When Bush left office, he was followed out the door by two movies. W, by Marxist crackpot Oliver Stone, was a Saturday Night Live skit with an all-star cast. The movie lost money and was quickly forgotten. The other, even more toxic production was Death of a President, released years earlier which fantasized about Bush’s assassination and remained a guilty pleasure for left-wing viewers.
Obama departs with a very different industry farewell. Southside With You glamorizes his first date with Michelle. And Netflix is pushing Barry, which revisits Obama as a college student wondering just how he’s going to wreck the country. Both movies are love letters to a man whom Hollywood loves. As opposed to its Bush movies which were cinematic poison pen notes to a man whom it hated.
HBO airing Will Ferrell’s “A Final Night With George W. Bush” was the contemptuous response of liberal winners celebrating their new power. Saturday Night Live responding to Trump’s victory with Hillary impersonator Kate McKinnon playing Hallelujah was a fourth wall breaking admission of defeat.
Meryl Streep’s entitled whining at the Golden Globes, “All of us in this room, really, belong to the most vilified segments in American society right now” was an industry mourning its loss of power.
No amount of celebrity award speeches or Saturday Night Live skits will move the dial. They didn’t work with Bush, they failed utterly to stop Trump’s victory and they will be just as impotent once he takes office. But the entertainment industry can manipulate the country in subtler ways.
Think of the kinds of movies that you saw in recent years. And the kind that you didn’t.
Anti-war movies were suddenly being churned out to undermine Bush. In the Valley of Elah, Harsh Times, American Dreamz, Syriana, Rendition, Lions for Lambs, The Messenger, Stop Loss, Grace is Gone, Green Zone and Body of Lies are just a few examples over a few years. Hundreds of millions of dollars were put into depicting soldiers as war criminals or mental cases, and our government as evil and immoral. (Meryl Streep managed to appear in two of them: Rendition and Lions for Lambs.)
The anti-war movies were box office flops. Lions for Lambs helped end Tom Cruise’s attempt to revive United Artists as his own studio. Fallout from the failure of Green Zone helped shut down Matt Damon’s appearances in his more popular anti-American Bourne movies for almost a decade. Body of Lies losing to Beverly Hills Chihuahua had serious consequences for Warner Brothers which had put up all the money and couldn’t save the disaster even by spending big on marketing.
But that doesn’t mean that the movies had no impact. Even many of the bombs were seen by millions. The Hollywood left didn’t profit from its campaign against the Iraq War, but its side won the argument.
And the left doesn’t care if it loses financially as long as it wins ideologically.
It’s also dangerous to write off the persuasive power of the entertainment industry. Its anti-war efforts probably had only a limited impact, but there is no question that it was far more successful in changing minds about gay marriage. And it has more subtler tools for changing minds than the star vehicle.
The entertainment industry does better with indirect agendas embedded into the culture than with direct attacks piggybacking on the culture. Propaganda is an influence operation. It works best when you don’t know it’s there. That’s why Modern Family was far more effective than Saturday Night Live. It’s easy to mock Obama’s endless tour of talk shows, vlogs and publicity stunts. But they’re also effective.
The direct attacks on Trump don’t matter. Despite Meryl Streep’s delusions, no one will stay up nights worrying that New Jersey actresses who spend all their time trying to sound vaguely British will be deported. Millions of Americans are fascinated by the haircuts, outfits, marriages, divorces, box offices, collectibles and recollections of celebrities. They aren’t interested in their politics.
Public grandstanding by celebrities during the Bush years, whether it was Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn, Woody Harrelson, Jeananne Garafalo or the Dixie Chicks, quickly made them laughingstocks. It wasn’t just partisan disagreement. The public refused to take their politics seriously. They became a joke.
The same thing happened to Meryl Streep.
But the entertainment industry can do a great deal to undermine Trump’s policies. Forget the vanity anti-war movies. Those will be on their way in a few years, but they won’t make much of a difference. The real damage will come from a drumbeat of agenda items organically embedded into the culture.
During the Bush years, the entertainment industry developed a sudden interest in civil liberties and government surveillance. Messages about the danger of giving the government the power to fight terrorism were embedded across a whole range of TV shows and movies. The effect was incremental and so was the damage. (Tellingly much of this messaging vanished with the rise of Obama.)
Civil liberties messaging is already being brushed off. Expect it to start showing up before long.
The industry will be undermining support for Trump’s policies. Look for louder and more pervasive messaging on immigration, law enforcement and trade. As well as an anti-government message. And if they don’t influence you, they just might have an impact on your children and grandchildren.
Conservatives are very good at responding to confrontational stunts, whether it’s a movie or a celebrity, but they are far worse at coping with a relentless stream of propaganda that is dispersed and broken up into smaller pieces to be spread across popular culture. And they underestimate the impact it can have.
The former is a rant. The latter is culture. And culture is the sea that most of the country swims in.
The celebrities badmouthing Bush were just as ineffective as those ranting about Trump. But the entertainment industry constructed an encompassing narrative which helped shift perceptions about Bush’s policies. Nobody pays attention to actors pounding the teleprompter. But package the same message around those same actors playing likeable characters and you manufacture a social consensus.
Millions of people get their ideas about what life is really like from shows and movies. When everything they watch carries an assumption, they accept the assumption as a social consensus. And eventually conservatives adopt it as a done deal. It’s happened before. And it can easily happen again.
While the entertainment industry appears particularly impotent right before an inauguration, its attacks are most effective when there is a crisis and confidence in the man in the White House falls.
The industry can bide its time. Forget the awkward celebrity attacks. The public rants are echoes of cocktail party chatter from the bubble. The magazine cover set floats in the slime of its own entitlement.
But it’s not the stars that are dangerous. It’s the machine.
The machine isn’t a movie or a celebrity. It’s the entire sum of popular culture. It’s the vast majority of movies, shows, books and songs that the country will consume in any given year. It’s a narrative.
While the industry is powerful, it’s also weak. The economics of the business make it terribly fragile. More money is being bet on fewer projects than ever. And the legalities of the industry are also shaky.
The entertainment industry is converging on a handful of monopolies. Monsters like Disney, Comcast or the potential AT&T and Time Warner merger control everything from content creation to distribution. Take Comcast which combines a cable company, Universal, NBC and assorted cable channels.
Then there’s China. The industry depends on the Communist dictatorship for box office revenue. China increasingly controls how Hollywood makes movies and owns a big chunk of our theaters. Trump’s showdown with China will significantly impact an industry intertwined with the PRC.
It’s not only left-wing politics that makes Hollywood fearful of Trump.
Hollywood is not the first industry we think of when it comes to Trump’s trade policies, but the majority of its box office comes from foreign countries. Its movies are financed by foreign investors, filmed abroad and make most of their money overseas. There’s nothing American about many of them.
Movies are the foreign import that the People’s Republic of China likes the least. If a trade war breaks out, the latest Disney installment of a billion dollar franchise will be the first to feel the bite.
Trump has a great deal of potential leverage over the industry. The question is whether he will use it.
The entertainment industry has long pursued a radical anti-American agenda. It has made its hostility to Trump clear. Audiences have failed to punish Hollywood’s propaganda. But Trump can.
Hollywood is obsessed with transforming America. It’s time for America to transform it instead.
Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is a New York writer focusing on radical Islam.