Poplitians: Whether it's Julius Caesar or Donald Trump popular culture and politics go hand in hand

“One of the penalties for refusing to take part in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.”- Plato

In the second decade of the 21st century politicians actively strive to be famous personalities and build on their notoriety in order to rally support and propel their policies as a means of getting things done.

However, since when did it become a social norm for celebrities to cross over into the industrial territory of world politics?

The answer is since first politics existed: votes have often been cast in favour of the popularity and status of the candidate. That being said, in Classical times, reality television and film production hadn’t invaded government as it has today.

The most notable celebrity politician in the ancient world was Gaius Julius Caesar - branded as Julius Caesar. Later in his life Dictator of the Roman Republic, Julius Caesar had been consul, general of various military campaigns, and above all celebrated as orator and author of Latin prose. His prose, mainly narrative recounting the his campaigns in Gaul and against his rival Pompey, served to enhance his image while away from Rome and shaped his public portrayal.

Two thousand years later, the United States of America holds the leading number of politicians that have also worked, or indeed continue to work, as actors. Today comedian Al Franken sits in the US Senate; actor Fred Thompson was a sentor before he stood for president in 2008; Sonny Bono was a musician before he became a mayor then Californian congressman. Most famously, an actor has even been elected to the White House.

Ronald Reagan started his animated life as a sports announcer for several regional radio stations before signing a seven-year contract with Warner Brothers. He starred alongside the illustrious Bette Davis, Errol Flynn and Humphrey Bogart to name a few. His ability to public speak no doubt influenced his rise and success in affairs of state - his move to television and his subsequent motivational speeches for General Electric facilitated his renowned speeches for Barry Goldwater, the 1964 conservative presidential candidate. Gaining a support network and national attention he was elected Governor of California and on his third attempt, Reagan become the 40th, and the oldest, President of the United States. In this case, his experience as an actor was a great aid to his political career.

It is hard to fathom how the American political situation has been left to run amok in this way

Since most film shooting takes place in California, with Hollywood being the most popular film industry, it is hardly surprising that California has been home to more actors turning to politics than other states.  Arnold Schwarzenegger - otherwise know as Arnie - was first notable for his body-building career where he won Mr Olympia multiple times, he then turned to acting and became one of the biggest movie stars of the nineties; his most legendary acting role was his part as The Terminator. When his acting career seemed to fade, his philanthropist nature leaned to politics, the result being his serving of two terms as the 38th Governor of California from 2003-2011. His nickname of ‘The Governator’ while he was in office was deemed most appropriate during which time; he elected Clint Eastwood to the California Film Commission. Eastwood previously served as mayor of Carmel-by-the-Sea for two years in the late eighties and continues to enjoy a political life in California alongside acting and filmmaking.  

Is the general public’s opinion so frail and fickle that it can be swayed by the sweet words and smiles of a screen icon? This may be so. I am not entering into a debate about whether the aforementioned political figures’ policies were right or wrong, that is not the subject at hand: money and fame feeds political affairs and vice versa.

Now slight attention must turn to the infamous Donald Trump, as after all, he is what prompted this piece. It is unfortunate - to put it mildly - that ‘the land of the free’ has approved a controversial businessman and chauvinistic celebrity television producer with extremely questionable political views to become the 2016 Republican Party nominee for President of the United States. Trump had alluded to the idea of running for president in the preceding 3 elections but did not enter those races. Perhaps prior competition was too strong for it to even be considered, but now his influence is greater than expected, his monetary backing significant and his opposition, although highly experienced, is also rather out of favour. Americans may now be mourning George Carlin and Adlai E Stevenson’s reference that in America, anyone can become president.

It is hard to fathom how the American political situation has been left to run amok in this way. The word ‘politics’ originates from the Greek: πολιτικός politikos, ‘of, for, or relating to citizens’. Unfortunately, nowadays, the general public seem to relate to a public icon, and the power that envelops them rather than to a well-educated and rounded individual seeking influence in the political world.

As William E Simon said: “Bad politicians are sent to Washington by good people who don’t vote.”

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