- - Thursday, May 3, 2018

He has driven fast and furiously as a federal agent, overthrown a despotic king as Hercules and helped revive an island nation as a shape-shifting Polynesian demigod.

It would seem that all that’s left for Dwayne Johnson to do is to save the free world — as commander in chief.

Speculation that Mr. Johnson will run for president has waxed and waned and waxed again since President Trump’s inauguration, despite the action star’s assertion that he is not ready to abandon the famed hills of Hollywood for the marbled halls of Washington.

But given Mr. Trump’s historic victory and the overwhelming response to Oprah Winfrey’s speech at the Golden Globes in January, the question appears to be not whether Americans will ever again elect a wealthy celebrity with a huge social media following and no political experience, but when.

Mr. Johnson, 45, also known as “The Rock” from his professional wrestling career, has remarked humbly about the excitement over a potential presidential campaign while noting the difficulty and gravitas of such an undertaking.

“I mean, look, people are very excited, and it’s so flattering that they’re excited,” he said in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine this month. “I think it’s also a function of being very unsatisfied with our current president. But this is a skill set that requires years and years of experience. On a local level, on a state level and then on a national level. I have the utmost respect for our country and that position, and I’m not delusioned in any way to think, ‘Oh, absolutely, if Trump can do it, I can do it, and I’ll see you in 20-whatever, get ready.’ Not at all.”

Yet when asked if he would ever run for president, Mr. Johnson said, “I think it’s a real possibility.”

One of the most bankable stars in Hollywood, Mr. Johnson has 57 million followers on Facebook, 12.9 million followers on Twitter and 105 million followers on Instagram. And he’s expert in using social media to help promote his films, most recently the video-game-inspired monster movie “Rampage,” which has earned more than $286 million globally since opening on April 13, according to Box Office Mojo.

If he should enter the political arena, he would do so with two significant advantages, given how politics works today, says Gayle Alberda, assistant professor of politics and public administration at Fairfield University.

“Half the battle with any candidacy is name recognition,” Ms. Alberda said. “The other major hurdle is money. Given his celebrity status, it could be assumed that he could fund a significant portion of his campaign, which for any candidate is always helpful.”

Attracting money doesn’t appear to be a problem for The Rock: His four most recent films cost a total of $529 million to produce and have reaped more than $2.65 billion worldwide at the box office. That has been since last April and includes the “flop” remake of “Baywatch,” which cost $69 million but still managed to collect $178 million in worldwide release.

“RAMPAGE was a risky shot to many ‘experts’ being an obscure 80’s video game that had no brand value overseas. Grounding it with heart, I believed it could work. THANK YOU fans for making it the #1 MOVIE IN THE WORLD 2 weeks in a row,” he tweeted this week.

Confidence, wit and sincerity play primary roles in his public image — from the boastful swagger of his brawny in-ring persona to the no-nonsense characters he often portrays to the many social media messages he posts giving followers a glimpse into his movie production activities as well as his private life.

A self-described independent today, Mr. Johnson at one time was a registered Republican. He even delivered a speech at the 2000 Republican National Convention and attended the Democratic convention that same year, demonstrating bipartisan appeal.

“If voters want change, outside candidates appeal to this much more than career politicians,” Ms. Alberda said.

What’s more, he could defy conventional wisdom even more than Mr. Trump by clinging to his independent status.

“We could see another 1992 campaign when [H. Ross] Perot and [George H.W.] Bush Sr. basically appealed to, and thus split, the same types of voters,” the politics professor said. “In this case, Johnson and Trump would likely be appealing to the same voters, allowing the Democratic candidate to run up the middle and likely win.”

A Public Policy Polling survey last year found that Mr. Johnson would make a formidable candidate in the 2020 presidential race — but not everyone is convinced his star power is enough of a draw.

Brian Sobel, principal consultant for the media and government relations firm Sobel Communications, gives Mr. Johnson “little to no chance” of becoming president.

Sure, Mr. Johnson is smart and charismatic, but his celebrity predecessors carefully laid the groundwork to their campaigns, Mr. Sobel said. Ronald Reagan led the Screen Actors Guild and served as California’s governor before becoming president. Singer Sonny Bono earned his political education as mayor of Palm Springs, California, before transitioning to Congress.

Mr. Trump’s expansive business experience gave him a unique perspective on deal-making, Beltway-style, said the consultant, adding that Mr. Johnson’s Hollywood history can’t compete.

David O’Connell, a political science professor at Dickinson College who teaches on the politics of American pop culture, also isn’t so sanguine about Mr. Johnson’s political prospects.

Mr. Trump’s business acumen convinced voters that his lack of government experience wasn’t a deal-breaker. It’s unlikely voters will want a second president with zero political bona fides, Mr. O’Connell said.

Plus, the actor’s ability to pick a party would be fraught with complications, he said. Mr. Trump remains popular with his Republican base, and Democrats may not be an easy sell.

“The Democratic base is demanding fealty to the #resistance and has been willing to attack potential candidates like Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders for the most minor offenses in recent weeks,” Mr. O’Connell said. “The Rock has not been outspoken on, well, anything thus far. He wouldn’t be able to present himself as a credible opponent to the president to the donors and activists who would dominate contests like small-turnout caucuses.”

An independent run would be great for the media but lousy for the man, he said.

“Third parties have practically no chance of being successful, and even a billionaire with a well-timed message like Ross Perot could only muster 19 percent of the vote,” Mr. O’Connell said.

Chris Stigall, host of his self-titled morning show on Philadelphia’s Talk Radio 1210 WPHT, said Mr. Johnson risks his Everyman appeal by even flirting with politics.

“If he really wants to be the president or a U.S. senator, he’ll have to take a position on some polarizing issues,” he said, and the actor’s upbeat persona and positive social media messaging would vanish.

Celebrity predecessors such as Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger saw their decades of goodwill “splinter” once they chose a political party, Mr. Stigall said.

Mr. Johnson told Rolling Stone that he would support NFL players who “take a knee” to protest police brutality against unarmed blacks, a rare time he offered his take on a hot-button issue.

Mr. Johnson offered a reason to USA Today late last year about his political aspirations: “To serve the people and create a better environment for them.”

Mr. Stigall sees a less-idealistic future awaiting the megastar should he leave Hollywood for Washington.

“If I were his manager, I’d tell him to stay the hell away [from politics],” he said.


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