Zeitgeist

The Right’s Phantom Menace

January 26, 2017

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The Right’s Phantom Menace

When it comes to how the right should deal with Hollywood leftism, Andrew Breitbart, much as he did on the night of his passing, took the long way home. He advocated a complex battle-plan to deal with a problem that, it turns out, has a deceptively simple solution. During his life, he worked tirelessly to popularize the phrase “Politics is downstream from culture,” and he never wasted an opportunity to pound that message into the heads of conservatives. As goes the entertainment industry, he would argue, so goes the political landscape. The entertainment biz creates our shared narrative and, as a result, influences how we vote. If the right ever wants to regain the White House, we need to get out there and make movies, TV shows, and popular music. It’s the only way!

This was the dream behind Friends of Abe (which I was a member of for five years), the organization of Hollywood Republicans that Andrew was instrumental in guiding: conservatives making their own entertainment, not so much FUBU (“For Us By Us”), but FYBU (“For You By Us”). Copy the Hollywood model of dishing up entertainment for the masses sprinkled with political propaganda. This was the theory behind not only Friends of Abe but also the Kelsey Grammer-fronted RightNetwork, Glenn Beck’s GBTV, Bill Whittle’s Declaration Entertainment, David Zucker’s An American Carol, and Aubrey Chernick’s PJTV.

Notice a common trait among the entities I just listed? Yep—they all failed miserably. Friends of Abe? Folded last year. GBTV? DOA. PJTV? R.I.P. Grammer’s RightNetwork? Aborted in utero. Declaration Entertainment? Website shuttered. American Carol? Seen by fewer people than Bigfoot. And as each attempt at creating a right-of-center entertainment outlet folded, Hollywood cranked up the volume on its leftist bias to eleven and beyond, inundating the public with an ever-rising flood of left-leaning messages in movies, TV shows, and pop music.

“What if the entertainment industry never had the awesome powers we ascribed to it?”

But wait…even with all that Hollywood “interference,” didn’t we just win the last presidential election? Don’t we have the House and Senate, too? Haven’t we also won an unprecedented number of statewide legislative seats and governorships?

I hate to say it, I hate to even suggest it, but what if Andrew was wrong? What if our fight against Hollywood has been nothing more than an obsession with a chimera of our own making? Maybe Hollywood doesn’t have that much influence after all; maybe the public isn’t that impressionable; maybe it turns out politics really isn’t “downstream from culture.” If I live another hundred years, I doubt I’ll ever see the entertainment industry wage the kind of war against a presidential candidate that it waged against Trump. Every stop was pulled out, every heartstring was tugged, every manipulation technique was used, and it didn’t work. Breitbart, Beck, Chernick, Zucker, Whittle, etc., had exerted a great deal of effort trying to create an entertainment infrastructure to counter the Hollywood narrative…and what if it was all a complete waste of time? What if the entertainment industry never had the awesome powers we ascribed to it? What if it turns out that the menace we worked so tirelessly to counter is easily defeated by the cheapest and least time-consuming trick in the book—ignoring it?

I realize that I wrote about Hollywood in last week’s column, and I don’t want to repeat myself, but the issue has remained on my mind, due in no small part to the angry emails I received from some of my few remaining pals in the biz, one of whom lamented the fact that the “nice Jewish boy” she’d known as a child had grown up to become a “skinhead” (okay, I gotta admit, that slur offended me. Not because it’s false—it’s too laughably over-the-top false to be taken seriously—but because, well, “skinhead”? I’m a 48-year-old man with a full, thick head of hair. It’s, like, the only thing about me that’s aged well. Don’t you dare rob me of that!). The main reason I want to revisit the topic is because I think it’s beneficial for conservatives to examine the possibility that some of their most cherished assumptions about entertainment and politics may have been proven false by last year’s election.

It’s easy for conservatives to fall victim to “magical thinking” about celebrities, that they can sway voters with their “star power,” that they can influence ordinary Americans by subtly implanting ideas in their heads, that they can use their money, fame, and charm to encourage average folks to mimic their politics and ideology. I’ve never quite bought that premise. Indeed, I’ve always thought that this belief has its roots in the presence of evangelicalism and Catholicism on the right. If a political ideology has a decent number of adherents who buy into concepts like demon possession and supernatural dark forces that can seep into your mind or soul and force you to do stuff that you otherwise wouldn’t do, it becomes fairly easy to apply that belief elsewhere, like in the notion that Hollywood’s leftism can flow over the nation like a black-magic spell and influence how people vote. If you read any of ultrareligious conservative (and Friend of Abe) Ted Baehr’s “family movie guides,” you’ll find that the books contain not so much reviews as warnings regarding the risk of “soul corruption” posed by the dark supernatural forces released by certain movies. But one needn’t be religious to adhere to the belief that Hollywood influences politics; one need only have an unrealistic concept of Hollywood’s influence and the public’s suggestibility.

