The GOP Celebrity Crush – by Christian Schneider
Herschel Walker would once pointed a gun at the head of his wife and threatened to “blow her brains out”. He lied to work in law enforcement and to serve as an FBI agent. After years of haranguing absent fathers, he admitted to have three children that he had not disclosed publicly. He questioned evolution, asking “Why are there still apes?” Think about it.”
Several weeks ago, despite having lived near Dallas for a decade, Walker won the Republican Senate primary in Georgia. Walker now moves on to challenge Senator Raphael Warnock, who won a special election in January 2021.
Walker won the GOP primary with 68% of the vote because, for all his flaws, he has the one thing that matters most as a Republican candidate: fame. Of course he may have approved a magical ‘haze’ that would ‘kill any covid (sic) on your body’ and could make it look like air pollution is caused by China sending us its ‘bad air’. But before all that, he was a college football star at the University of Georgia and enjoys universal recognition in the state.
And now, the balance of the US Senate may hinge on his eligibility.
Republicans have not urged Walker to run because of his stance on immigration or the child tax credit or because he has a plan to fight inflation. He did not achieve this by getting elected to the Georgia State House or any other office. He simply had the one thing that no other candidate could match: fame. Voters have heard of him.
Republicans have watched for decades as progressives commandeer every lever of American culture. While Hollywood celebrities casually brag for the left on climate change, gun control, voting rights and social issues, the biggest celebrities who spoke out on the right were Ferris Bueller. economics teacher and a faded Ted Nugent.
Sure, the Democrats had their occasional famous politician. Al Franken, for example, had a career with saturday night live and converted it into a Senate seat for his home state of Minnesota.
But for the most part, liberal celebrities refuse to run for office. Just last week, an opinion piece in Politics suggested that comedian Jon Stewart would have a good chance of winning if he ran for president as a Democrat in 2024. Stewart quickly said “no thanks.”
Maybe conservative celebrities don’t get as much attention in Hollywood, because they’re (with some exceptions) often B-, C-, and D-list celebrities. They probably turn to politics to make the mark. they couldn’t do in the movies or on television, which may explain why there are more of them.
Some famous people have run for office as Republicans, but mostly after their stars have disappeared. Sonny Bono (singer and mustache lover), Fred Grandy (“Gopher” on love boat) and Steve Largent (NFL Hall of Fame wide receiver) have all won seats in Congress as Republicans. Former NFL quarterback Jack Kemp was a party mainstay for years. Chances are your grandparents bought life insurance after seeing an ad featuring Tennessee Sen. (and Law and order featured) Fred Thompson. Arnold Schwarzenegger may have become California’s last Republican governor.
One difference between these men and Walker is that they took their jobs seriously. Kemp, called the “most important politician of the 20th century who was not president”, was the Republican Party’s leading voice on supply-side economics, arguing that lower taxes and less regulation would spur economic growth. Sonny Bono made his way to Congress after serving four years as mayor of Palm Springs, Calif. Fred Thompson was a national political figure from the time he served on the Watergate committee in 1973 until his death in 2015. (It was Thompson’s interrogation White House aide Alexander Butterfield who discovered the fact that the Oval Office was equipped with secret listening devices.)
And then came Donald Trump.
Trump, who had spent his life as a political nomad who frequented give money to the Democrats (including $100,000 to the Clinton Foundation) and flirted with a presidential election in 2000 as a member of the Reform Party, decided to go permanently Republican, and flirted with a presidential election in 2012. Trump was a real celebrity – someone who had managed to keep their name in the headlines for years and who ran in circles with some of America’s biggest names.
Trump wasn’t conservative, wasn’t religious, and wasn’t shy about appealing to people with outdated views on race and gender roles. But the party followed his lead, believing he was a leader (he had told them so for years The apprentice) and because he made all his enemies on the left believe that they had just swallowed a lemon.
Trump’s success then served as a model for famous figures who had no political history but aspired to run for office. In fact, in the Trump era, all you need to win a GOP primary is name recognition and healthy obedience to Trump himself.
In 2020, former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville won a US Senate seat. This year, Mehmet Oz, a TV doctor with a sales history quack drugs, narrowly won a GOP primary in the Pennsylvania Senate. JD Vance, best-selling book (and later film) author Hillbilly Elegyput aside his early criticism of Trump and became a sidekick to the former president en route to winning a Senate primary in Ohio.
And, of course, now there’s Walker.
Apart from their fame, all of these candidates have one other thing in common: they were all endorsed by Trump, whose admiration for fame is well documented. Trump even endorsed Tuberville, which led the Auburn Tigers to an unbeaten season in 2004, against his own former attorney general, Jeff Sessions.
The desire for celebrity within the party is now so strong that it shapes the behavior of non-celebrity elected officials once in power. Majorie Taylor Greene has been stripped of her committee assignments, but it just gives her more time to tweet and Appearances in Newsmax. Madison Cawthorn perhaps said it best when, after being elected, he emailed his colleagues saying “I built my staff around communications rather than legislation.”
These people haven’t won a Heisman trophy or written a bestselling book – they’re trying to follow the path from stardom to higher positions after they’ve already been elected.
The main victim of celebrity politics has been true conservatism, which has disappeared as a philosophy of government. Post-liberal Republicans have abandoned any desire for small government, arguing instead that government will be better once they are in charge of it. In this new Republican utopia, privately run social media platforms will be forced to host content that may be dangerous or illegal, federal rights reform will be a verboten topic, and corporations will pay higher taxes if anyone one in the break room is caught chatting. RuPaul’s Drag Race.
But there’s good news for mainstream conservatives horrified by their party’s capitulation to ideologically neutral celebrities: The thirst for cultural relevance that drove Republicans to abandon decades-old posts could also be the party’s way out. restore some sense of sanity.
If a legitimate celebrity came forward and argued for limited government and less regulation, they would immediately have the ear of those who are tired of defending a twice-deposed president who incited an insurrection. What kept Trump alive in the party wasn’t that the base liked him, it was that no bigger celebrity showed up to bring him down.
Consider what would happen if a major celebrity did everything to restore conservatism within the GOP. Not famous “Utah senator” or “once upon a time in a star wars-adjacent show” famous. But legitimately a household name, as Trump was.
The Trump years have demonstrated that the Republican Party will bend its ideals to acquiescence to any celebrity who wants to join its ranks. A party that wants parents to sue teachers for mentioning transgender has no problem bragging that Caitlyn Jenner is a visible part of its ranks. If Kanye West – who once complained on national television that George W. Bush hates black people – wants to join the party, then come on in!
But what if a big star wanted to use his fame for the forces of good?
Suppose former football star Peyton Manning (who was rumored running for a Senate seat in 2018, but says he has “no interest in being a politician”) decided it was his duty to make his party a little less insurgent. What if Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (speaker at the 2000 Republican National Convention) wanted to mold the GOP to the image it had when it was growing up? Republican voters would definitely smell what he was cooking.
Of course, finding such a person would be a challenge. Few celebrities, especially the more conservative ones, want to make political enemies of their fans. That’s why Republicans have spent decades whispering about which big names might be “one of them.” It usually requires some detective work, like “Adam Sandler was once a registered Republican” and “Chris Pratt said once a prayer.”
Unfortunately, forced loyalty to Trump has caused the erosion of the GOP as a party of ideas. But Republican voters would no doubt follow a big-name candidate back to his principles.
“Imagine a congress of eminent celebrities,” Lord Acton told Mary Gladstone in an 1881 letter. “The result would be an Encyclopedia of Error.”
This encyclopedia of error is currently the GOP’s bible. The party just needs to swap into a more palatable set of volumes.