Actors may make good presidents, reality stars are something else
When Ronald Reagan was criticized for being “just an actor” in California’s 1966 gubernatorial election, he responded that he was a “citizen politician,” representing the people who had supported him at the box office and were now voting for him at the ballot box.
Critics have accused Donald Trump as being “just a reality TV star.” In response, he too has created a populist message to capture the loyalty of television viewers who once watched him aggressively fire contestants on The Apprentice.
Both entertainers have been targeted for being a celebrity without “real” political experience, and have laid claim to leading a grassroots movement as an outsider. But, a deeper look at the skills needed to excel as an actor, versus those of a reality television star, illuminates that Donald Trump is no Ronald Reagan — or George Murphy or Arnold Schwarzenegger or any other actor-turned-politico, for that matter.
A profound difference exists in the skill set and professional community between actors — who are in a guild and celebrate their colleagues’ artistic achievements though Screen Actors Guild Awards and the Oscars — and reality television stars — who work to promote their individual brand by starting feuds and misbehaving.
Reality-TV stars may be celebrities, but they are not necessarily trained actors. Rather than executing a movie scenario, reality TV stars gain fame for their unpredictability, whether as a scandalous housewife or an unpredictable boss. The brand of the individual matters — not the community or industry he or she represents.
This professional difference matters because it reflects a shift in the role of “celebrity” in American life. Under the studio system, Hollywood leaders made the industry a social institution. Figures like Reagan were afforded opportunities to entertain and fulfill civic obligations.
Though Reagan did not achieve the movie idol status of a Clark Gable or Humphrey Bogart, he was a “leading man” in the motion picture industry. He had been groomed by the Hollywood star system to be the face of productions crafted by the studio’s well-oiled machinery – in front offices, writers’ cubicles and editors’ cutting rooms. Significantly, Reagan’s political training continued off-screen, as he mediated Hollywood labor conflicts, strived to gain public trust — the route to real stardom — and worked with the U.S. government to sell democracy at home and abroad.
As a real-estate mogul turned reality-television star, Trump has relied on eccentric behavior to become a different type of celebrity. Trump’s star status rests on his ability to shock and awe — particularly to not stay on script. It has proved effective for generating TV ratings.
But, his skill set is in stoking sensationalism, not professional acting, creating controversy rather than solving problems. Though he now sometimes promises to “act presidential” in the future, the skills that have helped make Trump the GOP frontrunner actually undermine his ability to fulfill this pledge.
In the studio system era, professional actors were notably hard workers. Most began at the bottom, doing grunt work in whatever small roles the studio assigned them. Reagan appeared in 19 films during his first two years with Warner Bros. When he finally gained notice for his role as a college football player, George “the Gipper” Gipp in the 1940 hit Knute Rockne All American, Reagan became a star. Not the top star, but enough of a name to gain the attention of fan magazines and his peers’ respect — which he continued to earn as an industry leader.
In 1947, Reagan was elected president of the Screen Actors’ Guild. He faced internal threats of labor strikes and external pressure from Washington about rumored communist subversion in motion pictures. As head of the union, Reagan learned to ease political conflict, even as the Cold War ignited it.
In his autobiography, Where’s the Rest of Me, Reagan claimed that navigating contentious disputes among communists, progressives, liberals, moderate Republicans and conservative anti-communists made him more pragmatic and less idealistic — one key reason he cites for his political shift to the right.
As an industry spokesperson, he quickly learned that political opportunities and box office returns depended on public trust. Negative publicity followed the House Un-American Activities Committee investigation into the movie industry, when the “Hollywood 10” — 10 screenwriters, directors and producers — refused to answer the congressional committee’s questions about any past affiliation with communism and were subsequently jailed for contempt.
In the wake of the HUAC hearings, promoting the industry required demonstrating its Cold War civic virtue. Reagan worked with organizations like the Motion Picture Industry Council to remind the country of Hollywood’s patriotism. Becoming “ambassadors of democracy,” Reagan and other actors delivered rousing anticommunist speeches to defend their profession, depicting entertainers as the savior of American freedom and democracy.
Hollywood executives strove to make the industry a valued social institution in national life — not just a business. Of course, social status and public trust resulted in dollars. Nonetheless, industry leaders, like Reagan, worked to overcome stigmas that actors were “less serious” by becoming involved in civic affairs.
Reagan reaped the benefits of Hollywood’s search for status in the postwar period. His leadership roles in the Screen Actors Guild and industry council helped Reagan maintain his Hollywood profile and enhanced his political networks as his acting career dried up in the 1950s.
By the time Reagan emerged on the national scene with his 1964 convention speech endorsing Senator Barry Goldwater, the Republican presidential candidate, he had transformed his work experience, on screen and off, into political assets. Reagan became an influential conservative spokesman, first on television and then on the campaign trail, delivering the movement’s message with precision and professionalism. He regularly hit his mark — staying disciplined in delivering his message to unite a diverse, and often conflicted coalition of evangelicals, free-market advocates and military hawks.
As Reagan capitalized on his Hollywood relationships and skills to advance politically, the entertainment world underwent a transformation as well. The breakdown of the studio system in the 1960s and 1970s and the emergence of new entertainment outlets with cable television (and later the Internet) allowed for the democratization of celebrity.
By the 1980s, anyone could become a celebrity with the right flair for sparking controversy, even a real-estate mogul. These celebrities could attract cameras and generate ratings — but they lacked the training, discipline and sense of social obligation that was taught (and frequently enforced through contracts with morality provisions) to actors of the studio system like Reagan.
Reality TV stars are largely concerned with their own brand — perhaps none more so than Trump. A brand — whether encompassing steaks or wines or luxury hotels — may make money with catch phrases. But, his events are staged elaborately to sell Trump’s brand not to cultivate a true political movement.
And herein, is the difference between the two men. Reagan, as a contemporary observed in 1966, was trained in Hollywood to “reach the heart” — and he popularized the message his supporters wanted to hear, one that reflected ideas and issues cultivated in conservative circles over the previous two decades.
Trump, meanwhile, has controlled the media narrative of this election, but in a way that focuses on him–his achievements, his wealth, his unpredictability — not the interests of the people he claims to represent.