By Timothy Stanley, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Timothy Stanley is a historian at Oxford University and blogs for Britain’s The Daily Telegraph. He is the author of The Crusader: The Life and Times of Pat Buchanan.
(CNN) — With the election getting nearer, Hollywood’s few, proudly open conservatives have been heating up the rhetoric. Some have been quietly campaigning in a way that dodges the headlines. Vince Vaughn, for example, endorsed Ron Paul early in the campaign, an act as refreshing as it is sadly redundant. But most of the news reports have been dominated by the antediluvian antics of some pretty aged (and by now probably unemployable) actors.
Chuck Norris lambasted the president for trying to get gays into the scouts and Ted Nugent says history might have turned out better if the South had won the Civil War. Jon Voight rushed to the defense of Brad Pitt’s mom after she sent a letter to her local newspaper calling Obama, “a liberal who supports the killing of unborn babies and same-sex marriage.”
The modern Republican celebrity ideal, it seems, is all man. He could be a retired action movie star, likely to wear a cowboy hat, almost certainly smokes cigars and typically inhabits a political position to the tea party’s right. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with any of things, except that the public pronouncements from these modern representatives less suggest someone who happens to be a big fan of Edmund Burke than someone who is undergoing the male menopause. When the Iraq War started in 2003, Bruce Willis actually called the White House and volunteered. He was surprised when an aide told him, “Sorry, Bruce, you’re too old to enlist.”
Today’s Hollywood Republicanism might come from outside the mainstream of the movie industry, but it wasn’t always this way. During the 1944 presidential election, Cecil B DeMille threw a gala for Republican candidate Thomas Dewey that featured elephants, bands and A-list stars like Ginger Rogers, Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck.
When McCarthyism hit Hollywood in the 1950s, the industry became more pronouncedly conservative. Actor George Murphy was elected as a Republican senator from California in 1964, and Ronald Reagan entered the governor’s mansion in 1966.
Richard Nixon, elected in 1968, had movie tastes emblematic of Golden Age conservatism: According to historian Mark Feeney, he publicly denounced cussing in films and walked out of “West Side Story” halfway through because he thought it was anti-American. When he threw a re-election booster for his Hollywood backers in 1972, one guest described it as “a cocktail party at the Hollywood Wax Museum.”
The invitation list might not have changed much from 1944, but it was still impressive: Frank Sinatra, Charlton Heston, Glen Campbell, Clint Eastwood, Jack Benny, Jimmy Durante, George Hamilton and Sammy Davis Jr. Most of these people were former Democrats and the dress code was formal, not Chuck Norris denim. The president told his staff that they should offer “the very best brands of scotch and bourbon, not the ordinary stuff we’ve used in the past.”
This was one of the last occasions when a Republican Hollywood crowd was used to communicate sophistication rather than rebelliousness; Nixon was trying to cement an image as godfather of the nation. But the president also understood that as liberalism became more fashionable among the young, so conservatism was gaining momentum as a counter-cultural force of its own. That’s why Nixon invited Clint Eastwood (aka The Man With No Name) to be a delegate at that year’s Republican convention, while the movie introducing the president was narrated by John Wayne.
Nixon was the first Republican president to tap into the electoral appeal of the cowboy star as the faded mascot of the silent majority, the gentleman of the rugged West who got by fine without welfare and who shot bad guys when he had to. It had a commercial appeal, too. That’s why in the 1970s, while Hollywood as an institution culturally drifted to the left, the movie industry also churned out movies that played upon suburban paranoia about crime, like “Dirty Harry” and “Death Wish.”
In short, an actor isn’t just an actor, but a brand carefully built and marketed to sell movies. Those brands can be found on both the left and right. In contemporary Hollywood, Sean Penn has taken the archetype of an angry man burdened by liberal compassion to extremes, launching a tirade at Cannes against “the whole … world” for abandoning Haiti. Likewise, Alec Baldwin’s perpetual threat to run for mayor of New York or Betty White’s reinvention as a gay icon demonstrates that political branding can give actors an appeal beyond TV and movies.
Branding isn’t a straightjacket for some, however. When Clint Eastwood made “Gran Torino” in 2008, some critics took it to be a classic example of the “red state movie.” It was full of messages about family, crime and self-reliance. But when Eastwood made the “Halftime in America” ad for the 2012 Super Bowl, some Republicans complained his tight-lipped, rugged style was being used to promote Obama’s policies.
On the whole, Hollywood conservatism has adapted to suit the culture warrior style of the tea party. First comes the market, then comes the brand. Hence, if celebrity Republicans seem outrageously reactionary, it’s an indicator of where the GOP and its base have moved and what it looks for in its screen idols. The party of Thomas Dewey or Richard Nixon, men who basically spoke for the social establishments of their day, has now become something more populist and more rooted in working-class anger.
Sometimes, the men and women who are the advertisements for that brand can become consumed by the image and evolve into a pastiche of it. Is there not something slightly absurd about the vain, aged machismo of The Expendibles 2, a movie about violent septuagenarian mercenaries? Most of the Republican stars look like they couldn’t withstand a vigorous game of bridge at the Del Boca Vista retirement home.
The interesting question is how easily the anti-establishment antics of Chuck Norris or Ted Nugent sit with the preppy elitism of Mitt Romney, which is aimed more at the independent voter market. The answer is that they don’t, and that’s just one more problem that Mitt has to overcome in November.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Timothy Stanley.