It took Debra Messing 18 exclamation points to express her excitement about Kamala Harris. Chrissy Teigen used a comparatively mild two, but the point still stands: an army of celebrities leapt to lend Harris their support this week. Hollywood loves her. (Just like Wall Street!)
The star-studded industry’s embrace of Harris means the Democratic ticket will benefit from extra elite enthusiasm—Biden may not excite liberal celebrities like Barack Obama, but adding Harris as a running mate will amp up Hollywood’s enthusiasm for the ticket. That, in turn, means the Democratic Party’s narrative will be reinforced through the power of celebrity megaphones—on social media feeds, in glossy magazines, during talk show interviews.
In 2020, Hollywood’s moral authority is eroded to the point that celebrity support will backfire with an increasing number of voters. The industry has been tainted by the revelations of Me Too complicity, and suffers more broadly from declining institutional confidence. Liberal Hollywood is a trope, but the populist moment has more and more voters rightfully convinced the powerful industry’s reflexive Democratic politics are a joke, and even evidence of a particular politician’s corruption.
On the anti-establishment left, it smacks of collusion with self-interested millionaires. On the anti-establishment right, it smacks of collusion with self-interested millionaires who also happen to run an exploitive and increasingly unpatriotic industry.
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Consider how freshman Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) campaigned in 2018, casting incumbent Claire McCaskill as an “eager ally” of “Hollywood and Wall Street and the D.C. political establishment” who sought to “rig a system that favors them, the wealthy and well-connected, while ignoring the rest of us.” Hawley rightfully harped on the trifecta of “Hollywood, Washington, and Wall Street” throughout his candidacy, ultimately defeating McCaskill and going onto become one of the GOP’s most influential new voices.
“Saturday Night Live” literally cast Harris as “your cool aunt” during the primaries, tapping the show’s popular and talented Maya Rudolph to play the role. On “SNL,” Harris was depicted as competent and eager, but also relatable. Their image of Harris is almost certainly a window into how she’ll be treated by Hollywood from now until November (and maybe beyond).
Depictions like Rudolph’s, and celebrity support in general, can humanize and soften candidates. Let’s not forget Harris crashed and burned in the primary, failing to convert establishment hype into a candidacy that could even make it to Iowa. She’s beautiful and talented, but her attempted coolness is often contrived, like a jean-wearing teacher straining to relate to her students. It’s not that convincing. But Hollywood will boost this burgeoning narrative of Harris as “the picture of vigor,” already emergent in the corporate media.
The elite establishment is a powerful machine, from the media to the entertainment industry to Wall Street. Hollywood plays a key role in the machine’s ability to craft and reinforce narratives that suit its ideological purposes.
People are increasingly primed to see through the spin, but it’s still a force to be reckoned with. Biden’s decision to add a celebrity favorite to the ticket ensures Harris will get the Broad City treatment throughout their bid to unseat President Trump. How useful that will be in this political climate is yet to be determined.