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Conservative websites stir up backlash against liberal celebrities

Throughout this bitter election campaign, liberal celebrities like Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lawrence, Lena Dunham and Lin-Manuel Miranda used their powerful media platforms to sing Hillary Clinton’s praises. Now they’ve invited their online followers to join them in processing her loss and protesting the impending administration of Donald Trump.

Article by The New York Times

“I want to live in a #CountryOfKindness where #LoveTrumpsHate,” Lady Gaga wrote on Twitter the day after the election.

She added a photo of herself at a protest outside Trump Tower in Manhattan, where she had climbed onto a truck in a strapless black jumpsuit and raised a pro-Clinton sign.

While the angry tweets, therapeutic Instagram testimonials and fiery speeches may comfort their fans, these left-leaning celebrities are also inadvertently energizing the opposition. Conservative news outlets — most notably Breitbart News Network, the right-wing populist enclave — are perfecting the art of sapping Democratic stars’ name recognition and repurposing their words and actions into pro-Trump material.

The enormous reach that celebrities enjoy, and the privileged bubble they live in, is wielded against them here, refashioned as evidence of the outsize control that the rich and famous have over regular Americans.

This new battle in the culture wars is being waged not by bombastic, big-name right-wing commentators like Rush Limbaugh, but by nimble, often nameless online aggregators who quickly churn through popular culture and throw the most evocative stories to their readers, often without much commentary.

All it takes is a pointed headline, an unflattering photo and a few well-chosen (and real) quotes. Like this: “Lady Gaga Protests on Sanitation Truck Outside Trump Tower,” read Breitbart’s headline for its article on her tweet.

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, “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 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, Nov. 18, 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 that Dunham posted to Instagram of a restorative trip to Sedona, Ariz., may have played as soothingly aspirational for an audience with many 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.

As the “Hamilton” controversy raged, prodded by Trump’s demand that the cast apologize to Pence, Breitbart pointedly reminded readers of the private fundraiser that Miranda hosted for Clinton during the campaign, where ticket prices ranged from $2,700 to $100,000. And just like that, a celebrity speaking out against Trump becomes a point in his defense.

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 Trump).

Beneath the surface of these articles, though, is subtle signaling at work. A piece about a postelection Vice essay by 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.

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 Bannon to a thought leader. (Once the site’s executive chairman, he took a leave of absence to steer Trump’s campaign and now has a top White House position.)

With that in mind, an article calling attention to 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 Dunham have amassed more than 10,000 comments, including this insight: “Lena was an awesome Trump vote recruiter.”

Meanwhile, a Patriotic Folks piece on Lady Gaga’s quotes from a Harper’s Bazaar essay 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 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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