This article appears in the July/August 2021 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
Regardless of what the recently convened House select committee ends up conveying to the public about January 6th, Hollywood is already on it. Last year, Billy Ray wrote and directed The Comey Rule, a two-episode miniseries based on the former FBI director’s memoir that featured the first full dramatization of Donald Trump as president, in a memorable portrayal by Brendan Gleeson. The day after the insurrection, Ray approached Showtime with an idea for a film about Ashli Babbitt, the pro-Trump protester who had been killed after invading the Capitol.
Showtime and Ray decided to widen the focus, and the currently untitled “Jan 6th series” will consist of six one-hour episodes about the insurrection. Shooting begins in January, and it will be broadcast before the midterm elections. The main characters will be three to four insurrectionists, three to four cops. and one member of Congress (no casting yet).
Ray, whose credits include the screenplay of The Hunger Games, told me, “It’s the obligation of people who can get things made to make things that reflect America back to itself, that paint an accurate portrait of where we are as a country.”
In an era when conventional news media reach a fraction of America’s voting population, alternative populist messengers play an outsized role in shaping public opinion. Right-wing propagandists have a pipeline into most of the talk radio audience, and Trumpists like Ben Shapiro and Franklin Graham dominate the daily list of top ten Facebook posts. The left still dominates in show business. Although there are a few Trumpist entertainers like Kid Rock, most artists are progressive, and the singers, writers, actors, producers, and directors who became part of the resistance to Trump have stayed engaged in America’s political conversation. That is upending a familiar trope in recent decades, asserting that art has become depoliticized relative to the activism of the past.
Baby boomers like to romanticize the role of popular music in the movement against the Vietnam War. As Jimmy Iovine observes in the Apple miniseries 1971, The Year That Music Changed Everything, songs like Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” served as a “Trojan horse” in which anti-war ideas were delivered by addictive melodies and rhythms. And it’s true that many artists spoke out on civil rights, Vietnam, and other hot-button issues. Yet even in that storied era, activist artists like Gaye, John Lennon, and Eartha Kitt were the exception. In the Trump era, they were the rule.
When Jon Stewart began hosting The Daily Show in 1999, it was the only weeknight program in which the comedy revolved around politics. After Trump became president, every show, every night, followed this model. Before Trump, pop divas like Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston rarely alluded to political issues or elections. With Trump in the political mix, Cardi B, Taylor Swift, and Billie Eilish were among dozens of outspoken stars. Before Trump, most show business activism came from a small group of “usual suspects.” After 2016, stars like Robert De Niro and Jim Carrey, who previously had mostly kept their political views to themselves, became obsessively engaged. Many of them still are.
When Jon Stewart began hosting The Daily Show in 1999, it was the only weeknight program in which the comedy revolved around politics. After Trump became president, every show, every night, followed this model.
In recent months, Bruce Springsteen announced that only fully vaccinated fans can attend the revival of his Broadway show, and other performers have followed suit. Matthew McConaughey, who won an Oscar for his role in Dallas Buyers Club, is flirting with a run for Texas governor, and Alyssa Milano, who starred in Who’s the Boss and Charmed, recently told The Hill that she is considering running for the House seat in California’s Fourth District, currently held by a Republican. (Milano’s Sorry Not Sorry podcast featured Joe Biden as one of her first guests.)
Even seemingly unremarkable actions generate strong pushback from artists. A video shot backstage at Trump’s rally before the Capitol Riot featured Donald Trump Jr. dancing to the late Laura Branigan’s “Gloria.” A spokesman for Branigan’s estate was appalled. Trump rallies have also repeatedly used Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son,” even after John Fogerty pointed out that his lyric is an indictment of people like Trump who used wealth to avoid serving in the Army during the Vietnam War.
There is a difference between ideological art and celebrity activism, but both reach millions of people whose minds are otherwise inaccessible to conventional political communication. And conservatives know this. Republican strategists target progressive Hollywood today for the same reason that their counterparts in the McCarthy period fostered the Hollywood blacklist. Entertainment is one of the few forces that can express progressive ideas in an accessible, emotional language. So they have sought to place the views of people in the arts outside the political conversation.
The methods are often extreme. It is no accident that QAnon’s imagined conspiracy of child abusers includes performers like Tom Hanks. John Legend, who with his wife Chrissy Teigen is demonized by QAnon, told me, “There’s a reason why they accuse the worst enemies of that kind of thing … if you can accuse someone of that and believe that they are actually doing it, then you can justify all kinds of behavior toward them.”
More often, the complaints blame artists for provoking conservative radicalism, or for having a point of view. Trumpy Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) complained that The Lego Movie was “insidious” anti-business “propaganda.” Fox News host Laura Ingraham wrote the book Shut Up & Sing, which belittled activist artists. In 2020, she broadcast a piece attacking Mandy Patinkin and Kathryn Grody for their homemade videos on social media that supported Democrats. (In June, Patinkin joined the cast of the highly entertaining and palpably anti-Trump series The Good Fight.)
Before casting his vote against impeachment in January, Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO) said that some who vandalized the Capitol were motivated by resentment of “the socialists in Hollywood … Robert De Niro said that he wanted to punch the president in the face. Madonna thought about blowing up the White House. Kathy Lee Griffin [sic] held up a likeness of the president’s beheaded head.”
Andrew Breitbart famously said that “politics is downstream from culture,” and Breitbart News has a daily “entertainment” section that highlights the outrages du jour from a Trumpist point of view. The usual Breitbart fare that warns about liberal initiatives often gets paired with stories of how “left-wing Hollywood elites” support them. When Joy Behar was asked if she planned to retire from The View, she quipped that she wouldn’t “because I am a job creator over at Breitbart.”
