All the World’s A Stage — Even the White House
With Kid Rock gaining GOP backing for his potential run for Michigan Senator, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson landing on the cover of GQ Magazine with the headline “Dwayne Johnson for President!,” it feels like celebrities left and right are leaping into the world of politics and public office willy nilly.
Realistically, celebrity politicians — even celebrity presidents — are hardly a new trend. Going all the way back to Ronald Reagan, who served first as California governor and then as United States president, the leap from entertainer to politician is hardly unprecedented.
To drop a few names, Al Franken has been serving as Minnesota’s junior Senator since 2009. Before that, Franken was a writer and performer on the original cast of Saturday Night Live, and also had a career in comedy and talk radio. Jesse Ventura served as Minnesota’s governor from 1999 through early 2003, after becoming a renowned professional wrestler and actor. After being elected during a scandal-ridden recall, Arnold Schwarzenegger will go down in history as the “Governator,” serving as California’s governor from 2003 to 2011.
The number of celebrities announcing runs for political office feels more sudden of late because their political transition is no longer the gradual process it once was. Instead, celebrities are jumping right from the tour bus to the campaign trail. The truth is, they don’t need to spend years growing their political careers. With the rise of the internet and social media, celebrities voices are amplified. Platforms range from social media to industry awards shows to the endlessly proliferating arts and entertainment publications that the internet has made so cost-effective.
Today, celebrities can announce their candidacy however and whenever they choose. Rap rock star Kid Rock declared his run for Senate on Facebook. Thor Harris, frontman of the percussive Thor & Friends and former percussionist of Swans and Shearwater, announced his run for Texas governor with a tweet. Kanye West announced his 2020 run for presidency during the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards. He later revised the date to 2024 after his meeting with then-President-Elect Donald Trump.
But what drives celebrities to take the leap into politics? And moreover, what makes them think they’re qualified for the job?
In the past, the most frequent motivation for celebrities to jump ship to politics was that they were running against incumbent politicians or their respective stances, and thought themselves the man for the job. But Trump’s lack of related experience and fiery rhetoric has motivated two other types of celebrity crossovers — those who run at the urging of the public and those who run to advance their personal status.
Traditionally, the relatively smaller number of entertainment-specific publications and lack of social media meant that entertainers had to build a political platform from the ground up. By necessity, this created the first category of crossovers — those who run against other politicians. For example, Franken ran a left-leaning political radio talk show for many years between his SNL days and time in office, and was also involved in several activist organizations. Reagan left acting in 1964 and was elected in 1967, and even during his acting days, served as a frequent endorser of politicians like Barry Goldwater and Helen Gahagan Douglas. Schwarzenegger’s upbringing in his native Austria, including his service in the Austrian armed forces, politicized him early on. Later, married into the Kennedy family and was eased into the American political scene.
Recently, Thor Harris has made clear that his entrance into the Texas gubernatorial race is specifically to counter the actions and stances of current governor Greg Abbott. Harris has also long been politically vocal — he was suspended from Twitter in February after posting a joking tutorial on how to punch Nazis shortly after the video of white supremacist Richard Spencer getting punched on Inauguration Day went viral.
The crossovers who run at the behest of their fans tend to have a faster, but still relatively gradual, transition from entertainment to politics. Social media frequently gives them a platform to make their political stances known without having to schmooze with big names in the game.
That category, which includes figures like Cynthia Nixon and Dwayne Johnson, tend to be encouraged to run by their fans when their behavior, political or otherwise, demonstrates strong leadership. Johnson’s GQ profile paints him as the kindest, sweetest, most thoughtful man to ever star in hyper-masculine action films. Nixon’s fans include opinion writers at CNN, and her role as the staunchly feminist, take-no-shit Miranda in Sex and the City will long reinforce her years of activism within her reputation as a fierce but level-headed defender of the people.
Both of their qualifications come from the confidence to recognize their own skills as leaders and their calm, considerate decision-making skills that would be good enough on their own without the added contrast of tweeting threats of nuclear war without consulting your staff.
The celebrities who run for status and glory round out the lot, and often are the ones who make the strongest impression on our social consciousnesses. Their transition into politics is often so immediate that it’s not even really a transition. It’s more like adding politics to their existing entertainment careers. Kid Rock has said that, while his Senate run is not a hoax, it will be paired with releases of his new music. As a marketing plan, it’s arguably the most aggressive strategy an artist could choose, but is sure to guarantee him frequent press.
Kanye, on the other hand, announced his presidential run in August 2015, six months before he would release his album The Life of Pablo and well before he started promoting the album. As thoroughly examined in an episode of the podcast Still Processing, his announcement came with plenty of politically charged statements but very much as a movement forward in his path towards greatness. The duo behind the podcast, Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris, along with guest speaker Joe Caramanica, place Kanye’s desire for presidential power within a framework of his constant desire to conquer the next level of traditionally white power structures after still not being satisfied with the power and safety that being an internationally-acclaimed rapper and designer has brought him.
Between glory and political justice, celebrities have as much reason to run for office as any other citizen. But between the precedent of a celebrity president who jumped right from one sphere to the other and the massive platforms that the internet provides celebrities, they could easily all end up on Capitol Hill. Their qualifications range from demonstrated leadership to strong political opinions to the mere gall to run at all.
Still, perhaps what we should be considering is not how or why celebrities are qualified to run for public office, but what we as citizens and voters are looking for in our public officials. Is it another person who is hell-bent on changing the system — if only to benefit themselves? Is it a calm and qualified leader who risks getting so bogged down in creating compromise that they leave no time to make progress? Is it another former pro wrestler?