Donald Trump’s disastrous presidency, with only eight months into his term, may spell the end of the «celebrity-politician» fad in the United States and elsewhere. Trump, whose «business empire» never amounted to more than a privately-held shell corporation linked to hundreds of limited liability corporations and foreign shell companies, is an overly-hyped reality television personality. His celebrity status was spurred by being featured in «The Apprentice» and «Celebrity Apprentice» programs. In 2016, Trump’s bombastic personality saw him cruise to victory over a lackluster array of Republican primary opponents and, ultimately, a tired and sickly Democratic presidential candidate.
When it comes to governing, Trump has left much to be desired across the United States and around the world. Trump has learned that his overly-exaggerated «deal making» abilities, promoted by commissioned works like the vanity book, «The Art of the Deal», do not play well in Washington-based or international politics. With approval ratings now tanking at 30 percent and below, the history books can already foresee Trump’s administration as a failed presidency that is more corrupt than those of Warren Harding, Richard Nixon, or Ulysses Grant.
In an article in «Vanity Fair», Nixon biographer and journalist Garry Wills wrote that history will ultimately favor Nixon, a career politician, over Trump, the «non-politician». Wills wrote that Nixon, like Trump, was contemptuous of the press. But, according to Wills, that is where the similarities end. Wills wrote, «Nixon pitied himself because the press fawned on the Beautiful People—jet-setters of the time... Trump pities himself because the press will not pay unanimous homage to the most beautiful person in the world (who has the biggest jet of all). Trump openly loves himself as much as Nixon secretly loathed himself».
When it comes to comparing Trump, the celebrity non-politician, to other failed American presidents – all career politicians, with the exception of Civil War General Grant – the politicians, as corrupt as they may have been, were still more successful than Trump.
The record of celebrity-politicians is a mixed one. Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan entered the White House after serving two terms as governor of California. Unlike Trump, Reagan had under his belt political experience as a chief executive of a major state before being elected president. Reagan is undergoing somewhat of a political renaissance in the United States among pundits and historians. Reagan’s term was not scandal-free, as evidenced by the Iran-contra scandal, but his administration is currently seen more favorably, likely as a result of Trump’s catastrophically low poll numbers.
Actor Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor of California as the result of a 2003 recall election that ousted Democrat Gray Davis from office. Schwarzenegger filled out almost four years of Davis’s term and was re-elected in his own right in 2006. Schwarzenegger’s stint as governor was lackluster. The governor was barred from running for president due to his Austrian birth and attempts to change the US Constitution to permit a foreign-born citizen to run for the presidency never got off the ground. Schwarzenegger returned to making movies – all of them mediocre. Ironically, Schwarzenegger also succeeded Trump as the host of «Celebrity Apprentice». Schwarzenegger left the show after President Trump lobbed several criticisms at him over his performance on the program.
Although other celebrities achieved political office as members of the US Senate and House of Representatives, and one – wrestler Jesse Ventura as governor of Minnesota – none were considered sufficiently viable to run for the presidency.
The United States is rather unique among the nations of the world in electing celebrities to political office. Guatemala elected a television comedian named Jimmy Morales to the presidency in 2015. Morales was best-known for performing blackface comedy routines. When as a presidential candidate, Morales threatened neighboring Belize, which has a majority Afro-Caribbean population, with an invasion, Morales’s racism was taken more seriously.
The Morales administration has been the disaster that many observers expected it would be. Morales came under investigation by the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala for accepting illegal campaign donations from drug traffickers. The commission also requested the Congress to strip Morales of immunity from prosecution. By 2017, Morales was enmeshed in scandal. Morales’s older brother and adviser, Sammy Morales, and one of the president’s sons, Jose Manuel Morales, were arrested for corruption and money laundering.
India’s Bollywood has churned out several actors-turned-politicians. None reached national office but a few became powerful chief ministers in the state of Tamil Nadu. The most well-known was actress Jayaram Jayalalithaa, who governed Tamil Nadu for a total of 14 non-consecutive years between 1991 and 2016. After being elected chief minister in five elections, the last in 2016, she died from a heart attack on December 5, 2016. Immensely popular across Tamil Nadu, Jayalalithaa was not able to translate that local support to a national campaign for office. Her All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) party was considered too regional for a national campaign, although she and her party served as important power brokers in national politics.
Jayalalithaa followed in the footsteps of another Bollywood actor, Marudur Gopalan Ramachandran, who served as Tamil Nadu’s chief minister from 1977 to 1987. Ramachandran, who was very popular with the masses, formed the AIADMK party that later paved the way for Jayalalithaa’s election as chief minister of Tamil Nadu. In 1984, Ramachandran was treated in New York for kidney failure. Ramachandran’s kidney illness eventually resulted in his death in 1987.
Another Bollywood star who became a successful regional politician in India was Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao, who was elected chief minister of Andhra Pradesh in 1983 as the standard bearer of his own political party, the Telugu Desam Party. Rao was popular across India and was a political ally of Ramachandran. In 1995, during Rao’s third term as chief minister, his son-in-law staged a party coup against him and he was ousted as chief minister. Any national political ambitions by Rao collapsed in the wake of the party coup.
Another Bollywood veteran, Vijayakanth, also from Tamil Nadu, formed the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) party in 2005. Vijayakanth never advanced beyond Leader of the Opposition in the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly. Tamil Nadu, like California, has seen its film industry produce several politicians. However, apart from Reagan, neither Hollywood nor Bollywood has produced a national political leader.
Philippines actor Joseph Estrada served as president from 1998 to 2001. In 2000, Estrada was charged with accepting illegal campaign contributions and impeachment proceedings were initiated against him. In 2001, the Supreme Court replaced Estrada with the vice president, claiming that Estrada resigned. However, Estrada continued to insist that he never resigned even after he was arrested. Estrada was later issued a clemency decree by his successor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Estrada was released from detention in 2007.
The experience of the Philippines and Guatemala in electing celebrities to the presidency have been marked by scandal. India’s successful actors-turned-politicians have been limited to neighboring Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. A few actors have been elected to political office in Sri Lanka but they never achieved national status.
Although Trump emerged from gossip magazines and television to achieve the US presidency, his term will be relegated to one highlighted by scandal and political pandemonium by future historians. The era of the celebrity politician could and should end with Mr. Trump.