If grifters, shysters, and flim‑flam men are a problem for conservatives, love of celebrities is another. Perhaps it is because A‑list conservative celebrities are so scarce that we fawn so much over the washed‑up actors and musicians who end up among our ranks (sometimes seemingly after having explored every other option for resuscitating their careers). Michael Brendan Dougherty put it this way at TheWeek.com:
The conservative movement has an odd, barely admitted infatuation with celebrity. The resentment conservatives aim at Hollywood and the entertainment industry is really a back‑handed way of acknowledging Hollywood’s power. And so you have these odd spectacles of denouncing celebrity while craving proximity to it. See Sean Hannity dedicating so much of his show to Arnold Schwarzenegger during his first campaign for governor, rather than the eminently more conservative Tom McClintock. Or the way conservative institutions have indulged Donald Trump’s fake presidential ambitions. Or Sarah Palin decrying “Hollywood leftists” on her Facebook page but having no problem joining SNL’s fortieth anniversary special a month later. Or Clint Eastwood’s infamous conversation with a chair at the 2012 Republican National Convention.
For all the talk about “Hollyweird,” conservatives go gaga over celebs. Even Marco Rubio, one of the more thoughtful conservative candidates, was boasting an endorsement from Pawn Stars’ Rick Harrison in the spring of 2015. And for their part, A‑list celebrities rarely come running to conservatives when their careers are in their primes, but instead sometimes experience a conservative political awakening as a last‑ditch effort to remain relevant. In other cases, conservatives come to a celebrity’s defense—not because he or she has done something noble, but because this person has done or said something stupid or controversial, angering the PC thought police. Sensing they had the right enemies, conservatives reflexively and predictably come running to the celebrity’s defense.
Don Imus, the shock jock who finally crossed the line when he referred to a female basketball team as “nappy‑headed hos,” fits this description. He lost his MSNBC simulcast and was forced to apologize for making a joke that, while unchivalrous and impossible to defend, was nothing out of the ordinary for the crotchety old cowboy. Imus had spent years as an equal opportunity offender and contrarian, but he was never a conservative. Still, it was mostly conservatives who came to his defense, arguing that he was engaged in satire, that this was political correctness run amok, that he was victim of an organized campaign to take him down.
A similar eruption occurred when Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson gave an interview to GQ that some deemed homophobic. “It seems like, to me, a vagina—as a man—would be more desirable than a man’s anus,” he told them. “That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.”
In this instance, even I became embroiled in the debate, defending Robertson during an appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe program. But I have an excuse: at the time, Robertson had been placed on indefinite hiatus from his show, A&E’s Duck Dynasty, and there was talk that he might actually be terminated. In this regard, I was objecting to the notion that someone holding politically incorrect views (and expressing them in an admittedly coarse manner) would lose his job over it. My fear was that there was a trend whereby people expressing unpopular political views are being punished, and that this would have a chilling effect on free speech (a few months after the Duck Dynasty dustup, the CEO of Mozilla, the web browser developer, was fired for supporting an initiative that defined marriage as an institution between a man and a woman). While I am happy to defend the principle of free speech, the notion that conservatives would hold Robertson up as some sort of hero—at least partially based on his celebrity status—was also problematic. And this, too, is a pattern.
In May of 2015, it was revealed that, as a teenager, Josh Duggar was accused of sexually molesting several girls, some of whom were his sisters, when he was a teenager. The revelation prompted the Duggar scion and costar of TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting to resign his position as executive director of FRC Action, the political arm of the socially conservative Family Research Council. Duggar was just twenty‑seven years old when he resigned his leadership position.
But it was a line from a May 22 Washington Post story that struck me as especially telling: “Duggar was running a used‑car lot before he became the new face of the Family Research Council.” Celebrity infatuation syndrome had bitten conservatives yet again—but one could have said that before the molestation allegations surfaced. Duggar had no business being the face of a political activist organization without any qualifications save for being almost famous.
