Like the first vertebrates to crawl from the ocean and onto dry land 500 million years ago, Donald Trump emerged from the primordial ooze of reality TV to be elected president of the United States in 2016. And like an invasive species, the star of “The Apprentice” has wreaked havoc on his new ecosystem — declaring war on immigrant communities, doubling down on climate-change denial and weaponizing the federal government against his political enemies. He’s also been hellbent on loading the federal courts with like-minded judges who will infect the American judiciary for a generation to come. But now the entertainment industry that gave Trump to the world is fighting to keep him from getting reelected.
Whereas in previous presidential cycles, Democratic activists in Hollywood have picked their favorite candidate based on their shared worldviews and perhaps even ineffable reasons — Barack Obama’s charisma, the possibility of Hillary Clinton as the first woman president — this year feels like an emergent situation. And during an emergency, backing one Democratic candidate at the expense of others seems like a quaint relic of the pre-Trump era. Kerry Washington told Variety at the Sundance Film Festival that this is not the time to engage in “a level of hero worship, believing that one person can make the difference in this country.”
“My person is the American people, and hoping that we come forward and don’t waste this incredible right that we have to have a voice in a democracy,” Washington said. “And I will be behind the candidate who is representing the Democratic Party.”
Billy Porter puts it bluntly, saying of Trump, “It doesn’t matter who gets the nomination — vote. We have to get him out so that we can pull it back and fix it. We’ve got to get him out first, though.”
The field is narrowing, with Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg and Tom Steyer all dropping out after Joe Biden’s decisive win in South Carolina. But with progressive Bernie Sanders having emerged from the Nevada caucuses as the front-runner for the nomination, some in the industry are nervous — both about the Vermont senator’s ability to beat Trump in a general election and about what a Sanders presidency might look like.
“I think everybody in Hollywood just wants somebody moderate and reasonable — somebody who can go in and get something done, somebody who can be thoughtful and kind and smart and judicious,” says UTA co-president Jay Sures. “The stereotype of our industry may be that everyone wants a wildly liberal candidate, but that’s far from true.”
Not everyone agrees. John Legend has endorsed another progressive, Elizabeth Warren. “I think progressives of all stripes will come together and try to defeat Donald Trump,” he says. “I think the majority of the country doesn’t want him in office. He didn’t even win a plurality of the country in the last election, and I think he’ll do even worse in this election. And I really believe progressives will come together.”
Janelle Monáe still hopes Stacey Abrams, the Democrat who lost the governorship of Georgia by a sliver in 2018 to Republican Brian Kemp, might jump into the race, while adding, “I really do respect and admire Elizabeth Warren.” Yet if neither woman is the nominee, Monáe has set her priorities. “I’m not going to look for the perfect candidate to vote for,” she says. “It is important that Donald Trump and the Republican Party leave immediately.”
“I feel like whoever the [Democratic nominee] turns out to be, I will make myself fall in love with them so hard and so fast, and I will support them with every fiber of my being.”
Samantha Bee echoes the anyone-but-Trump ethos. “I feel like whoever the person turns out to be,” she says of the eventual Democratic nominee, “I will make myself fall in love with them so hard and so fast, and I will support them with every fiber of my being.
“My most important issue is switching out [the White House]. It’s essential. And then we can talk about all the other stuff going on, but you can’t talk about it until you cast these people the hell out of the White House.”
The election is already keeping Hollywood’s activist organizations busy, though Tina Tchen — the CEO of Time’s Up, who also served in the White House as Michelle Obama’s chief of staff — says, “It’s still really early,” and most voters “don’t really pay attention until Labor Day.”
With the first presidential election since Time’s Up was formed starting to take shape, Tchen says it’s imperative that voters know where the Democratic candidates stand on the core issues central to the organization’s mission, especially given what Trump has wrought over the past three years. “The current administration has done tremendous damage in rolling back many of the reforms we put in place in the prior eight years — around pay transparency, to improve equal pay and around protections for sexual harassment for federal employees,” she says.
According to Tchen, when she talks to Time’s Up members, “a lot of people are focused on making sure we’re getting people registered,” especially given how active Republican efforts have been for decades to suppress the vote. Tchen cites the endeavors of When We All Vote, Michelle Obama’s nonpartisan voter registration initiative, which Tchen is also involved in, as well as former Obama administration attorney general Eric Holder, who is “leading the charge” by “combating the voter suppression efforts that are underway in many states.”
“I liken it to a basketball game where you have really bad reffing out there, and you have to just score more points no matter how bad the reffing is,” Tchen says. “I feel like no matter what they do to inhibit voter registration and voter turnout — especially in minority communities — we just have to up our game and just continue to register more.”
