It seems that in this modern age, more than ever, people vote for those whose celebrity comes from entertainment, sport and other very public domains rather than politics. Although some of them become involved in charitable and philanthropic issues, they essentially lack the skills required to become politicians. Yet, some do manage to pull it off and Brian Milne looks at why and how.
The presidential election in the USA has drawn attention to some of the idiosyncrasies of so-called democratic politics. It has not so much been the event and the immediate outcome itself, but the question as to how Donald Trump ever got to be president. There is a phenomenon known as identity politics that gives part of the answer to the question and, one might surmise, is far more likely to happen as media access increases. Yet, identity politics has been around since universal franchise, perhaps earlier in an equivalent form among those privileged to vote, and has been a campaigning task of those who run for office to convince they are not just a footballer, comedian, singer or whatever puts them in the public spotlight, but that they will change things for those who vote for them.
What exactly those people are pledging in most cases has little to do with what is viable economically and politically. However, with the likes of the recently departed Cummings and Cain who have been the people shaping what the politicians say (not necessarily do) and are themselves the visible manifestation of who really runs a country, usually big money that wants to stay unseen, has made identity politics into the ultimate political theatre in which, like all acts, off stage the actors have very different lives they act out in front of the political footlights.
Celebrity influence in politics at present, also known as ‘celebrity politics’ and less frequently and usually only in the USA, as ‘political star power’ is the actions of a well known person using their celebrity rather than any proven political ability as a platform to influence others on matters that are considered political or ideological. Those influential people who have a public following that makes them celebrities may be sports people, actors, television personalities, musicians, models, journalists and other activities that keep them in the public eye. Those celebrities have two particularly useful powers. First and foremost is the ability to appear to be able to shed light on what are considered important issues that are potentially resolvable within the public arena, politics particularly. The second is their capability for persuading voter audiences. Social media have become probably the most common areas in which celebrities discuss particular issues or draw attention to their take on current events that are being politicised. Those people also have relatively easy access to finding invitations to speak out in public forums such as television talk shows, public events such as mass demonstration or during performances or games at which they have a large (‘captive’) audience of whom many are already ‘fans’, thus political following.
Donald Trump is a businessman and a minor television personality who regularly appeared on Fox News to discuss politics and endorsed political candidates. In 2003 he became co-producer and host of The Apprentice, a reality show in which he played the role of a powerful chief executive whereby contestants competed for a year of employment by the Trump Organisation. Trump dismissed unsuccessful contestants with the catchphrase “You’re fired” that was adopted as other countries began to show their own version of the show. Later, and perhaps raising his profile, he co-hosted The Celebrity Apprentice, in which well known people competed to win sizeable amounts of money for charity. People who have looked at the correlation between this kind of stardom and political activity have concluded that his social media centred politics amount to something we might consider a ‘pseudo presidency’, something that deviates from orthodox forms of political accountability to make them more of a show rather than an ideology led political performance. It has been said that this is manifest in how he has been represented by media who have as much covered the ongoing ‘show’ as his political role, thus how he ‘performs’ and how his ‘fans’ react to what he says that in many cases should be against their interests, for instance the attempt to end ‘Obamacare’ health cover. It is has also become indicative of major and broader changes in the behaviour and configuration of contemporary, media driven politics.
Marcus Rashford, the Manchester United and England, footballer used his own poor childhood as the reason to become involved in charitable activities.
In 2019 he was behind setting up the In the Box campaign with the Selfridges department store to provide homeless people with essentials for their survival over the Christmas period. He visited homeless shelters with his mother to personally hand boxes out, also sending some to a children’s home in his grandmother’s home country, St Kitts and Nevis. In March of this year, during the pandemic lockdown imposed by the Westminster government, he teamed up with the poverty and food waste charity FareShare to deliver meals to children in Greater Manchester who were no longer receiving free school meals and also to children who went to community centres and school breakfast clubs. He really came into the public eye when the initiative raised over £20 million to provide food for children nationwide who, if still at school, would normally receive free school meals. During June, he wrote an open letter to government demanding they end UK child poverty. The next day the government announced a policy change regarding the extension of free school meals for children during the summer holidays with his campaign accredited as the major turning point in governmental talks. Marcus has since continued to speak out and has further influenced policy decisions. He not only has a following among Manchester United fans, but supporters of rival teams show him every respect and support. All this while still only 23 years old, yet when his football career is over he has the potential for a very public career that may even extend into the political arena with a sizeable body of support, one might say fans. Whilst he is undoubtedly an intelligent and socially committed man, the question remains whether if he goes into politics one day in the future he takes actual political skills and experience into that role. This is one of the problems celebrity politics carries with it.
