Donald Trump was not the first American president who owed his education to Hollywood, but he was the first who tried to turn it into a cult. As things turned out, even the stars of show business turned against their self-anointed protégé.
“Trump became obsessed that celebrity could become a cult,” said one corporate CEO who declined to be quoted.
A new Showtime series titled The Reagans forcefully reminds us that it was Ronald Reagan who set the stage for Trump, demonstrating how Hollywood fame could translate into votes. Still, it was not until after his death that the Reagan name assumed a cult-like status.
Early on, some in Hollywood saw Trump’s rise to power as a curious joy-ride. Where Reagan had been a movie star, Trump was a fringe attention-seeker who achieved TV stardom by preaching a doctrine of success. It soon became clear that Trump enjoyed firing people more than fostering their success, thus assuming the role of the bully, not the leader. Hence his mode of governing.
Over time, Hollywood came to realize that, while Reagan systematically flashed his friendly face, Trump was bent on defying Hollywood’s newly imposed strictures. Reagan resolutely sold the “Nancy and Ronnie” message; Trump loudly trumpeted his own rules of morality.
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Further, Trump boasted of his profligacy at a moment when incomes were shrinking and jobs disappearing. “Hollywood has witnessed the comings and goings of all the fake billionaires and Trump became just another one of them,” recalls one corporate veteran. To some, Trump vaguely harkened back to Steve Ross, a flashy showman with tenuous business ties who transformed his funeral business into the Time Warner empire before his fortunes imploded (Ross had no political ambitions).
As a young man, Trump, like Reagan, flirted with Democratic precepts before dedicating himself to the hard right. Both understood that Hollywood was controlled by liberal-leaning creatives, but made the necessary accommodations. Trump faithfully shook hands at the major banquets and award dinners. Reagan served terms as president of the Screen Actors Guild, even though he was troubled by controversies like the blacklist.
“Trump even plagiarized Reagan’s slogan, ‘Let’s Make America Great Again,’” observes Matt Tyrnauer, who directed The Reagans for Showtime (a four-part series that premieres November 15). “Both men were outsiders, unwelcome in their native habitats, both former Democrats.”
Both also took notice of this political reality: The Republican Party historically has been more aggressive than the Democrats in signing stars. The Democrats aggressively courted Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, but the Republicans actually signed him and won with him.
“The Democrats never understood star power,” argues one top Democratic fundraiser. “This year they couldn’t even recruit their biggest star, Michelle Obama.” To be sure, her husband diligently worked the campaign trail.
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