Crooked Media, the activist company founded after Trump’s election by three former Obama White House staffers — Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett and Tommy Vietor — is most known for its flagship podcast, “Pod Save America.” But it also serves as a liaison between the creative community and political organizers. According to Crooked’s chief content officer, Tanya Somanader, when she talks to members of the “Hollywood donor class,” “there’s just a giant ball of anxiety.”
“This is the year that everybody is asking a new question, which is not ‘Who should I support?’ That’s the old Hollywood question,” Somanader says. “The new Hollywood question is ‘Where the f— should my money be going, and what do I need to be doing to make sure that we win?’”
Somanader, also an Obama White House alum, spoke of the panic Californians and New Yorkers feel because of the realization — arrived at most sorely in 2016 — that to vote in deep blue states ends up not mattering, because swing states like Michigan and Wisconsin are literally all that count. To that end, as part of its Vote Save America project, Crooked will soon launch an “adopt a state” program. As Somanader describes it, donors can pick among six battleground states to learn “what they can do to mobilize specific communities,” and then get updates on the impact their donations had. “So that’s how we’re trying to answer a question that we’re constantly getting,” Somanader says, “particularly in Hollywood. Campaigns are not art; they’re trench warfare, and so the answer to where everybody needs to be putting their energy is incredibly specific: It comes down to math.”
During the debate in Nevada on Feb. 19, the division between the more progressive candidates, Sanders and Warren, and the more moderate candidates, Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar and especially Bloomberg, was stark. With polls showing Sanders in the lead and Bloomberg spending freely, Buttigieg issued a dire warning: “We shouldn’t have to choose between one candidate who wants to burn this party down and another candidate who wants to buy this party out. We can do better.”
For Damon Lindelof, the creator of “Watchmen,” Warren is the clear choice. Yet in a Sanders-versus-Bloomberg race, Lindelof does in fact see some art. “As a storyteller, I can’t believe the nomination may come down to a socialist versus a billionaire.”
Many in Hollywood are waiting to see who wins the bitterly contested Democratic primary, rather than trying to help one candidate or another. Alyssa Milano has co-hosted a fundraiser for Biden and contributed to Buttigieg. But she hasn’t endorsed anyone, and her biggest contribution this cycle was a $10,000 check to Fair Fight, the organization that pushes for ballot access.
“I’m just watching this unfold, with the thought of what are our best chances and who is going to be able to beat Trump,” says Milano, who has become one of Hollywood’s most outspoken activists in recent years. “A big part of this is money. These candidates are running out of money. Trump has been fundraising on 2020 since 2016, so we’re at a disadvantage out of the gate.”
Milano helped launch the 2020 Fund, which promotes grassroots get-out-the-vote organizations in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Many others are following suit, giving to issue-advocacy groups and voter registration efforts rather than holding gala fundraisers for candidates.
“Most of this community has diverted their funding to support 501(c)4 efforts,” says Jennifer Lin, a partner at Gonring Lin Spahn, a firm that advises Hollywood power brokers like Jeffrey Katzenberg on their political activities. “I think there’s a lot of funding in Hollywood that is going toward building the foundation for the eventual nominee.”
America Ferrera, who campaigned vigorously for Hillary Clinton in 2016, has thus far not done so for any one candidate. “I’ve had experiences of being involved in specific elections and specific campaigns, and have had my eyes open to a much bigger truth, which is that the biggest party in the United States is the nonvoting party — that there are millions and millions and millions of people who just don’t engage,” says Ferrera, whose focus now is on promoting Latino voter engagement. “At the moment, what feels like a worthwhile investment is building power in my community. And that doesn’t always look like stumping for a candidate.”
Hollywood’s top issue — as it is for all Democrats — is beating Trump. But there’s no consensus about who is best positioned to do it. “I really do feel like there’s an unprecedented amount of engagement right now. It’s difficult to see because it isn’t around the candidates,” Lin says. “[It’s] all really related to preserving our democracy.”
Several candidates are not doing traditional fundraisers. Sanders and Warren have pointedly refused to do them, while billionaires Michael Bloomberg has no need to, nor did Steyer. Buttigieg was one of Hollywood’s favorite candidates, holding several star-studded fundraisers including a recent one co-hosted by Seth MacFarlane. Biden has retained pockets of support based on his long tenure on the national stage.
And Bloomberg’s partner, Diana Taylor, spoke at a “friendraiser” for the former New York City mayor, which several industry figures attended. The event was, according to one participant, exactly like a fundraiser except that no money changed hands.
Many celebrities have stumped for candidates, including Kevin Costner and Michael J. Fox for Buttigieg; Ashley Judd and Legend for Warren; and Danny DeVito for Sanders.
“I think that Hollywood will always be a reflection of what’s hopeful in the country,” Milano says.
Angelique Jackson, Brian Steinberg, Adam B. Vary and Chris Willman contributed to this report.