Like other awards shows this year, the Academy Awards tonight will undoubtedly be a political event. And conservatives will scold entertainers for it.
After the Golden Globes launched a national obsession with a potential Oprah Winfrey presidential candidacy, President Trump welcomed an opportunity to “expose” her, labeling her “insecure.” The Grammys featured Hillary Clinton in a prerecorded skit “trying out” a role narrating Michael Wolff’s controversial book on the Trump administration. Both Donald Trump Jr. and Nikki Haley tweeted criticisms, with Haley claiming that the “great music” of the night had been ruined by such “trash.” “Some of us love music without the politics thrown in it,” she wrote.
Conservatives are quick to point to Hollywood’s liberal politics as an example of how it is “out of touch” with average Americans. In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein allegations, Sean Hannity took this criticism a step further, castigating Hollywood’s “liberal cultural hypocrisy.” But historically, conservatives have benefited just as much as liberals, if not more, in deploying the platforms and practices of the entertainment industry for political gain.
Pop culture has long been used as a tool for both political control and political resistance. In fact, the rise of the modern entertainment industry was rooted in the controversial idea that immigrants and the working class had a right to leisure, summed up in the labor slogan “Eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, and eight hours for what we will.”
At the turn of the last century, vaudeville acts and nickel theaters attracted the attention of new immigrants. But such ventures also stoked the ire and concern of middle-class reformers and the corporate establishment, both of which worried about the industry’s celebration of immigrant culture on the screen and its creation of a democratic place in theaters. Censorship laws to regulate theaters and their patrons became a way for the middle class and the ruling elite to exert control over where and how immigrants spent their leisure time.
At times, Hollywood activists used their fame to advance liberal politics, just as they often do now. Charlie Chaplin’s films took on immigration authorities and worker-hostile industrial efficiency measures such as the assembly line, but his pro-labor performances were seen as pro-communist during the post-World War II Red Scare, and his right to live in the United States — Chaplin was born in Britain — was revoked by the U.S. attorney general in 1952. Frank Sinatra and Jack Warner worked for the Democratic Party, creating memorable radio spots for Franklin Roosevelt’s re-election campaigns in 1944. And Harry Belafonte later became a trusted confidant of Martin Luther King Jr. and central to spreading the message of civil rights to unite white and black America behind the cause.
But music and movies were not political tools reserved solely for the left. The conservative author (and Hollywood screenwriter) Ayn Rand saw an opportunity to roll back the New Deal with motion pictures. “Don’t take politics lightly,” she wrote in her 1947 “Screen Guide for Americans,” as she encouraged Hollywood to use “good entertainment” to sell the merits of free enterprise, celebrate wealth and promote industrialists as American heroes. As a member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, Rand and other Hollywood anti-communists attempted to regulate the activism of Hollywood liberals off the screen and police films for hints of a left-wing agenda. They encouraged the House Un-American Activities Committee to investigate Hollywood and were eager witnesses at hearings.
The right has been effective in translating entertainment into votes ever since Louis B. Mayer turned his studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, into a political tool for Republicans in the 1920s — taking pictures of Calvin Coolidge on set in 1924, raising money and delivering radio addresses for Republicans in 1928. In return, President Herbert Hoover rewarded him with an overnight stay at the White House in 1929.
But it was Richard Nixon who cemented the Republican-Hollywood connection. A native of Southern California, Nixon cultivated Hollywood supporters over the years, but after losing to the media-savvy John F. Kennedy in 1960, he took entertainment more seriously. He studied then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan’s political success, observing how the former actor “reached the hearts” of voters. He revamped his media strategy for 1968 by following in Reagan’s footsteps (going so far as to appear on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In”), and then as president ingrained those lessons into his presidency and the national Republican Party. Nixon worked hard to bring athletes, actors and musicians on board for his re-election campaign in 1972. And then his team urged them to “work for the party all year round.” He cultivated a relationship with the country singer Merle Haggard, whose hits “Okie From Muskogee” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me” became conservative anthems, taking it to antiwar protesters and others who were agitating for change. Television actress Pam Powell headed Nixon’s youth outreach. Sinatra and Charlton Heston made waves as Democrats turned Republicans. Surrogates were equipped with campaign “briefing books” and exploited all media opportunities — on talk shows, in interviews and through campaign events — to promote Nixon.
Nixon recognized that voters were also fans and that performances — like the one at which Sammy Davis Jr. famously (or infamously, depending on your perspective) hugged him — were a way to reach young voters in particular.
The prominence of celebrities in Nixon’s orbit explains why conservatives could dismiss Reagan as just an actor in 1968 but embrace him as a leader a decade later. They quickly realized the value of adding Hollywood panache to conservative causes. Sonny Bono, Fred Grandy (of “The Love Boat”) and Arnold Schwarzenegger filled the GOP ranks as elected officials.
Most significant, Reagan’s rise to the presidency reinforced the belief that entertainment mattered. And this belief is the authority that conservative and liberal entertainers draw on today. Yes, the most outspoken celebrities in Hollywood tend to support liberal causes. But there are conservative entertainers, such as James Woods, Kevin Sorbo and Tim Allen, who advance Republican goals. Scott Baio even spoke at Trump’s GOP convention in 2016.
Entertainment has never been separate from politics, despite Republican grumbling today. And the activist celebrities of the past helped transform the nature of politics: making it about performance and entertainment aiming to satisfy viewers as much as it is about policy that may help voters.
Trump has benefited from this landscape, but he has struggled to perform effectively as an “entertainer in chief.” His focus has been on his own celebrity status and ratings, rather than on using entertainment as a tool to communicate or to govern.