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How Conservative Sites Turn Celebrity Despair on Its Head

America is divided by its politics, its media, and as this election made even clearer, by its celebrity influencers. In the weeks before the election, the “Avengers” director Joss Whedon booted up his own online public service announcement factory, Save the Day, and recruited stars like Robert Downey Jr., Don Cheadle and Scarlett Johansson to churn out web videos for Mrs. Clinton. Katy Perry, America Ferrera, LeBron James and Beyoncé joined Democratic candidate at rallies.

And when Vice President-elect Mike Pence caught a performance of the Broadway hit “Hamilton” on Friday, one of the show’s stars addressed him on behalf of “the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us.”

No offense to Paris Hilton and Pat Boone, but the president-elect doesn’t have the biggest stars on his side. Instead, Breitbart mostly uses its culture pages to aim spitballs at Hollywood lefties. As part of its coverage of what it calls Big Hollywood, the glamour of celebrities becomes grist for the site’s overarching narrative about the corrosive influence of the cultural elite.

The image Ms. Dunham posted to Instagram of a restorative trip to Sedona, Ariz., may have played as soothingly aspirational for an audience concentrated with young, coastal women, but to Breitbart’s demo, under the headline “‘Grieving’ Lena Dunham Seeks Answers in Arizona Wilderness After Trump Win,” it looks like a damning shot of a celebrity who decided to jet into a red state for a quirky vacation retreat.

Breitbart’s postelection Hollywood coverage appears largely to be a cool cataloging of aggrieved celebrities, including Rick Ross (who just dropped a video for the song “Free Enterprise,” which includes a lyric that makes reference to assassinating Mr. Trump). Beneath the surface of these articles, though, is subtle signaling at work. A piece about a postelection Vice essay by Jennifer Lawrence, in which she railed against the barriers still facing women in the workplace, includes an underhanded accolade about her: She was “recently named the highest-paid actress in Hollywood for the second straight year.”

This recent headline — “‘Depressed’ Robert De Niro: Trump Election Makes Me ‘Feel Like I Did After 9/11’” — packs a one-two punch, pairing the image of a pathetic, weepy liberal with a flip attitude toward terrorism. Breitbart’s article on the Hamilton dust-up, titled “Tolerance: ‘Hamilton’ Cast Lectures Mike Pence From Broadway Stage,” is threaded with buzzwords — tolerance, lectures, Broadway — that cast liberals as elite, pedantic hypocrites.

While Breitbart produces its share of original content — it ran an essay by Ann Coulter ridiculing whining celebrities last week — most of the conservative media outlets doing this work are scrappy, spammy and surprisingly banal. On Regated, a bare-bones conservative aggregator, the “Hamilton” incident was inflated into a full-blown class war: “Just like clockwork, the rich elitist liberals come out to mock the poor. Hamilton cast members along with other liberals took to Twitter to mock and bully the less fortunate people in America.”

But much of the text generated by these sites is barely politicized. The conservative online outlet Patriotic Folks recently aggregated quotes from a Lady Gaga essay, published in Harper’s Bazaar, about how she was “depressed and hurt” about Mr. Trump’s remarks about women, and worked in just a whiff of commentary: “Women are fighting for their lives because of the leaked ‘Access Hollywood’ tape where Donald Trump makes lewd comments, or at least that’s what Lady Gaga thinks.” Highlighting words like “hurt” and “depressed” works like a low-frequency conservative dog whistle, signaling to readers who want to revel in liberals’ pain or ridicule them as emotional children.

Postelection, Breitbart may appear little different from any celebrity-news aggregator. But the site’s greater political context, as a breeding ground for extremists, adds another layer. Breitbart is the site that boosted Stephen K. Bannon to a thought leader. (Once the site’s executive chairman, he took a leave of absence to steer Mr. Trump’s campaign and now has a top White House position.) With that in mind, an article calling attention to Ms. Dunham’s Jewish faith feels like a bone thrown to the site’s white nationalist readers. And the catalog of slighted celebrities starts to read like something of a star-studded enemies list.

The real ideological action is undertaken by the audience, whose members read between the lines of these culture pieces and then scribble in the margins. Breitbart’s two posts on Ms. Dunham have amassed more than 10,000 comments, including this insight: “Lena was an awesome Trump vote recruiter.” Meanwhile, the muted Patriotic Folks piece on Lady Gaga soon migrated to a pro-Trump Facebook page that reaches millions, Make America Great Today, which shared it with a baiting line, “More white women voted for Donald J. Trump than Hillary Clinton.”

Lefty celebrities have long been preaching to the choir, but they are increasingly galvanizing the other side when their chatter is rerouted into an online conservative echo chamber. A study last year by the Bowling Green State University professors David Jackson and Melissa Miller found that celebrity political statements were highly polarizing to a sample set of Ohio voters, and that no celebrity — not Trace Adkins, not Ted Nugent, not even Oprah — was likely to inspire net positive votes for his or her candidate of choice.

These right-wing aggregators make sure that any leftist celebrity’s political reach will be neutralized by a backlash from people who don’t idolize and agree with them. None of that is likely to stop celebrities from using their own soapboxes to promote their politics. But they would be smart to consider how their words will play on other platforms, too.

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