Donald Trump is leading in the polls, drawing the largest crowds and dominating the headlines. What makes him such an attractive candidate?
Part of it is his wealth and penchant for saying things other conservatives believe but won't say. But the most important ingredient is his celebrity.
The Donald is benefiting from the fact that some conservatives are desperate to have their worldview validated by celebrities. Conservatives often insist they are above caring about the culture of celebrity. They criticize pop culture and accuse Democrats of being in thrall to Hollywood. But conservatives are just as prone to getting starstruck.
And many will embrace just about any celebrity who seems to be the least bit conservative. The results can be cringe-inducing.
When, in 2014, aging rocker Ted Nugent called the president a "subhuman mongrel," he was lambasted by most journalists. But conservatives mostly remained silent. In fact, a few days later he campaigned with a Republican gubernatorial candidate.
The conservative cult of celebrity was evident when Republicans gave Clint Eastwood a primetime spot on the 2012 Republican National Convention agenda to deliver a rambling speech to an empty chair, which earned nearly universal derision. It was later revealed that the Romney presidential campaign hadn't even asked Eastwood what he planned to say. "They vet most of the people, but I told them, 'You can't do that with me, because I don't know what I'm going to say,'" Eastwood later explained. Again, Republicans were happy just to have the Hollywood legend on their side.
There are numerous other examples: Justin Bieber, Phil Robertson, the Duggar family. They've all said conservative-sounding things and subsequently been held up as conservative standard-bearers. And they've all fallen from grace for one reason or another.
Then there's bodybuilder and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who won the 2003 California gubernatorial recall election on the strength of his celebrity. Schwarzenegger ran as a Republican, elbowing out several more conservative candidates to replace the scandal-ridden Democrat Gray Davis.
In the week before the recall election, six women told the Los Angeles Times that they had been molested by Schwarzenegger. He still went on to win handily, but Arnold's celebrity status blinded Republicans (and others) not only to his ethical problems but also to his liberalism and lack of competency. Schwarzenegger went on the advance liberal causes that helped bankrupt his state.
Trump is probably the biggest celebrity in the business world, and a (former, for now) reality TV star to boot. When Trump attends their events, conservatives feel like they are culturally relevant, no matter how much his outlandish remarks might be hurting their cause with voters.
Trump's celebrity has even blinded many Christian conservatives, a group you'd think might be put off by Trump's consumption-driven lifestyle. "There is a nascent and growing curiosity in the faith community about Trump," former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed said when Trump was leading in some early polls for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. "Evangelicals will like his pro-life and pro-marriage stances, combined with his business record and high-wattage celebrity all but guarantee he will get a close look from social conservatives."
Reed was right. Last year, Trump keynoted Reed's Faith and Freedom Coalition's Road to Majority Conference, where he received multiple standing ovations and a swarm of autograph seekers.
None of this is helpful to Republicans at a time when they're having trouble convincing voters that they care about ordinary people and understand their problems. A Pew poll released Thursday finds that the Republican Party's favorability has taken a negative turn. And it's in no small part due to the fact that Democrats hold a 22-percentage point edge on the question of which party is more "concerned with people like me."
Perhaps the election of former actor Ronald Reagan made some conservatives believe Hollywood could be their friend. The Gipper made voters of all political stripes believe he cared about them. Needless to say, it'll be difficult for a man who's best known for the catchphrase "you're fired!" to do the same.
Daniel Allott is The Washington Examiner's Deputy Commentary Editor