Personally, I don’t think people are that impressionable, at least not where movies, TV shows, songs, and celebrities are concerned. A common cliché spouted by the “downstream from culture” crowd goes something like, “If Hollywood doesn’t influence us, why does it spend billions on advertising and publicity for movies?” The argument is, Hollywood execs wouldn’t spend the money if they weren’t certain they’d get results. But anyone who actually knows the business would laugh at that suggestion. Hollywood wastes billions of dollars per year on projects that flop and concepts that never catch on. It’s very much a crapshoot. You can focus-group and test-preview a movie or TV show as much as you want, you can have a P&A budget equal to the holdings of a Swiss bank, and there’s still no guarantee of success. Entertainment-industry leaders have enough difficulty selling the projects from which they earn their living; if they possessed the ability to influence elections at the flip of a switch, if they could control human behavior with that level of assuredness, they’d certainly use that power first and foremost to enrich themselves by never again losing money on another big-budget disaster. The existence of films like John Carter, Pluto Nash, 47 Ronin, and Mars Needs Moms is all the proof one needs that the biz isn’t run by magical wizards.

My problem with Hollywood’s leftism isn’t that it’s “destroying the country,” but rather that it’s destroying the very notion of good entertainment. Hollywood’s not hurting us as much as it’s hurting itself. I thought about that just a few days ago as I watched the most recent episode of Saturday Night Live, in which two cast members sang a deadly-serious farewell song to President Obama. Where was the humor? Shit, where was the attempt at humor? My problem with SNL these days isn’t that the jokes aren’t funny, but that there aren’t any jokes anymore. After the election, when Lorne Michaels allowed Kate McKinnon to open the show with a completely and purposely humorless elegy to Hillary Clinton, one that ended with a straight-out statement of political advocacy, he pissed on his own legacy in a way that astonished me. Almost every previous “dramatic” cold open, from the show’s first post-9/11 episode, to Steve Martin’s tearful farewell to Gilda Radner in 1989, at least tried to shoehorn a joke in at the end. But with McKinnon, there wasn’t even an attempt. Michaels was basically saying that Clinton’s loss was worse (more serious, less deserving of humor) than 9/11. That’s appalling.

But Michaels’ destruction of the show he supposedly holds so dear isn’t a threat to America, and if he keeps it up, it won’t be a threat to Trump’s reelection in 2020 or the GOP’s chances in the midterms. The only victim here is a late-night television institution. Just remember—if SNL had the power to elect presidents, H.W. Bush would have easily coasted to reelection in ’92 because of sketches like this.

Granted, Dan McLaughlin at RedState claims that Trump’s victory is a validation of Breitbart’s “downstream from culture” theory, but I find his argument most unconvincing. Yes, Trump had high visibility via his participation on reality shows, but that’s not what Andrew was talking about. Everyone knows that visibility is a good thing for a candidate (although apparently Hillary Clinton didn’t know that, or else she wouldn’t have gone AWOL from the campaign trail at the worst possible time). Breitbart wasn’t talking about visibility; he was talking about narratives, how Hollywood creates stories that subliminally influence politics. His premise concerned the subtle weaving of themes in popular entertainment, and how this can (supposedly) influence election results. This is the concept that conservatives need to reexamine.

If conservatives can free themselves from the burden of thinking they have to compete with Hollywood or “become their own Hollywood,” they’ll be a lot happier. Because frankly (and I made this point in a column a few years ago), at Friends of Abe, we weren’t particularly good at that “FYBU” stuff. The projects we cranked out—be it movies, TV pilots, or political commercials—were absolutely atrocious. Don’t get me wrong—we had some phenomenally talented people on the team, and, individually, those folks had the ability to turn out great stuff. Friend of Abe Joel Surnow, for example, had a huge hit with 24, a show that did indeed manage to weave pro-war-on-terror messages into a compelling story line. Some on the left have accused Surnow of “influencing the public” regarding acceptance of torture as a legitimate weapon in the fight against Islamic terror. Conversely, some on the right (and left) have attacked (and praised) Surnow for prepping the ground for Obama via his sympathetic, heroic portrayal of a black president.

They’re all wrong. 24 was just a very entertaining show with a decent high-concept gimmick. I’d suggest that in 2008, no Republican, not even zombie Reagan, could have won, with the economy in free fall, the Iraq War a disaster, and Bush and the GOP blamed for it all. Sure, Hollywood was behind Obama 100% in 2008, just as it was against Bush 100% in 2004. Hollywood didn’t matter in that election, and it didn’t matter in 2016, either. In fact, it may never have mattered, so, with apologies to Breitbart, I think he spent a little too much of his tragically brief life acting as though it did.

By overestimating the importance of the entertainment industry in the political process, all we end up doing is inflating the egos of a bunch of worthless buffoons who already have way more unearned self-esteem than they need.

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