Only a few episodes remain of the final season of Keeping Up with the Kardashians. But will the Kardashians ever really go away?
Last week, Caitlyn Jenner, former spouse of Kardashian “momager” Kris Jenner and the most famous transgender person in the world, announced her decision to run as a Republican candidate in California’s special recall election of Gov. Gavin Newsom this November. In her announcement on Twitter, Jenner described herself as a “compassionate disrupter” and “proven winner,” a nod to her Olympic gold medal in the 1976 decathlon event. “This will be a campaign of solutions,” she promised, “providing a roadmap back to prosperity to turn this state around and finally clean up the damage Newsom has done to this state.”
That seems unlikely. Despite mounting criticisms that Newsom has run the state’s pandemic policies with an iron fist, a poll last month from the Public Policy Institute of California showed that 56 percent of Californians planned to vote against his removal from office, just a small drop from the 60 percent who gave Newsom his landslide win back in 2018. Those who do want him out can choose among a handful of prominent Republican politicians who are running, including the popular former mayor of San Diego, Kevin Faulconer.
Less clear is which voters a Jenner candidacy attracts, and what experience the reality television star has that makes her ready to run the state. “Possibly the most unqualified person to ever run for California governor,” read one response to Jenner’s tweet.
In a post-Trump age, we very well may see more celebrities vying for public office, an unfortunate consequence of both the news media’s tendency to treat American politics as entertainment and Americans’ ongoing fascination with the famous. (Last month, Matthew McConaughey indicated he was “seriously considering” entering the race for Texas governor.) As the home to Hollywood, California has been comfortable electing movie stars since well before Trump came along, of course. Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger both served as the state’s governor. Other stars like Sonny Bono and Clint Eastwood also have held public office. But even given that history, Jenner’s bid may strike many as the ultimate example of celebrity entitlement, a vanity project that uses the political spotlight to stay relevant — or at least, in the news.
Early clues suggest she’ll run as a social liberal and fiscal conservative, a positioning that could have traction in the state. But Jenner’s past actions have probably alienated nearly every voter across the political spectrum. Her one-time support for Trump — she stumped for him in 2016 and attended the Republican National Convention in Cleveland that year — angered most of those who had cheered her gender transition just the year before, especially those in the left-leaning LGBTQ community. And her turn on Trump after he struck down federal guidelines permitting transgender students to use whichever restroom they chose in 2018 got her quickly dumped from the MAGA fold.
Not that she ever belonged — and that’s the real lesson to take from Caitlyn Jenner. For all the talk of possible political realignment and the Republican Party’s recent shot at rebranding itself a “workers party,” it’s the same old culture war stuff, particularly anti-gay politics, that’s still fueling the GOP. If Jenner’s candidacy is prompting eye rolls on the left, it has, more tellingly, elicited vociferous denunciations on the right. “We cannot allow the Party of Trump to become the party of…Caitlyn Jenner,” the prominent white nationalist Nicholas Fuentes tweeted. “I’m not a huge fan of the Republican Party getting behind Caitlyn Jenner,” Charlie Kirk ranted on his popular radio show.
It won’t. But the right’s ugly reaction to Jenner gives the lie to whatever LGBTQ-friendly image the Republican Party has recently tried to put forward, however halfheartedly. Under Trump, the GOP made attempts at changing its reputation when it came to gay Americans, a strategy that involved directly courting LGBTQ voters in 2020, an unprecedented move for a Republican presidential campaign.
Yet when it came to gay rights, the record was abysmal. Behind Trump’s occasional gay pride flag waving and his much-hyped appointments of a few gay men to his administration, the Trump administration waged a steady attack on LGBTQ rights, including stacking the courts with anti-gay judges. Transgender rights suffered the most. From almost the moment he took office, Trump began reversing the small number of Obama-era protections with a focus that was as chilling as it was cruel. At one point, the Trump administration even went so far as to propose a new rule that would have allowed tax-supported homeless shelters the right to deny transgender persons access to their facilities.
This quiet assault has now become the full-throated battle cry of the Republican Party in 2021. Already this year a slew of Republican-led state legislatures have passed or proposed a range of anti-trans bills. The president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ advocacy organization, recently said that 2021 was shaping up to be “the worst year for state legislative attacks against LGBTQ people in history.” This anti-trans fervor, rather than its high-profile transgender candidate, is what truly represents the Republican Party today.
If only Caitlyn Jenner would get the message.