But you don’t have to be a fresh, young face to reap the benefits of the Con$ervative Media Complex. Conservatives have long embraced seventies rocker Ted Nugent. Nugent has always been a loose cannon, but his February 2014 comments about Obama being a “subhuman mongrel” finally earned him the rebuke of some prominent conservatives like Senator Rand Paul and Texas governor Rick Perry. Nugent didn’t become controversial or uncouth overnight, but conservatives embraced him because he had all the right enemies. They do this because they hate double standards (liberal celebrities are held to lesser standards). They do this because, to them, coverage of comments like his feels disproportionate. They do this because conservatives love lost causes.
Sometimes celebrities even run for office. Such was the case with former Saturday Night Live cast member Victoria Jackson, who lost her 2014 bid for the County Commission in Tennessee’s Williamson County. When I talk about “immigrants” to the conservative movement—the activists who join the cause, but struggle to assimilate—Jackson’s story serves a microcosm. According to a March 19, 2014, USA Today story, “Jackson said she stumbled into political activism in 2007 after spending most of her life oblivious to government and politics.” After leaving Saturday Night Live in 1992, “she struggled to find steady work as an actress, landing roles in films that went mostly unnoticed and working stand‑up comedy gigs with former SNL cast members.” It has been noticed that some people only “find Jesus” when they hit rock bottom. Celebrities could say the same thing about “finding Reagan.”
But it’s not just the real celebrities conservatives have a problem with. It’s also that we have a penchant for making ordinary people who (to paraphrase Saturday Night Live) aren’t “ready for prime time” into folk heroes. Who could forget Kim Davis, the then Democratic Kentucky county clerk who gained national attention in 2015 for defying a court order to issue same‑sex marriage licenses? She became so famous that, fearing another politician might overshadow his candidate, an aide to Mike Huckabee physically blocked Ted Cruz to keep the Texas senator from appearing onstage with her. Depending on your perspective, Davis was either a staunch defender of religious liberty or someone who flaunts the rule of law. Either way, she made for an unlikely spokesperson for a conservative movement hoping to win the twenty‑first century.
This happens because we believe the enemy of my enemy is my friend. It happens because buying into a cult of personality is easier than developing a coherent political philosophy. The moment someone stands up to our enemy, we welcome them with open arms—no vetting necessary. This is a problem. Just because someone has the right enemies doesn’t make them an appropriate spokesperson for your cause. The three most obvious examples of this in recent years have been that of Joe the Plumber, George Zimmerman, and Cliven Bundy.
As you might recall, Joe Wurzelbacher (aka Joe the Plumber) gained attention when he challenged then candidate Barack Obama during a campaign stop in Ohio. Wurzelbacher acquitted himself quite well—so well that Obama’s defenders started digging into his past, raising questions about whether he was even a licensed plumber. The McCain‑Palin campaign started bringing him out at rallies, and McCain mentioned him during a televised debate. And then, Joe the Plumber jumped the shark. Seeking to parlay his fifteen minutes into a career, Wurzelbacher became an activist, motivational speaker, and congressional candidate. And—because anyone can do what I do—he’s also a political commentator. After one mass shooting, he penned an open letter to the victims’ parents, telling them, “As harsh as this sounds—your dead kids don’t trump my Constitutional rights.”
Why yes, Joe, now that you mention it, that does sound harsh. Some conservatives likewise made the mistake of building up, and reflexively defending, George Zimmerman after he shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African American teen. After an altercation in which Zimmerman sustained head injuries, Martin was shot and killed. Zimmerman, of course, said he was acting in the capacity of a neighborhood watch volunteer. He argued he killed Martin in self‑defense, and he was ultimately acquitted. It’s entirely possible to believe that Zimmerman made a lot of stupid moves that night, but that he did not break the law. Having said that, I got the sense that at least some conservatives were rooting for him—that this case essentially became an example of tribalism and identity politics, with white conservatives reflexively lining up on one side, while liberals and African Americans were reflexively on the other. But whether or not Zimmerman was technically innocent, the situation should not bestow hero status on Zimmerman any more than death should automatically bestow martyrdom on Martin. Zimmerman may well have been innocent, but that did not make him a good person. The fact that he was subsequently arrested for allegedly pointing a shotgun at his then girlfriend increases the odds that he’s not. Most conservatives have moved on.
