On July 4th 2020, Kanye West announced his candidacy for the 2020 US presidential election in a Forbes Magazine profile. Although this move is somewhat unsurprising, West joins a long line of celebrities, particularly men, who utilise their fame to jumpstart political careers despite having no political expertise or experience.
Given that West is such a latecomer to the 2020 election, having held his first presidential campaign event on July 20th, it is unlikely he will succeed come November. However, his decision to run in the first place is infact indicative of a broader global pattern which warrants examination. That is, a phenomenon of unqualified, famous men running for positions of political power, and often succeeding. US President Donald Trump, a former businessman and TV personality, is of course the most obvious example. However, he is far from alone as a celebrity-turned-politician. Former Filipino President Joseph Estrada was an actor before he became involved in politics; the current Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, is a former comedian and actor; and Italian comedian and actor Beppe Grillo is currently the head of the populist Five Star Movement Party. Whilst Zelensky has a degree in law, the others lacked any experience or education in politics prior to running for office. Grillo studied to be an accountant but never finished, appearing regularly in TV shows throughout the 1980’s, including political satire shows, and Estrada was expelled from high school and dropped out of university twice, instead electing to pursue an acting career during his twenties. Trump, of course, studied economics, and worked in business and on television before his election.
The question is, why are these men running and why are they succeeding?
It goes without question that there is a degree of ego required to be in the public spotlight, be it as a celebrity or as a politician, however this alone is insufficient to explain their decisions to run or their continuing success.
The charisma and success these men have experienced in their own professional lives appears to be one major reason why they continue to win. In his 2016 campaign, Trump appealed to the white, disenfranchised, working-class in the US, who observed his personal ‘success story’ and the wealth he embodied as something lacking in their own lives, and believed he could bring this to them. His persona in The Apprentice is one of the business-savvy and the cynical, and he brought extravagant promises to his political rallies which further appealed to this demographic, leading them to believe he was resolute enough to be able to deliver on his promises.
Estrada was elected to office during the Asian Financial Crisis, and was able to obtain a following from the country’s poor after taking on a number of film roles playing Robin Hood-like figures defending justice. Zelensky played a teacher who accidentally becomes president in the Ukrainian television series Servant of the People, which first aired in 2015, just four years before his landslide victory in the 2019 Ukrainian Presidential elections, effectively making the jump from fictional to actual President. His campaign was based upon promises of economic reform and stamping out corruption; promises which ultimately catapulted him to victory. In all of these countries, common factors are that many people were struggling under current governments, and so these figures and their personal successes appeared as a beacon of hope, while potentially confusing their portrayal of characters in film and television with their actual personalities.
Celebrities in general are well-versed in media appearances, are well-accustomed to the spotlight, and are often household names. This allows these men to attract media attention for their campaigns, even before they may be selected as a party candidate. Most of these celebrities lack a background or education in politics, making them a break from the norm and perhaps more relatable to voters. Indeed, they often take on anti-establishment, conservative, right-wing political views, marketing themselves as an outsider, playing up their lack of education and experience to make themselves more relatable and therefore more palatable to their electorate.
This is particularly obvious in the case of Estrada who was regularly considered to be a Robin Hood-like figure on the basis of the characters he played, rather than on any of his actual achievements or personality traits. These celebrities often appeal to the working-class who feel oppressed and ignored by the status quo of politics, which has historically been dominated by wealthy, university-educated males. They perceive these leaders as elitist and out of touch and subsequently distrust them and their policies. The success of the Trump campaign exposed a different side to the USA and showed the rest of the world the reality of post-industrial America, which is populated by a working-class who feel left behind by globalisation and free trade. These concepts are often associated with left-wing policies and tend to favour ‘highly skilled’ workers. Feeling ignored and disenfranchised with political elites, they turn to ‘dark horse’ candidates; celebrities making promises of populist, right-wing policies which appear favourable. The experience and education these men lack may actually work in their favour, as it makes them more relatable to a working-class that is typically not university-educated. Coupled with right-wing, populist policies, and it becomes clear exactly how these candidates find repeated success.
The presidencies of these populist figures are, however, often riddled with failure and have proven detrimental to the countries they lead. Estrada was ousted on corruption allegations in 2001 and failed in his second bid for presidency in 2010. Although the outcome of the 2020 election remains to be seen, Trump underwent an impeachment trial in early 2020 and has faced mass criticism for his handling of the COVID-19 crisis in America, which had killed over 146,000 people as of July 24th. Grillo was prohibited from ever holding office in Italy due to a conviction of involuntary manslaughter, although his party held a quarter of the seats in both houses of Italian Parliament and their refusal to cooperate led to a political deadlock, leaving Italy temporarily without a formal government in 2013.
The success of these men reflects electorates that are becoming increasingly disenfranchised by political elites and are increasingly dissatisfied with the status quo of politics. However, this trend is a dangerous one and indicates a lack of awareness about the complexities and nuance required in politics. You wouldn’t hire a singer to perform surgery, so why elect a rapper as President?