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Golden Globes attacks on Trump test limits of celebrity influence

Accepting the Cecil B. DeMille award at the Golden Globes on Sunday night, actress Meryl Streep delivered a brief but impassioned speech about the contributions of immigrants to American society, the importance of a free press, and the dangers of mocking the disabled.

Her words were clearly aimed at President-elect Donald Trump, though she never referred to him by name.

“There was one performance this year that stunned me. It sank its hooks in my heart. Not because it was good. There was nothing good about it… It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter, someone he outranked in privilege, power, and the capacity to fight back,” Streep said.

Trump had mocked New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski at a campaign rally in November 2015, making hand gestures that closely mimicked his disability. Trump has claimed he did not intend to mock the disability and he has never apologized.

Many of Streep’s fellow actors and others on social media applauded her speech as a powerful rebuke of Trump’s bullying, but some conservatives rejected it as a typical liberal screed against the millions who voted for him.

“This Meryl Streep speech is why Trump won,” Meghan McCain tweeted. “And if people in Hollywood don't start recognizing why and how - you will help him get re-elected.”

Criticism also focused on Streep’s apparent dismissal of football and mixed martial arts.

"Hollywood is crawling with outsiders and foreigners," she said. "If you kick 'em all out, you'll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts."

“It’s not going to be everybody’s thing, and the last thing I expect is for an uppity 80-year-old lady to be in our demographic and love mixed martial arts,” UFC President Dana White, a vocal Trump supporter, told TMZ.

Trump himself fired back in an interview with the New York Times overnight and a series of tweets on Monday morning. He continued to defend his imitation of Kovaleski and emphasized that Streep had supported Democrat Hillary Clinton during the presidential campaign.

As is typically the case at recent award shows, others joked about and insulted Trump on Sunday night. It was the latest of many high-profile stands against Trump by celebrities.

In a video posted online Tuesday, Sally Field, Jeffrey Wright, Steve Buscemi and others urged Congress to block Trump Cabinet nominees who would threaten the rights of vulnerable populations and to “vigorously oppose” racist and bigoted policies.

Pundits have mocked these celebrities for taking Trump on again after their past public service announcements consistently failed to stop him from being elected.

“Celebrities can sell cars and soda, but one thing this election cycle has proven is that they can’t sell their ideology,” wrote Kelly Riddell in the Washington Times. “This frustrates them. So rather than accept their limited reach, the PSAs will continue, in the hopes that something changes.”

Hillary Clinton’s loss to Trump despite the cavalcade of stars backing her has indeed called into question the political power they hold.

Clinton’s Democratic National Convention featured Streep, Alicia Keys, Katy Perry and many more prominent actors and artists. The Republican convention only attracted Scott Baio and Antonio Sabato Jr.

Perry, Lena Dunham and Miley Cyrus were among the celebrities who actively campaigned for Clinton in the fall. A late campaign event in Cleveland featured Beyonce and Jay-Z. On the final night of the race, Clinton rallied with Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi in Philadelphia.

Days earlier, Ted Nugent performed at a Trump rally in Michigan. Trump won Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

Still, David James Jackson, a professor at Bowling Green State University who has studied celebrity political endorsements, said it is too soon to tell whether Clinton’s endorsements made a difference.

“It's entirely plausible celebrity endorsements helped Clinton, just not enough in three key states (Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin) to win the Electoral College,” he explained via email.

Research Jackson conducted prior to the election found a net negative effect from endorsements by Nugent, Beyonce, Oprah Winfrey and others.

Michael Cobb, an associate professor of political science at North Carolina State University, reached a similar conclusion in a 2010 study on the impact of celebrity endorsements.

“The data that we get from these kinds of things is that people are by and large unpersuadable,” Cobb said Monday. Particularly in national general elections where many other variables are at play, a celebrity’s words will not change many minds.

Streep’s criticism and Trump’s response were both predictable appeals to their own tribes.

“It’s a lot of cheerleading and rallying the troops, but it’s not bringing new people over,” Cobb said.

A 2008 study estimated that Winfrey’s endorsement of Obama may have boosted him by about one million votes in the primaries. That research did not consider the effect of Obama’s other celebrity supporters.