Another example was of Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher embroiled in a decades‑long standoff with the Bureau of Land Management over grazing rights and for refusing to pay grazing fees. In early 2014, tensions heightened, and an armed standoff with the Feds ensued. Playing to type, conservatives embraced Bundy, turning him into a sort of folk hero. In fairness, Bundy did represent a legitimate argument. As MSNBC’s Adam Serwer wrote, “It’s perfectly consistent to believe the federal government owns too much land and also believe Bundy’s remarks are offensive.” It’s also fair to say that Fox News, and especially Sean Hannity, gave Bundy a huge platform, and that Bundy—who was shown on TV riding a horse while waving an American flag—exploited that opportunity.
The episode also tapped into something more deep‑seated than grazing rights. As Josh Barro of the New York Times noted, “The rush to stand with Mr. Bundy against the Bureau of Land Management is the latest incarnation of conservative antigovernment messaging.” This “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” philosophy is dangerous, and yet we find conservatives trapped in a cycle of abusive relationships. It usually goes like this: Government or the media oversteps its bounds, conservatives embrace the unvetted victim, who—once feted (but not vetted) on cable TV and talk radio—says or does something stupid. Then, liberal media outlets spend weeks covering the boomerang part of the story. What may start out as a boon for conservatives leaves them with egg on their face.
In the case of Bundy, not only was he technically wrong to think he could graze his cattle for free on someone else’s land, but his desire for media attention ultimately got the better of him. He decided to quit talking about cattle, and instead wax not‑so‑eloquently about the state of race relations in America at a press conference attended by a New York Times reporter. “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton,” Bundy said, referring to African Americans, according to the Times. “And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom,” he continued.
In the grand scheme of things, should it matter to us that some random rancher in Nevada is a bigot? Probably not. But it’s hard to make that argument after you’ve spent weeks building him up just so someone else can tear him down. So why did conservatives get caught up in this lost cause? Here’s a theory: when the 1992 Ruby Ridge standoff resulted in the death of Randy Weaver’s wife and son—and when the disastrous 1993 Federal raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, took place—the fallout had a negative impact on the Clinton Administration, despite the fact that the Ruby Ridge standoff occurred in 1992, during President George H. W. Bush’s watch. Both events were tragic, but they also (understandably) fed an antigovernment sentiment that was very good for the nascent Con$ervative Entertainment Complex. Could it be that conservatives are still fighting the last war? Like the aforementioned examples, Cliven Bundy had an “armed militia of supporters.” (As the New York Times recalled in 1995, “The Ruby Ridge confrontation involved an armed separatist brigade. The Davidians were also well equipped with weapons.”)
If you were a conservative talk radio host, would you not look at Bundy through the prism of Ruby Ridge? In the beginning, it might have been easy to assume Bundy would also go out in a blaze of glory, becoming some sort of martyr. And in this scenario, it would have been important to stake out a pro‑Bundy position before the government turned him into a real folk hero. Instead of killing him, the Obama Administration gave him enough rope to hang himself.
Playing the Game
While the Cliven Bundys of the world do damage to the conservative brand, they are arguably not as culpable as the politicians who use the primary process as a résumé builder for a future TV show, or the conservative talking heads who, despite knowing better, play to the worst aspects of our human nature.
Whether the scoundrels are looking to line their pockets by fund‑raising off hypothetical candidates for their PAC or outside group, jumpstart their fledgling acting careers by reinventing themselves as conservative pundits, or boost their talk radio or cable TV ratings (or book sales) by saying incendiary things sure to harm the conservative cause, one thing’s for sure: it almost always comes down to money for these hacktastic con$ervatives.
Excerpted from “TOO DUMB TO FAIL: How the GOP Betrayed the Reagan Revolution to Win Elections (and How It Can Reclaim Its Conservative Roots” by Matt K. Lewis, with permission from Hachette Books, a division of Hachette Book Group. Copyright 2016 by Matt K. Lewis. All rights reserved.