For a presumptive nominee at this late stage of the campaign, Donald Trump has relatively few serious political endorsements, but one group has rallied around him with notable fervor: famous people. Admittedly, the list of Trump-positive celebrities so far is a who’s who of where-are-they-now: names such as Jon Voight, Scott Baio, Stephen Baldwin, Lou Ferrigno, and Kirstie Alley. Many of his celebrity endorsees — Dennis Rodman, Terrell Owens, Gary Busey — are tenuously famous people you’d expect to find (or have actually found) on a reality show hosted by Donald Trump. Some of these endorsements represent a predictable alignment of the like-minded (Kid Rock, a Duck Dynasty dude). Some of them are the public musings of long-time Trump golf pals like Tom Brady. And some of them seem like pretty transparent efforts to absorb a few residual rays of Trump’s spotlight (Aaron Carter). As Zach Schonfeld notes in this Newsweek census of celebrity Trumpians: “Trump support is fleeting, but publicity is forever.”
Yet there’s something telling about Trump’s particular appeal to celebrities, which goes beyond the simple fact that he’s already a member of their club. (If Donald Trump wasn’t running for president, you’d expect him to publicly endorse a candidate like Donald Trump.) Like most Americans, Trump is someone who has very strong opinions on a wide range of subjects, many of which he’s not particularly qualified to speak about. Yet unlike most Americans — but like nearly all celebrities — Trump is accustomed to having lots and lots of people pay attention to what he says. And herein lies a great dilemma of American celebrity: (a) you’re very well-known; (b) you always have the notion that you are singular and special, which is reinforced by almost everyone around you; and yet (c) the things you care most passionately about are often the very subjects on which most people are least likely to take you seriously.
It’s certainly true that celebrities across the political spectrum leverage their notoriety to call attention to what they believe to be worthwhile causes, whether it’s saving the Second Amendment or saving the oceans. Leo DiCaprio would much rather talk to you about climate change than he would about his acting. Ted Nugent would much rather talk to you about guns than he would about guitars. Tila Tequila would much rather talk to you about the Illuminati and anti-vaxxing than about whatever it is she’s nominally famous for. It is a truism of celebrity journalism that many celebrities have a pet cause — be it the environment, or global poverty, or undocumented immigration — that they would absolutely love to hold forth on at great length and with great passion. Yet this pet cause is almost always an issue that has literally nothing to do with the talent or skill that’s made them famous, or the related subjects that people are interested in hearing them talk about. You can imagine that this must be frustrating. Celebrities, like anyone, are allowed to have opinions. But celebrities, unlike almost everyone, are not used to being ignored.
Enter Donald Trump. Trump is primarily a celebrity — he is a businessman, yes, but his business is celebrity — and he’s also someone with strong ideas about this country and what’s wrong with it and how to fix it. He’s been tweeting and otherwise disseminating these ideas for years as best he can through the various outlets available to him. He’s also surrounded, like all celebrities, with a phalanx of people who continually affirm the notion that his ideas are interesting and thoughtful and worthy of serious consideration. Yet, like most celebrities, he and his ideas were not taken particularly seriously by the public at large, except by those people who already held those same beliefs (e.g. birtherism) and who were simply excited to hear them tumbling from a more famous mouth than their own.
Now Trump has crossed over to a realm in which his ideas are being taken seriously by millions of people. In fact, he’s managed to commandeer an entire existing apparatus — i.e. the presidential race — by which his ideas, however controversial or ill-considered, have to be taken seriously by millions of people, if only because he’s inching ever closer to a position from which he can potentially enact them. People may agree with him, or disagree with him, but everyone is listening. To other famous people, watching Trump’s ascent must feel like some sort of celebrity wish-fulfillment fever dream.
As a regular person, you can only imagine having the opportunity one day to stand before an adoring crowd and have them give proper credence to your opinions. As a celebrity, you stand in front of adoring crowds all the time — who still don’t give proper credence to your opinions. In Trump, you now have both: the crowds and the credence. There is likely an upper limit to the number of people who’ll ultimately accept Trump’s ideas solely by virtue of his notoriety, but so far, that number has proved surprisingly robust. It’s certainly a lot bigger than the number of people who’ll pay the same attention to the political musings of Scott Baio. Which might account for why Baio, Gary Busey, Kid Rock and others who aren’t normally accustomed to being passengers on other people’s rocket rides, are so eager to climb aboard the Trump Train. Today, Trump ’16. Tomorrow, Baio/Busey ’20.