The two Republican presidents with show business backgrounds, Trump and Ronald Reagan, were not anomalies, but products of a political mindset that saw entertainment as one of the levers that generated populist political power.
This demonization works on those who believe anything right-wing media feeds them. A YouGov poll of a thousand Trump voters taken after the 2020 election ranked groups by “temperature,” with zero to 20 signifying those whom they liked the least. “Hollywood actors and actresses” were viewed in that most negative category by 59 percent, more than “Illegal immigrants” (57 percent), “Feminists” (43 percent), or “Muslim” (30 percent).
Right-wingers, of course, embrace the aura of Hollywood when it suits their ideological purposes. The two Republican presidents with show business backgrounds, Trump and Ronald Reagan, were not anomalies, but products of a political mindset that saw entertainment as one of the levers that generated populist political power. Lee Atwater, who managed George H.W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign, told Ron Brownstein, “I became very infatuated with the notion of American culture and how it is connected to politics. Aside from The Apprentice, Trump polished his pre-presidential celebrity halo in cameos in Home Alone 2, Zoolander, and Two Weeks Notice, and episodes of Sex and the City, Suddenly Susan, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (in which the character Hilary Banks, played by Karyn Parsons, gushed, “You look much richer in person.”).
Perhaps as a by-product of the sustained conservative campaign, many liberal pundits have mixed feelings about showbiz activism. Some progressives worry that showbiz activists are merely “preaching to the choir,” repeating feel-good bromides to audiences that already agree with them. But when the primary agenda of modern campaigns is to turn out the base, performers who have their own fan bases can help to motivate some of those who are on the fence about voting.
Artists can use showbiz tools to help broaden popular sentiment on some issues, such as Katy Perry and Orlando Bloom’s recent clip sending a message from the future, stressing the centrality of voting rights.
Moreover, as MSNBC’s Ari Melber says, artists can “bring saliency to issues that would otherwise be ignored.” In the decades before Black Lives Matter, hip-hop artists focused the attention of their vast multiracial audience on police killings of unarmed African Americans. During the years when most Democratic politicians felt it was politically unsafe to publicly support gay rights, dozens of films and TV shows and Hollywood advocacy groups helped change public opinion enough for President Obama to “evolve” on the subject of gay marriage in his second term. President Biden has repeatedly credited shows like Ellen and Will & Grace for the transformation.
Like the rest of the coalition that elected Biden, the anti-fascist entertainment community is not monolithic. Billy Ray, who has consulted on dozens of Democratic congressional campaigns, is a passionate centrist. But the center of gravity of the entertainment community writ large is closer to AOC than it is to Biden. Unlike politicians who need 50 percent of the vote, or broadcasters who are dependent on daily ratings, artists are only accountable to their own fans and consciences. And the entertainment community is highly responsive to young people, who are much more progressive than their elders.
Activist artists, while intertwined with conventional political forces, play a different role and often diverge from the current Democratic talking points. In the spring of 2021, Bette Midler tweeted, “What is wrong with @Sen_JoeManchin? Some Democrat. Such muddy thinking, and no foresight. He simply cannot see the calamity riding over the hill with his no-votes and filibuster support.” Rob Reiner weighed in: “If Merrick Garland is unwilling to prosecute Donald Trump for Obstruction of Justice, inciting a deadly attack to overthrow the Government, and countless other crimes, the Rule of Law is meaningless and Democracy is a sham.”
On The View, Behar asked Superstore star America Ferrera about Kamala Harris’s comment “do not come” to those who were thinking of trying to cross the border between Mexico and the U.S. Ferrera responded with “extreme disappointment and confusion … I have spent many years sitting in shelters, detention centers on this side of the border and on the other side of the border … hearing the stories of the violent and life-threatening circumstances they’re fleeing.”
Renegades, the recent eight-part podcast of conversations between Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen, revealed some subtle differences between the Boss and the former president. When discussing the athlete whose social conscience had most inspired them, Springsteen cited Muhammad Ali, who clashed with governments of both parties over the Vietnam War, while Obama chose Jackie Robinson, a Republican political activist.
Meanwhile, a half-century after emerging as an anti-war activist, Jane Fonda is still a thought leader to her fans. In the summer of 2019, the actress was inspired by Naomi Klein’s book On Fire to create “Fire Drill Fridays” protests in D.C. to focus on climate change. After the pandemic hit, Fonda went virtual in 60 YouTube conversations that reached more than nine million people.
This June, Fonda interviewed 28-year-old pop superstar Demi Lovato. A few weeks earlier, the singer had premiered their new podcast, 4D With Demi Lovato, where they announced that they identify as nonbinary and changed their pronouns to “they/them.”
Lovato became an overnight star in 2009 as the title character in the Disney Channel’s Sonny With a Chance. Lovato told Fonda, “When I became famous, activism wasn’t something 15-year-olds were getting into, but when I talked about being bullied, many fans said they were too.”
Last year, the singer was devastated by the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, the 25-year-old African American man who was murdered by white racists while jogging in his native Georgia. “I was up crying and decided I wanted to take more of an activist approach to my life and career,” Lovato said.
Rather than being inhibited by the ghosts of conventional wisdom past or gaslighted by the likes of Breitbart into keeping their distance, Democrats should embrace the fact that voices such as Lovato, who claims more than 100 million followers on social media, are part of the coalition needed to keep the dark forces at bay in 2022 and beyond.
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