The US president Ronald Reagan from 1981 until 1988 was a second rate, supporting actor in films such as the B rated ‘The Bad Man’ before being elected Governor of California in 1967 in office until 1975. Six years later, Regan was president of the United Sates of America. He was a known but not enormously famous actor who almost certainly did not have an enormous fan base, unlike one of his successors as Governor of California, the Austrian born, naturalised American bodybuilder turned actor Arnold Schwarzenegger. This is not a trend particular to the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ political sphere but is almost certainly a worldwide phenomenon. In India, two particularly famous celebrities Amitabh Bachchan, actor and friend of Rajiv Ghandi, served a short term in the Lok Saba, the lower house of parliament, and former model and actress Smriti Irani is now a minister in the Union Cabinet of India, is serving in the cabinet of Narendra Modi as Minister of Textiles, given the additional charge as Minister of Women and Child Development in 2019 in Modi’s second cabinet. An enormously popular actress, singer, and film producer, Priyanka Chopra, has not gone directly in politics but is very active for UNICEF, children’s rights campaigning particularly, environmental campaigns and animal protection and rights. In Italy, comedian Giuseppe ‘Beppe’ Grillo was the co-founder of the right wing Movimento 5 Stelle (Five Star Movement) political party with Gianroberto Casaleggio in 2009. Grillo became one of the most prominent people in the populist wave that swept across Europe during the first decade of this century. Other examples are the Brazilian singer and composer Gilberto Gil, Panamanian salsa singer and actor Rubén Blades or Israeli television host Yair Lapid, all of them with a large fan following.
The big question lurking behind all of that is why people support these celebrities who actually have very little political knowledge and certainly at best minimal experience? Perhaps George W Bush offered us a clue when he said that people felt they could “have a beer with him”. In other words, they felt they could relate to him. That is the case in identity politics when people believe that those they support as ‘just like us’, especially with a particular image projected by social media and television appearances that make them appear visible, therefore accessible, living ‘ordinary lives’ like their supporters, whereas in most cases it is actually very obvious that these wealthy people live lives anything but that. However, in contrast, elitism which has been a part of the political sphere is a negative quality. The notion that people running their country are different to the point of being outside the norms of society is disturbing for many people, consequently there are constant efforts by politicians to fit in which the former UK prime minster, David Cameron, is a good example of somebody who could not achieve that. How his school friend and social background peer, Boris Johnson, has made it is as a very visible and controversial journalist who became something of a public personality as a panellist and host on the satirical quiz ‘Have I Got News For You’ on television that presented him as a bit of a cad with a sense of humour. That carried him round the normal barrier of the majority of people being prone to mainly subconscious prejudices and stereotyping so that they strongly prefer their own ‘group’, albeit it is often almost impossible to define exactly what that means.
A little less than a year ago the UK elected a prime minister who had unlawfully shut down parliament to escape democratic scrutiny, who almost daily tells unashamed lies such as denying disregarding core elements of his Brexit deal, such as the need for customs checks between the UK mainland and Northern Ireland.
In 2016, US voters chose Donald Trump, who has been shown to have made more than 13,000 false or misleading claims since assuming office, is at present resisting the notion he has been ousted from office by a proven democratic election and has something in the region of 70% of Republican supporters convinced his false claims that the election was not ‘free and fair’ despite no evidence of fraud plus a very public and angry fan base demonstrating for acceptance of his victory in the election. Surveys showed that his approval ratings remained largely stable for the two years up to the election and something like 77% of Republicans considered him to be honest. That is matched by Johnson was elected by an 80 seat landslide and over half the UK electorate unconcerned by him shutting down parliament unlawfully. How, one might imagine, is this at all possible? How can what we can see are often untruthful demagogues gain and maintain support in societies with histories of democracy? Have voters become insensitive to falsehoods? Do they no longer know whether things they are told are true or false, or is it perhaps that they no longer care about truth? Is personality more attractive than honesty?
