Donald Trump’s faith in celebrity could finally backfire

FILE PHOTO: Former US President Donald Trump delivers an address from the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, US, November 13, 2020. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
“His show is great. He’s on that screen. He’s in the bedrooms of all those women telling them good and bad.”

This was Donald Trump at a May 6 rally in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, looking to sell Republican voters on Mehmet Oz, the celebrity surgeon he has endorsed for Senate.

“Dr Oz has had an enormously successful career on TV,” reasoned Trump, “and now he’s running to save our country.”

As political pitches go, this one may sound vague and vacuous and more than a tad creepy. But Trump was simply cutting to the heart of the matter. Oz’s chief political asset — arguably his singular asset in this race — is his celebrity. Beyond that, it is hard to imagine why anyone would consider him for the job, much less take him seriously.

By championing the good doctor, Trump is putting his faith in the political value of celebrity to its purest test yet. Upping the drama are signs that the move could backfire. In recent days, there has been a grassroots surge by another candidate in the Republican primary Tuesday, Kathy Barnette, a hard-right gun-rights champion, abortion foe, media commentator and Fox News guest seen as harnessing conservative unease and annoyance over Trump’s Oz endorsement.

The bomb-throwing Barnette has made the race even more chaotic and is freaking out some Republicans — including Trump. “Kathy Barnette will never be able to win the general election,” he asserted Thursday, citing “many things in her past which have not been properly explained or vetted.” Doubling down on Oz, Trump insisted that “a vote for anyone else in the primary is a vote against victory in the fall!”

The decision to go all in on Oz tells you much about Trump’s view of what makes a worthy candidate — and maybe even more about his vision for the Republican Party.

It is hard to overstate the importance of the Pennsylvania Senate contest. The seat being vacated by Pat Toomey, a Republican, is widely considered the Democrats’ best hope for a pickup in November, making the race crucial in the brawl for control of the Senate, now split 50-50 with Vice President Kamala Harris casting tiebreaking votes.

Oz drifted into the Republican battle last fall, just over a week after Trump’s first endorsee, Sean Parnell, bowed out following accusations of abuse from his estranged wife. There were other Republican contenders happy to debase themselves in pursuit of Trump’s blessing, most notably David McCormick, a former hedge fund executive and Bush administration official. But Trump — surprise! — ultimately went with the sycophant who was also a television star. That really is his sweet spot.

“You know when you’re in television for 18 years, that’s like a poll,” Trump has explained of his decision. “That means people like you.”

Even after Trump’s endorsement, the race has remained tight. At the Greensburg rally, some in the crowd repeatedly booed the mention of Oz. Many had questions about his authenticity and values — or, more basically, what the heck a longtime Jersey guy is doing in their state.

Anyone who takes public service and leadership seriously should be troubled by Oz’s glaring lack of experience in or knowledge of policy, government and so on. That, sadly, applies to a few people in today’s Republican Party, which regards experience, expertise and science as a steaming pile of elitist hooey.

Even more disturbing may be Oz’s devolution from a highly regarded, award-winning cardiothoracic surgeon to a snake-oil peddling TV huckster. Before this race, his closest involvement with the Senate was when he was called before a panel in 2014 to testify about the sketchy weight-loss products he had been hawking on his show.

Then again, Republicans elected a shameless TV huckster to the presidency. This clearly isn’t a deal breaker for them.

But MAGA world has its own concerns about Oz. For starters, his Turkish heritage — he holds dual citizenship and trained in the Turkish army — has put him crosswise to the Republican Party’s ascendant nativism. His primary opponents and their supporters have suggested his Turkish ties make him a national security risk. Mike Pompeo, Trump’s former secretary of state and CIA director, has said Oz owes voters a clear sense of the “scope and the depth of his relationship with the Turkish government.”

The fact that Oz is a Muslim also disquiets some in the party.

In combating suspicions that he is an outsider, it does not help that Oz doesn’t have deep ties to Pennsylvania. He lived in New Jersey for decades, and The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that he used his in-laws’ address to register to vote in Pennsylvania in 2020.

As for his values, over the years Oz has committed numerous conservative heresies: pointing out the scientific inaccuracy of some fetal-heartbeat bills; discussing transgender kids in something other than horrified, apocalyptic terms; promoting Obamacare; acknowledging systemic racism. He has repeatedly come across as squishy on gun rights. Perhaps worst of all, he had Michelle Obama as a guest on his show. And he was nice to her! This has all made great fodder for his primary opponents.

Not that such messy details matter. For Trump, Oz’s lack of political and policy chops — or even firm principles — is a feature, not a bug. The fewer established positions or values that a candidate holds, the easier it is for Trump to bend him to his will.

In fact, Trump can only be delighted at the cringe-inducing desperation with which Oz has been refashioning himself into a MAGA man. The campaign ad of the candidate talking tough and playing with guns is particularly excruciating.

For Trump, the perfect political candidate is one who has no strongly held views of his own. Whether candidates are in touch with the needs and values of their constituencies is of no interest — and could, in fact, be an inconvenience. Trump clearly prefers a nationalised Republican Party populated by minions willing to blindly follow orders in his unholy crusade for political restoration and vengeance.

In part, Pennsylvania Republicans will be choosing between someone like Barnette, whose candidacy is focused on her (extreme and somewhat terrifying) beliefs and someone like Oz, whose candidacy is all about his personal fame — and his dependence on Trump.

“When you’re a star, they let you do it,” Trump once vilely bragged of his penchant for groping women. “You can do anything.”

What the former president values these days in Republican candidates are stars willing to let him do anything he wants.

© 2022 The New York Times Company