“Celebrities definitely have an impact on people, but they don’t affect all people the same way,” said Patricia Phalen, assistant director of the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs.

Streep’s speech might resonate with the Golden Globes audience, which presumably likes celebrities and Hollywood entertainment. It probably had very little influence over those who dislike Hollywood.

Celebrities have long been engaged in the presidential campaign process, at least since Al Jolson backed Warren G. Harding in 1920.

Amy Bree Becker, assistant professor of communication at Loyola University Maryland, said star endorsements could sway voters in certain demographics, particularly younger people.

“If you see someone you like and admire supports a candidate, it makes sense that you would want to support them too,” she said.

In an increasingly divided country, stars who speak out politically may face a backlash from their fans.

“Some people are tired of hearing what celebrities think, and just want them to ‘shut up and sing,’” Jackson said. “Many voters, particularly in the past conservative and Republican voters, have expressed dissatisfaction with wealthy, liberal celebrities attempting to parlay their cultural fame into political influence.”

In a recent speech, Tina Fey joked about the failure of celebrities to wield that influence on Clinton’s behalf.

“I just think if there had been, like, one more funny rap, or like, another ‘Hamilton’ parody, or something,” she said, “just like a little more hustle from Liz Banks, and we could have taken Michigan.”

According to Cobb, endorsements often hurt the endorser’s reputation more than they benefit the politician.

“You don’t normally think of people as being aggrieved at Hollywood liberalism, but certainly a lot of people do feel aggrieved,” he said. There is a widespread sense among conservatives that celebrities are trying to jam alternative lifestyles down their throats.

However, Cobb said celebrities can help candidates by drawing media attention and public interest to their campaign events, assisting with fundraising, and supporting get-out-the-vote efforts.

“They can be used and deployed strategically to help in ways that aren’t that sexy,” he said.

Former Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders said last week that the Democratic Party has lost touch with middle American voters.

"Look, you can't simply go around to wealthy people's homes raising money and expect to win elections," the Vermont senator said in an interview with NPR that aired Friday. "You've got to go out and mix it up and be with ordinary people."

Association with wealthy coastal elites like Streep may contribute to that perception of Democrats being out of touch. That is a risk Clinton took by embracing her allies’ star power and not speaking more about voters’ economic concerns.

“There’s so much emphasis on having a concert with someone in Cleveland and less about the economy that affects the person who’s going to the concert,” Becker said.

Trump, meanwhile, feeds off the resentment his supporters feel and offers them a vicarious thrill by fighting back.

“He’s putting them in their place… That’s the Trump they voted for,” Phalen said.

In that context, his response to Streep makes sense.

“I don't think he persuades anyone with his responses on Twitter, but that's probably not his intent. People who agree with him probably appreciate what they take to be his fighting spirit,” Jackson said.

Democrats may need to connect with middle American voters if they hope to defeat Trump in the future, but they cannot rely on their Hollywood friends to do it.

“If they’re saying things like Meryl Streep did, they’re just antagonizing conservatives,” Cobb said.

One twist in the debate over the impact of celebrities in the 2016 race is that Trump was a prominent celebrity himself before running, and that status may have granted him an edge over the competition.

“Given his absence of public service experience, there is no way he could have built the name recognition and credibility among a sufficient number of voters to win the Electoral College without his celebrity status,” Jackson said.

Phalen suggested the Donald Trump viewers saw on “The Apprentice” came across as more relatable and likeable than the abrasive Trump they had read about and seen in the news.

“That kind of reaction might have affected some people,” she said.

Cobb said Trump’s public persona was a net benefit for his campaign, even if many people had negative perceptions of him. His status as a billionaire who unapologetically flaunts his wealth may have helped even more than his TV stardom.

Despite their disdain for those they view as out-of-touch elites, Trump’s supporters admire and aspire to wealth. While 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney ran away from his money, Trump embraced his.

“Previous campaigns thought that that would be something that would undermine their message and he used it to amplify his message,” Cobb said.

An aspect of Trump’s appeal that liberals often struggled with was the support the billionaire reality TV star who lives in a gilded penthouse in New York City drew from those who generally scorned wealthy coastal elites who engage in politics.

“Ironically, the party whose voters used to be most critical of celebrities taking political stands just elected a celebrity president,” Jackson said.

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