Answers to those questions are diverse, carry political bias and rely on the ability and willingness of people to distinguish between a conventional understanding of truthfulness and the notion of authenticity. The main element of truthfulness is factual accuracy, whereas the main element of authenticity rests somewhere between the public and private persona of politicians. Accordingly voters may, therefore, understand absolutely that a politician is lying but will still discount falsehoods when they are pointed out because they trust the politician. Those voters ostensibly tolerate being lied to although they do not hold it against their favoured candidate. Thus populist politicians, such as Trump, Johnson, Duterte, Bolsonaro or any other populist demagogue around the world can blatantly disregard facts, instead get away with peddling the myth of supporting an imaginary people to whom their supporters belong against an elite who exist to exploit and mistreat their supporters. No amount of fact checking can reduce the appeal of those populist demagogues who appear to represent the people most oppressed by the ‘system’ when, in fact, they often find some of their greatest support among the self employed and small businesses by holding back or even reducing taxes. When examined closely it is the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker as it has always been along with many other artisans, technicians and small shop owners who are ideally placed between the politicians and the mass of voters who are also their customers with whom they chat, exchange gossip and will include political topics in their small talk, often singing the praise of the populists above all others because of the benefits they have reaped having those people in office.
Who and what are their voters really voting for?
When we look at some of the top politicians at present we find numerous narcissists and sociopaths. Those are the two most seductive personality types in the world today. Amongst them are narcissists and sociopaths who want to be politicians, indeed go to the top of that field, so learn just how to seduce entire electorates, at least enough of them to snatch a majority, for at least long enough to get elected although evidence shows they tend to be very harmful in the long run. Many voters miss simple early warning signs of these high conflict politicians who are commonly preoccupied with blaming others for what is not right, even if the larger part of culpability for specific things is theirs. Their message tends to contain a great deal of all-or-nothing thinking that they back up with apparently spontaneous or intense emotions but are also capable of turning to extreme behaviour or even threats. The supporters often consist of disenchanted dropouts: who have given up on politicians but are therefore the potential voters who do not vote. They just want to avoid politics, although many of them will frequently express their negative views of politicians. Many of them are convinced that there is some kind of crisis, but that the goodie and baddie are equally responsible for that crisis, therefore somebody different will be far more likely to resolve it. They can be the largest group of all, even approximately half the voters in some elections and exactly the kind of disillusioned people who gave the Tories their overwhelming victory and large majority at the end of 2019 in the UK.
The other group is the loving loyalists who have a kind of emotional relationship with their leader and will defend him or her even when policies change, even when he or she attacks loyalists who may have worked for him the day before. It is in this group the largest numbers of people who accept authoritarian leadership are found, including those who will forgive all lies and will simply describe them as a necessity in order to make their policies work. It is in that group we find relatability that will often be expressed as ‘he/she is one of us, they really care about us unlike the others’ which is actually far more likely to be further from the truth than at all near it.
In many respects what the supporters of celebrity politicians display is disregard for actual political experience and integrity. Instead they behave more like a fan base, thus the political life of the personality they support that may be almost overflowing with the kind of events that one off would severely damage, if not end, the career of a conventional politician. There is a sometimes mistaken notion that they are ‘one of us’ that comes with their performances. Donald Trump is the sum total of his Apprentice show that offered ‘ordinary’ people opportunities they would otherwise have little if any access to. His failed business and what would be considered scandalous private life were put aside, his lack of political experience did not matter. Arnold Schwarzenegger was Austrian, had a reputation as a tough guy, not very bright, yet became governor of California after naturalising and proving he was no fool. In Italy Beppe Grillo projected a ‘serious’ version of his comedian persona and although well known he was not considered especially funny, but attracted attention by drawing politics into his act. Brazilian singer Gilberto Gil was drawn into politics by large numbers of fans who believed he represented them, Panamanian salsa singer and actor Rubén Blades who had at one stage all but deserted his country for Hollywood gained the adulation of people who saw his films, thus he became active in politics because there were demands on him to support public causes. None of them, however, came from the kind of ordinary background that made them at all like their fans or supporters in the political world. Whilst that supports the identity politics notion it also carries with it a degree of delusion about the capability of celebrity politicians to make significant changes. When examined closely one will actually see that small business owners and self employed people are the greatest benefactors of Trump’s period in office yet he has an enormous following of people who have probably not benefited at all and stood to lose health care and social benefits, whilst watching Covid-19 spiral into a disaster in their country with their president in denial of his own part in that happening.
Their followers are responding to personality rather than ability, they are fans not political followers.