How Hollywood Can Change The Horror Show Of US Politics
American democracy is increasingly resembling a celebrity reality show.
Every day witnesses a slew of slanging with the Celebrity-in-Chief on one side, and his many Hollywood haters on the other. Each corner is in a contest to harvest outrage to advance their cause. Today’s Supreme Court ruling validating Trump’s Muslim travel ban will add to the polarization and bring fresh insults.
Amidst this, celebrity interventions are pouring petrol on the flames. Someone might get hurt if the battle isn’t paused soon.
White House spokesperson, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, was refused service at the Red Hen restaurant on Friday. Homeland Security Secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, was harassed out of a restaurant because of anger at the migrant crisis. These are not isolated instances. Democrats have called for President Trump’s staffers to be targeted. Congresswoman Maxine Waters said, “if you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd … you tell them they're not welcome anymore, anywhere.” Others have asked for Immigration and Customs Enforcement personnel and their families to be shamed publicly.
Indeed, the language has reached a level of vituperation unseen in American political life. For instance, Robert De Niro abused Trump at the Tony awards recently saying, “It’s no longer ‘Down with Trump,’ it’s ‘(expletive) Trump,” and accused the president of lacking “any sense of humanity or compassion.”
Actor Peter Fonda tweeted “We should rip Barron Trump from his mother’s arms and put him in a cage with pedophiles, And see if mother [Melania Trump] will will [sic] stand up against the giant a**hole she is married to.” Fonda also attacked Nielsen, calling her “a lying gash that should be put in a cage and poked at by passersby. The gash should be pilloried in Layfayette Square naked and whipped by passersby while being filmed for posterity.” He later deleted the tweets and issued an apology.
Notably, Samantha Bee called Trump “an atavistic monster with a limited vocabulary who appeals to people operating at the level of a 4-year-old.” She recently lit into Ivanka Trump, calling her a “feckless c**t” apparently in response to a photo of the first daughter posing with her son. Bee issued a non-apology later.
Last year, comedian Kathy Griffin posted a photo of Trump’s severed head, triggering a backlash from Trump supporters.
Other celebrities including Reese Witherspoon, Chrissy Teigen, Anne Hathaway, and Jimmy Kimmel sent messages denouncing the migrant policy and expressing support for children. For instance, Indian-American actress Priyanka Chopra tweeted:
No matter where they come from #AChildIsAChild and they deserve the right to a childhood.
Ellen DeGeneres tweeted “we can’t be a country that separates children from their parents. Do something about this, here.”
Teigen and partner, John Legend, went beyond mere words and donated $300,000 to the ACLU expressing outrage at the separation of children, labelling it “cruel” and “against everything we believe this country should represent.” In an Instagram post, they said:
“The President celebrates his 72nd birthday today. On this auspicious occasion, in order to Make Trump’s Birthday Great Again, each member of our family has donated $72,000 to the ACLU.”
The power of celebrity is illustrated by what happened next. In Teigen’s words,
You didn't think your $7.20 would be much. Some of you gave $72 you barely had. In just two days, you guys donated over $1,000,000 to the @ACLU. Over 20,000 of you donated. You. Did. That. I am so grateful, so happy, so humbled and hopeful to live amongst you wonderful beings.
Similarly, the Clooneys donated $100,000 to the Young Center for Immigrant Children's Rights. They also spoke out against zero-tolerance: “our children will ask us: 'Is it true, did our country really take babies from their parents and put them in detention centers?' And when we answer yes, they'll ask us what we did about it. …We can't change this administration's policy but we can help defend the victims of it.”
So, should celebrities engage in contentious social advocacy?
Celebrity advocacy is not new – Diana, Bono, Madonna, George Clooney, Lady Gaga and others have campaigned for causes ranging from landmine bans to Darfur to same-sex marriage. However, they avoided divisiveness and stuck to uplifting messages appealing to Americans’ better instincts. Other celebrities abstained from engagement – because of disinterest or financial reasons. Michael Jordan is an example.
Unsurprisingly, Trump’s election has elevated the level of celebrity engagement in politics. Kim Kardashian is now an advocate for prison reform. LeBron James, Colin Kaepernick, and Steph Curry are advocates for racial justice.
And a variety of other celebrities including Oprah have chimed in against Trump. If Fonda and Griffin showcase the low-points, Clooney and Kardashian highlight the good that can come from celebrity activism.
Trump has both provoked and revelled in these feuds often calling stars “low IQ individuals” or worse.
Until now, these skirmishes were part of a noisy democracy. Not anymore, as seen by the Sanders and Nielsen episodes.
If celebrity provides the pulpit, social media provides the channel, and the two are combining to unleash the worst in society. The fact is many Americans take their social and cultural cues from celebrities. If the cultural norm descends into vile abuse of the president, his family, and staff, then violent acts to match the vitriol may be next. An angry mob attacking a staffer in a restaurant could easily spiral out of control – imagine what happens if guns are involved. Social media’s immediacy and capacity to feed the mob has generated extreme violence in other countries – recall attacks against Muslims in Sri Lanka just this year.
Equally, Trump must refrain from abusing his opponents in vile language. It is a cheap hit – Trump’s base is far removed from the Hollywood elites and rightly sees them as out of touch with their reality. And although it results in cheering crowds, it is no way to administer a deeply divided nation.
What’s the solution then?
Kim Kardashian’s intervention in the incarceration crisis might offer a lesson for her Hollywood friends. Amidst NFL players trashing Trump over his 'racist' response to the national anthem protest and achieving nothing, Kim met with Trump and secured his help to release a prisoner.
Trump is unusually receptive to celebrity entreaties. Therefore, Hollywood could leverage this for immigration reform. That will require an honest conversation – recognition that border security is vital, blanket amnesties for illegal immigrants are not practicable, and legal pathways for immigration are necessary. And on Trump’s side, acceptance that cruelty to children is unacceptable even to enforce law.
Hollywood has more to gain than Trump. For all their vitriol, celebrities may be pushing Republicans closer to Trump by triggering the tribal instincts of his base. And that’s not an ending anyone in Hollywood wants.