How long Trumpism, good or bad, lasts beyond Donald Trump is a question the political right and conservatives are going to be grappling with for the next four to eight years and beyond.
There’s no doubt that President Trump’s firebrand populism captured the attention of a good chunk of the nation on the right, but so has his instability in the White House and on Twitter. More than six months in, little has been accomplished beyond the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, minor executive orders and almost daily fights with mainstream media.
Yet the attraction of some to celebrity outsider candidates persists. There is perhaps no bigger sign of this than the online right’s recent flirtation with Robert Richie (aka country and rap-rock star Kid Rock). The 46-year-old Kid has teased a run in 2018 to represent Michigan in the U.S. Senate, launching a Kid Rock for Senate website that doesn’t offer much beyond merchandising. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, an establishment Democrat, has held the seat for 16 years.
The same thinkers on the right who lament President Trump’s daily tweets are willing to at least entertain the idea of a Senate candidate like Kid Rock basing his entire would-be gimmick candidacy on retweets and his name trending on Twitter.
What started as an advertising ploy has developed into Kid Rock filing for tax exemption for a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization with the goal of registering voters (a good thing!), particularly at his concerts. But this all still feels like a honey trap for members of the political right, who keep insisting their pop culture celebrity base can be just as formidable and relevant as the one we saw swell under Barack Obama.
Members of the media who regularly use their Twitter feeds as their own personal “Daily Show” snark are elevating Kid Rock, while giggling to themselves at the very thought, somehow forgetting that Donald Trump’s flirtation with the presidency started this exact same way.
The question shouldn’t be can the middle-age Kid win with faux celebrity populism, as President Trump did. Kid Rock can hit all the right notes with pictures of home-cooked meals on Twitter and a pop image catering to “The forgotten man.”
The question should be: can Kid Rock govern? Do we know Kid Rock’s positions on abortion, eminent domain, civil forfeiture, tax reform, health care, immigration and national security? Or have those on the right who claim to know better decided that none of that matters anymore?
Brandon Finnigan, the founder and director of Decision Desk HQ, a reliable election prognosticator, gives Kid Rock a 50-50 chance of unseating Stabenow, citing factors such as “name recognition, money, oddball candidate, midterm electorate.” The parallels with President Trump are certainly there, including the likely underestimation by Democrats of an unconventional but well-known candidate.
But just like President Trump, Kid Rock is not a conservative as much as he is a celebrity cashing in on the passions of conservatives. He’s a friend of rocker and conservative firebrand Ted Nugent. He’s a friend of President Trump. And in today’s GOP that may just be enough.
The desire by conservatives to feel relevant in contemporary culture has always been tempting. As more and more institutions in our culture – like Hollywood and academia – attempt to freeze conservatives out of the debate, some understandably feel the need for the blessing of already established voices. Unfortunately, this need can overwhelm those who should know better.
This past May a former colleague of mine at National Review, David French, whom I greatly respect more than I have enough space to write here, wrote the cover story about actor and former pro wrestler Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as the celebrity we need now, both in culture and in perhaps politics.
Johnson is also enjoying a celebrity honeymoon based on an image, reminiscent of the 1980s hyper-patriotism of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. This is all buoyed by Johnson’s offhanded flirtations in interviews about possibly pursuing the presidency in 2020 or 2024. Do we know what he stands for? Does he have an in-depth grasp of the issues at hand in a world growing ever more dangerous? Who cares! Of course he does! He’s The Rock!
Other conservative media outlets and thinkers have mused about the idea of a third President Johnson (with bigger biceps than Andrew or Lyndon) in 2020. And let’s face it, in the wreckage of what social media can be, social media are perfect to indulge such fantasies of a Rock State of the Union speech right out of a scene from the film “Idiocracy.”
The same people who warned us about the pitfalls of a celebrity culture bleeding into politics as they watched President Obama hobnob with the star-studded Hollywood elite for eight years are falling prey to the inevitability of today’s celebrities entering the political arena. Will they support a President Rock (Johnson, not Kid), President Kanye West, President George Clooney, Senator Kim Kardashian and Senator Kid Rock?
Those who embrace such well-known political novices reject the very concerns many had a year ago about whether a President Trump could possibly lead the Republican Party and the country.
Also exploring a run for the Republican nomination for Stabenow’s seat in Michigan is former Army Ranger and Detroit businessman John James. Just last week he released a slick, well-edited video articulating the importance of family, liberty, thriving small businesses and conservative values.
James is not a celebrity entertainer. He is the kind of candidate who just a short time ago would be a proverbial political rock star on the right and have Democrats shaking with fear. His only drawback appears to be that he doesn’t have a T-shirt shop sponsored by Warner Bros.
There may come a time when our politics is completely engulfed into a culture of celebrity and the race for the White House just becomes another episode of “American Idol.” But as long as there are candidates like James out there, I’m willing to resist the delusions of grandeur over political televangelists and entertainers from either party.
Stephen L. Miller has written for Heat Street and National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter at @redsteeze.