Donald Trump may be the celebrity presidential candidate, but the Democrats are the party of the celebrity.
Demi Lovato, Alicia Keys, Paul Simon, Sarah Silverman, and Lenny Kravitz are just some of the stars who spoke or performed at the convention this week in Philadelphia. Danny Glover and Susan Sarandon wandered into the media tent. Bryan Cranston narrated President Obama’s intro video last night and headlined a luncheon for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee this afternoon, one more testament to the chest-pounding smugness swallowing up Philadelphia at the moment.
At the soirees underwritten by billionaire corporations like Uber and the various lobbyists who make up Washington’s permanent overclass, Democrats are allowed, once again, to try to have their cake and eat it too, to profess to be a party of the working poor and the marginalized while playing footsie with the nation’s most powerful people.
The Hillary Clinton–loving Breaking Bad star, wearing a gray suit and dark blue tie with a white cross pattern, stood at the head of an upstairs ballroom in the luxury Loews Hotel, temporary home of the New York delegation, and lit into Trump while offering occasional asides about how he quasi-heroically “led” the cast and crew of Malcolm in the Middle (Frankie Muniz was too young! Jane Kaczmarek didn’t want to do it!) and condescendingly admired, still, his Bernie Sanders–supporting brother.
In his rambling speech, Cranston said he would “love to play Donald Trump in a movie but I pray to God he’s not President Donald Trump.” This segued into several Trump impersonations of varying merit, with Cranston-as-Trump, in the booming Queens brogue we know far too well, telling the crowd that he has a very large brain.
“Do you know any adult that talks that way?” Cranston asked.
The audience of Democratic representatives and their hangers-on, nibbling on their grilled chicken, couscous, and croissants, lapped it up. “Self-righteous, blustery right-wingers” are the problem, Cranston said, and he reflected on how the man he played on Broadway, Lyndon Johnson, would probably revile Trump.
“Now, Mr. Trump is not wise but he’s also not stupid. He knows the truth isn’t as important as the perception of truth. You tell a lie enough over and over enough again and it starts to wear the clothes of the truth,” Cranston said. “He’s a master of the art of the manipulation of humankind.”
Cranston then went in for the awkward punchline: “I suggest perhaps that his next book be entitled The Art of the Nihil-ist.”
Next up, his Lyndon Johnson Southern drawl: “LBJ said, ‘It’s the price of leadership to do the thing you believe has to be done in the time it must be done.’ “
At length he bemoaned the “us” versus “them” mentality swallowing up politics and eroding bipartisanship. The actor hardly mentioned Clinton, preferring the low-hanging Trump fruit, which has been par for the course of this convention, as has the idea of beautiful and rich people occupying the Democratic tent.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, one of the politicians who introduced Cranston, said the “value” of celebrities are in their commitment to a cause. The anodyne point, and Cranston’s rightful Trump denunciations, are fine — but in their temporary unity against the noxious, tyrannical Trump, Democrats paper over an uncomfortable truth.
Cranston could tell Trump one-liners until the next Democratic convention if he wanted to. Can the party reach beyond the vague “middle class” to try to help the truly poor, the long-term unemployed, and the victims of globalization that Trump sings to? What can it do for the impoverished people of North Philadelphia, for example, who wouldn’t dream of attending a political convention because zero-sum presidential contests make no difference in their lives?
“I used to find him very entertaining, as you would a class clown,” Cranston said of Trump.
At some point, Democrats will have to talk about something other than the circus.