[What follows is a three-part piece that explores the effect of celebrity on American electoral politics in the 21st century. Part One examines the 2003 California Recall election. Part Two segues from the Terminator to Donald Trump and the 2016 Presidential contest. Finally, Part Three connects 2016 to previous Presidential elections via Martin Sheen and The West Wing.]
Part I: “The Terminator”
We’ve seen a lot of expressions of surprise since the morning of November 10, 2016, which saw Donald Trump proclaimed the 45th President-elect of the United States of America. Many Americans did not take Trump’s campaign seriously or consider him a viable Presidential candidate even after he won the nomination of the Republican party. More than one of my friends went so far as to champion him in various versions of parody, reasoning that there was “no way that he would ever get elected.” And then he did.
Few people saw this coming, but filmmaker Michael Moore was among the prescient. In his post, “Five Reasons Trump Will Win,” Moore refers to what he calls “The Jesse Ventura effect.” He argues that people will vote for Trump for the same reason that many of them voted for Jesse “The Body” Ventura, the former professional wrestler with the World Wrestling Federation, who served as governor of Minnesota from 1998–2003: “because they can,” as “a good practical joke on a sick political system.”
Moore was not wrong. But he’s also not entirely correct. He overlooks another key element that made Ventura a lock for the Minnesota governorship: fame. Ventura, like Trump, was a larger than life persona, one who was best known for head butts and body slams. In short, to retain the Presidency in 2016, the Democrats needed to run not Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders but a personality of their own, someone like Martin Sheen. Martin Sheen is Presidential material; after all, he played one on TV. What is more, he didn’t just play a President, he played one of the most popular fictional Presidents of our time: he played Josiah (Jed) Bartlet on The West Wing from 1999–2006. For many of us, the boundaries between fact and fiction are porous ones. Many Americans loved Jed Barlet the character, and many Americans would vote for Martin Sheen, the man.
It’s absurd. It’s cynical. It’s true.
This has happened before, or at least a version of it has happened before, and not just with Jesse Ventura. It was July of 2003, and I was still a graduate student. At the time, I was in England as part of a study-abroad course. I remember sitting in a hotel lobby in Stratford-Upon-Avon with a group of undergraduates, and we had all just learned that Arnold Schwarzenegger had declared his intention to run for the governorship of California on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. I very clearly remember saying to these students, “That’s it. He’s our next governor.” They didn’t believe me. I didn’t want to believe me either, but somehow I knew it would happen. I can’t explain it; it wasn’t logic or reason; it was visceral. Call it intuition. Call it a gut feeling. Call it cynicism.
Let me be clear: this revelation was before any of us knew that the governor’s seat was even really in play. The possibility of a recall had been getting a lot of media attention, but it was far from a certainty. Thinking back, I’m pretty sure that I was against the recall. I know that I did not want Schwarzenegger to be our next governor, and I did not vote for him later that year. But I suspected that when faced with the chance to vote for Schwarzenegger, many voters wouldn’t care about the policies. They wouldn’t care about the candidates’ platforms. They wouldn’t care about party affiliation. They would care that they could shake the hand of a movie star or get his autograph or even just see him out in public on the campaign trail. In short, they would vote for him because he’s famous, and vote for him they did.
It wasn’t all about the celebrity. The California gubernatorial recall was a grassroots effort that began just a few months into just-elected Gray Davis’s term, and there were several other high-profile candidates that were all vying for the seat including then Lt. Governor Cruz Bustamante, Arianna Huffington (of The Huffington Post), Gary Coleman (Diff’rent Strokes), and Larry Flynt (Hustler). According to various sources, a total of 135 candidates qualified for the ballot. Several prominent candidates, Huffington among them withdrew from the race before election day. On that day, the ballot had two questions:
- Whether the current governor, Gray Davis, should be recalled;
- Who should replace Davis if the majority of voters supported the recall.
In the end, over 55% of voters supported the recall, and of the 135 potential replacements, Schwarzenegger won decisively. 49% of voters cast their ballot for the Terminator: almost 3,750,000 votes. This number was higher than the next five candidates combined. Thanks to those voters, I have his signature on my doctoral diploma (and no, it’s not a realsignature; it’s a facsimile).
Am I saying that Schwarzenegger was a bad candidate? That his policies or platform were ill-conceived? I’m not. Others have.
What I’m saying is that for a larger percentage of the voting public, Schwarzenegger’s platform was irrelevant. It didn’t matter. At all.
What mattered was his image. As it so happened, Schwarzenegger’s brand of stardom is action hero. In 2003, Schwarzenegger was the Terminator(twice). He was Commando. He was Predator. He was Conan (the BarbarianAND the Destroyer). He was Total Recall. He was The Running Man. He was The Last Action Hero. He was also Kindergarten Cop, one of the Twins, and Dave as well as dozens of other characters. In short, he was not just famous, he was a big time MOVIE STAR. And he could have run on a platform of marshmallows and unicorns or one of one of kale and crocodiles. It didn’t matter. People wanted to get rid of the sitting governor, and of over a hundred choices, they voted overwhelmingly for the one who was the most famous, the most familiar. It wasn’t even close.
What does the 2003 California gubernatorial recall election have to do with 2016? Both nothing and everything.
[Creative Commons licensed image “Terminator – Arnold Schwarzeneger – anaglyph” by Flickr user cobravictor]; Photograph of the University of California diploma courtesy of the author.]