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Shut up and act? Tell that to Donald Trump

‘Political theater’ can be a force for good. Tuesday’s debate wasn’t that

When Republicans ding outspoken entertainers for “stepping outside” their lanes, perhaps they should look at the reality show-starring, tabloid-exploiting résumé of the man in the White House, Curtis writes.
When Republicans ding outspoken entertainers for “stepping outside” their lanes, perhaps they should look at the reality show-starring, tabloid-exploiting résumé of the man in the White House, Curtis writes. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

After refusing to weigh in on previous presidential contests, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has endorsed Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in the 2020 race, lending his star power — while looking quite buff after a coronavirus scare — to a video with the Democratic ticket.

Cue the naysayers with the familiar refrain of “who cares” and “stick to acting,” conveniently ignoring the reality show-starring, tabloid-exploiting résumé of the man in the White House. Donald Trump’s Tuesday night debate performance was light on policy, but heavy on drama and fireworks, which is how he and his supporters like it. Though when the president encouraged the far-right Proud Boys to “stand back” and “stand by,” the act became all too real for anyone who cares about the “United” States.

The president even shares some WWE bona fides with Johnson, except Trump, unlike The Rock, did not exactly mix it up in the ring. The world has always known what Trump was cooking, and it hasn’t been pretty — again, see this week’s debate.

History has often seen this mix of politics and pop culture, thus the spectacle of what is called “political theater,” by turns entertaining, appalling and difficult to look away from.

It wasn’t that long ago that another big guy, Arnold Schwarzenegger, made the leap from bodybuilding and entertainment into politics, accompanied by lavish praise from Republicans whose party he represented. Ronald Reagan, anyone? When Reagan’s political ambitions first started to rise, Jack Warner, one of the actor’s bosses at Warner Bros., is said to have joked, “No, Jimmy Stewart for president; Ronald Reagan for his best friend.”

Now, Reagan is a Republican icon.

Republicans are predictably OK with entertainers or sports figures speaking out, if they repeat the latest talking point or endorse the GOP candidate, or else Scott Baio wouldn’t still have a career.

Then again, being shamed by an accusation of hypocrisy is so last century.

A good mix

Despite the many occasions when certain Americans ding fellow Americans for “stepping outside” their lanes, culture has often marched alongside politics and has led reluctant citizens into the unfamiliar.

Sometimes, it was, literally, by marching. When my eldest sister, Joan, a civil rights activist, attended the 1963 March on Washington as a volunteer, she admitted that spotting the stars was a thrill that transcended the appeal of a few of the loftier speeches —Paul Newman, Sammy Davis Jr., James Garner, Diahann Carroll, Marlon Brando, to name a few.

When Newman appeared as a guest during a special week of “The Tonight Show” in 1968, he explained that, as a citizen, he was as entitled to political action as any American. It was a week when singer, actor and activist Harry Belafonte replaced the affable Iowa-born, Nebraska-raised Johnny Carson as the late-night host America went to bed with. Carson, with his everyman entrée, realized that while he was not the man for that moment, it was important that he open his show to different points of view. “The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts ‘The Tonight Show,’” a documentary available on the Peacock streaming service that also includes the voice of the now-93-year-old Belafonte, revisits that momentous week.

Though everyone watched “The Tonight Show,” it was from segregated homes in segregated neighborhoods, with little exposure to what was going on across town or across the country. Civil rights and anti-war protests divided the country — similar to how the country is divided today. 1968 was a year of social, cultural and political upheaval, when segregationist George Wallace and pro-war politician Richard Nixon were running for president. So, when screen idol Newman sat on the “couch,” between blacklisted singer Leon Bibb and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in the minority for a change, it was a novelty and a revelation for those who had been content in a bubble.

Carson knew that people who may never have had social contact needed to hear and see one another — though it seems like a long time ago when having just three networks meant culture provided unifying touchstones, from “The Tonight Show” to Ed Sullivan to Carol Burnett and her crew. A pre-conviction Bill Cosby was one of the spies in “I Spy” and the dad in family shows that broadened Americans’ perspectives, as did Carroll’s nurse character in “Julia” and, some years later, “Will & Grace,” as corny as it seems.

That was when all of America joined one another looking at little boxes in a communal living room experience, something that happens less and less these days when an endless list of viewing options for news and entertainment allows Americans to remain in selected silos.

Equal treatment

The “Sit-In” documentary is worth a look, not only because it’s fun to see King display a sense of fun and humor while delivering his message. Robert F. Kennedy, who later was to announce his own presidential bid, talked about visiting pockets of poverty in affluent America. “There are speeches made about the fact that we’re going to treat everybody equally. And yet we don’t treat everybody equally,” Kennedy said.

Then Kennedy spoke about the country’s future: “If we didn’t tell untruths about ourselves … and faced up to reality, then I think our country would be much better off and our people would have much more confidence in those of us who are public officials and in our government as a whole.” Contrast that to Trump at Tuesday’s debate, declaring that teaching Americans to respect one another’s history and traditions equals lessons in “hate.”

King and Kennedy would be assassinated months after their “Tonight Show” visits, the consequences of division made horribly clear.

More than 50 years later, has America learned anything?

We have a sitting president of a country in the midst of a pandemic, economic upheaval and protests over racial justice, in a supposedly serious televised event, doing a bad imitation of a toddler having a tantrum, breaking every rule of the debate and of decorum.

And in the other corner, a wrestler-turned-actor, calmly asking candidates for president and vice president how they would “earn the respect of all the American people once you’re in that White House.”

In 2016, a culture-soaked America turned to a successful businessman whose tax records prove he only played one on “The Apprentice.” Maybe he is the one entertainer who should have stayed in his lane.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

CQ Roll Call’s newest podcast, “Equal Time with Mary C Curtis,” examines policy and politics through the lens of social justice. Please subscribe on AppleSpotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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