When a Country Elects a Celebrity Populist
ROME — The year was 1994 and Silvio Berlusconi, a man with a tan and arguably curious hair, stormed onto the political stage in Italy. He had zero political experience, a collection of wives with children from each, and a shady background. He once admitted his favorite perk as prime minister was immunity from criminal prosecution. He perfected the art of the gaffe, and he proudly held Vladimir Putin and Libyan dictator Muammar Ghaddafi in high esteem. He appealed to the working class Giovanni despite his Armani suits and white-gloved chauffer; he told dirty jokes and winked and nudged his way to the highest job in the land. He was an embarrassment to Italy’s thinking class. And he was Italy’s longest-serving prime minister, elected to office three times.
Berlusconi is the clear easy shot when it comes to comparing untested billionaire showmen winning elections to President-elect Donald Trump. But he is certainly not the first politician who had to ask for directions when he got to the halls of power. Most often, a military coups d'état or other acts of hostile takeover create unproven leaders. Then there are familial deaths, like the case of Italian-born Indian politician Sonia Gandhi, who entered politics after her husband Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated.
But there are also elections that create rookie leaders. And America is hardly the first to try that out, either.
Guatemala’s President Jimmy Morales was the ultimate outsider before winning the 2015 presidential election. He was a popular comedian who had a YouTube sketch show called Moralejas with his brother Sammy on which he frequently appeared in black face telling crude jokes.
Haiti’s first democratically elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide was a Roman Catholic priest before leading the country as president in 1991. He eventually relinquished his clerical collar for good in favor of politics. He was elected to serve again from 1994-96 and from 2001-04.
The current president of Haiti follows the unconventional premise. Michel Martelly, whose stage name was Sweet Micky, was the self-proclaimed president of Haitian “compas” dance music before being elected to office after a musical campaign in which his political rallies were essentially free concerts. His flamboyant style was characterized by his penchant for cross dressing and dancing wearing nothing but a diaper.
Croatian Prime Minister Tihomir Orešković is a Canadian-Croatian businessman who owned a large pan-European pharmaceutical company when he rose to power. He’s not the only pol who started in medicine. Syria’s tyrannical leader Bashar Hafez-al-Assad was an ophthalmologist in London before his brother’s untimely death in 1994 turned him from a doctor to a dictator. And we all know how that turned out.
Second-tier politics are riddled with examples of stars and performers dancing onto the political stage. Brazilian Francisco Everado Oliviera Silva, currently head of the the Brazilian state of São Paulo, dropped out of grade school to pursue a career as a clown. He later became a popular multi-million-record-selling singer and songwriter before seducing his constituents.
Italy’s parliamentarian Ilona Staller, also known by her stage name La Cicciolina, which means “cuddles,” is a well-known porn star who still advertises a catalogue of her work online.
In America, Trump’s leap from fame to power is preceded by the likes of Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who was a beauty contestant who ran for Miss Alaska in 1984, a decade before Trump bought the Miss USA pageant. California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was first a body builder before his fame as a Hollywood star preceded his political stint. Minnesota governor Jesse “The Body” Ventura rose to fame as a professional wrestler and actor before entering politics. Song man turned congressman Sonny Bono, Loveboat’s “Gopher” Fred Grandy, now a congressmen from Iowa, and Saturday Night Live’s Al Franken, who represents Minnesota, all started in entertainment.
And who can forget about the “Gipper,” President Ronald Reagan’s early role in the 1940 film Knute Rockne, All American or Phineas Taylor “P.T.” Barnum, the circus king who used his clout in entertainment and advertising to launch a successful political career in the late 1800s. His mantra, “I am a showman by profession ... and all the gilding shall make nothing else of me,” seems somehow fitting today.
Still, Trump remains the very first president-elect of the United States with no prior political experience, a badge he wears with honor, even as history suggests that this phenomenon is found more often in developing democracies. Whether he is the last such experiment remains to be seen. If he is even moderately successful, surely his presidency will pave the way to a whole new world of American politics. If he is not, the show likely stops here.