutiny, advantage.
The exhausted eye-roll over celebrity politicians is a reflex triggered not just from the actual bids by these stars—they’re actually pretty sparse in number—but by the incessant headlines proposing manufactured and fanciful celebrity political runs by celebrities who reveal even the slightest inkling of civic interest. Or, more often than not, those who don’t.
We barrage humanitarian A-listers, from George Clooney to Angelina Jolie, with softball questions about a political future. A noted New Yorker? Well, Alec Baldwin, Sarah Jessica Parker, and David Letterman, surely you’re considering a run for mayor. Or maybe you give a tossed-off quote to a magazine or talk show. The Rock, you are our next president.
As the nation crumbles under unqualified celebrity leadership, it’s the normalization of the idea of unqualified celebrity leadership moving forward that makes you want to scream into the void. (Which former New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn ostensibly just did, calling Nixon “an unqualified lesbian” and her entry into the gubernatorial race a “flight of fancy on her part.”)
The histrionic reaction to what amounted to an entirely hypothetical Oprah Winfrey presidential run didn’t so much as set fire to the debate over the value of yet another celebrity politician as it burned to a crisp every tangent and argument, until the entire conversation was left as scorched earth. Because of this timing, Nixon isn’t so much rising like a phoenix from the ashes of that debate as she is faintly emanating from its embers like a wisp of smoke.
But whereas so many other celebrity candidates jumped off the starting blocks in their respective races to a chorus of groans—sure, Oprah included—Nixon already has mustered a fair amount of applause in her first two days of campaigning.
Her announcement video was aggressive in its condemnation of the state of affairs in New York, from mass incarceration to gross economic inequality to the city’s broken subway system. That latter point was really driven home when Nixon was late for her first campaign event Tuesday because of subway delays, despite leaving 90 minutes early for what should have been a 30-minute trip. New York City locals, already suffering daily rage-strokes over their own commutes, shook their fists at Cuomo in solidarity.
Still, we’re only at the dawn of what could be a long campaign in which Nixon’s credentials are questioned because of her showbiz background.
The Miranda Hobbes Goes to Albany jokes are quickly wearing thin in relation to the former Sex and the City star, and the show’s fans are already apoplectic, repeatedly correcting the policy neophytes who keep referring to the show as Sex in the City.
(For what it’s worth, since SATC ended, Nixon has won two Tony Awards, an Emmy, a Grammy, and been nominated for nearly a dozen critics prizes for her roles in the indies James White and A Quiet Passion. Maybe we don’t need to reduce her career to memes resurfacing the HBO show’s sexual innuendos.)
But that’s the political reality we’re in, one in which real candidates have become defined by their TV series personas. As the American presidency wallows in metaphors about the reality TV world Donald Trump came from, Nixon’s gubernatorial candidacy will be inextricable from the Sex and the City puns that launched her career. How much will that hurt her? I couldn’t help but wonder…