How Hollywood joined the anti-Trump resistance

Shia LaBeouf scrapping with neo-Nazis, Alec Baldwin riffing on the President and Madonna dropping the F-bomb on the White House – the revolution might not be televised, but you can catch it on Netflix

Article by John Bleasdale | 27 Jan 2017

If you woke up from a ten-year long coma, you’d be forgiven for thinking “What the fuck?” Shia LaBeouf is roughing up Nazis?!? Is that Ugly Betty giving an inspiring speech to millions of protesting women in Washington!? Pussy hats! Alec Baldwin parodying President Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live with jokes about … golden showers? Wait. President Donald Trump!? As Back to the Future’s Doc Brown might say “… the actor?”

The extent of celebrity participation in protesting the newly elected president is unprecedented. Hollywood has dipped its toe in politics before, but recent interventions have come at a scale and breadth previously unseen. Why is that? The most obvious answer is because the president himself is unprecedented. Hollywood has long-imagined this kind of celebrity presidency – from Idiocracy through Biff to Greg Stilson in The Dead Zone – but the GOP keeps offering the world presidents as if it were part of its long-running beef with the theory of evolution: Nixon, Bush Jr. and now the Celebrity Apprentice’s Donald J. Trump. We’ve not just overtaken satire, we’ve lapped it!

Hollywood activism has a chequered history. Church groups and spineless studios stymied vocal dissent. The Second World War saw Hollywood on the bandwagon; however, with the backlash of McCarthyism in the 50s, oppositional voices were blacklisted or, as in the case of Charlie Chaplin, exiled.

Hollywood activism through the years

The countercultural 60s and the Vietnam War brought new outspoken stars to the fore: from Marlon Brando marching with the Black Panthers to Jane Fonda in Vietnam. They took some hits. And being a woman with an opinion was by far the worst offence. Brando never got branded the way Hanoi Jane did. Meanwhile, John Wayne and Bob Hope banged the drum on endless USO shows, but audiences had changed as well and Vietnam was bad television. By the 70s a weariness had set in, both with the war and protest. Sacheen Littlefeather an Oscar on Brando’s behalf smacked as much of laziness as radicalism. Why couldn’t he go himself?

Through the 80s and 90s, celebrity activism focused on single issues – like Sting and his rain forests, or Bono and Africa – and this concentration made it easy for famous faces to be co-opted into various roles as UNICEF ambassadors or Human Rights spokespeople. This had obvious limits. Photo opportunities and careerism replaced anger. Cynics might think aloud that an issue loaned depth to a star’s profile. And commitment could be flaky. Scarlett Johansson kicked her role for Oxfam into touch when it conflicted with a lucrative advertising deal for SodaStream.

The second gulf war saw the likes of Sean Penn, Matt Damon and Michael Moore emerge as a kind of liberal coterie, parodied to death by Team America: World Police. But life during wartime also meant that opposition was once more costly – see the Dixie Chicks – and Fox News ran hate campaigns against pampered Hollywood types and their liberal elitist BS.

‘Robert De Niro's best performance since Casino

A similar critique has been levelled at celebrity involvement this time around. Were they part of the problem? According to some commentators, a rally with Beyonce and Madonna closing Hillary Clinton’s campaign wasn’t the hoped-for home run but rather a mishit that flew into the crowd and killed a spectator. Admittedly, the video of Robert De Niro calling Trump “a mutt” was the best thing he’s been in since Casino, but did all those celebrity endorsements hurt instead of help the campaign? Or, conversely, were we just underestimating the massive popular appeal of Scott Baio?

'Trump has inadvertently made America great again'

Coming from the right, this criticism of celebrity smacks of sour grapes. Even when they get a genuine A-lister like Clint Eastwood, he ends up talking to a goddamned chair. And in reality the actors in the new political resistance are no longer part-timers. Read Westworld actor Jeffrey Wright’s Twitter feed, or Patricia Arquette’s. America Ferrera came to fame as Ugly Betty but has returned to the limelight as one of the most impressive speakers at the Women’s March.

It looks like Trump has inadvertently made America great again. It’s now as likely you’ll know George Takei from his witty activist Twitter account as from Star Trek. Shia LaBeouf’s arrest is in the same key as his reinvention as a walking installation, but his commitment and dedication, standing in the cold in Queens, New York, shouting at neo-Nazis and getting arrested, is way outside most comfort zones.

Then there’s the weight of sheer numbers: Ashley Judd and Alec Baldwin, Bruce Springsteen, Meryl Streep and De Niro, Scarlett Johansson (for now), Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans… let’s just say The Avengers basically. And here’s something else that is different. As well as individual actors, entertainment outlets are also devoting themselves to holding the new president to account. The most articulate response to the Trump candidacy didn’t come from Hillary Clinton or the Democrats, it came from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, Late Night with Seth Meyers and now Saturday Night Live.

This is a tendency political philosopher Slavoj Žižek has torn into, pointing to it as a defeat of the left. We prefer a jokey irony of smug disdain without positing any actual positive alternative, or Hillary Clinton as she is better known. A good point, except that Bernie Sanders – Žižek’s preferred candidate – had Sarah Silverman and Susan Sarandon along with many other celebrities feeling the Bern.

‘The original American revolution was fuelled by pamphlets, this one is going to be run on memes’

The fact of the matter is this is what the world is now. There’s no point railing against tweets, Facebook likes, celebrity endorsements, marches and petitions as if it were all part of some cuddly slacktivism. The resistance to Trump needs an ‘all of the above’ approach. Just as the original American revolution was fuelled by pamphlets, this one is going to be run on memes. The right knows this. They’ve been churning up the comment boards and sending out the bots for years now.

And we should remember that for all their criticism of Hollywood elites, the Republicans made the star of Red Sonja into the governor of California, they made a President of the monkey’s co-star from Bedtime for Bozo, and their current Commander-in-Chief once co-starred with Bo Derek in a movie called Ghosts Can’t Do It. You don’t like celebrity activists? Well, guess what: Trump came to prominence, with his Birther codswallop, as one of those.

If we get rid of him, then Twitter can go back to complaining about things of real importance... like Batfleck.

Follow John Bleasdale on Twitter at @drjonty