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Celebrity and politics before Trump

Donald Trump’s surprising victory in the 2016 US Presidential election demonstrated that celebrity is now a political force to be reckoned with. Famous actors such as Ronald Reagan or Arnold Schwarzenegger have held high office in the past in the US, and and Indian film stars such as Jayalalithaa Jayaram or Maruthur Gopalan Ramachandran (popularly known as MGR) translated their fame into successful political careers, but Trump’s victory reveals the power of celebrity name recognition as a force for political mobilization, and has highlighted the theatrical aspects of political performance in our heavily mediated society. Trump’s success has already encouraged other celebrities such as Kanye West and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson to consider making their own presidential bids in the 2020 election. Pundits such as Michael Moore have suggested that the Democratic Party should support a celebrity candidate such as Tom Hanks or Oprah Winfrey as their standard bearer in the future if it wants to find its way back to electoral success.

It would seem that this mix of celebrity culture and politics is a relatively new phenomenon, and indeed celebrity itself is often thought to be something distinctly modern. It’s true that the word ‘celebrity’ didn’t refer to a particular person until around the mid-nineteenth century, and ‘celebrity’ didn’t refer to the experience of fame or popular renown until the later eighteenth century. The French historian Antoine Lilti has referred to celebrity as “a radically new form of renown.” It’s easy to understand why one might think that celebrity has only gradually become a politically potent currency.

But there were celebrities long before that particular word identified them as such, and there was a time when politics made celebrities rather than the other way around. Before the later eighteenth century, the word ‘celebrity’ tended to refer to ceremony. Celebrity was a way of describing the pomp and circumstance that traditionally accompanied important public rituals such as weddings, funerals, and royal processions. Celebrity was intricately linked to the magic, charm, and charisma associated with the church and royalty, and this meant that celebrity was inherently political – contemporary fame was produced by the majesty of royal or spiritual power, or preferably both. It’s important to understand this connection between premodern, ceremonial forms of fame, and their modern successors known as celebrities.

Modern celebrity is in many ways a product of the new publics created by the early modern printing revolution. The mass production of words and images enabled by the printing press allowed people to learn about, and recognize, contemporary figures in hitherto unprecedented ways. This early modern media revolution allowed for kings, queens, and religious leaders such as Martin Luther (1483-1546) or the English Protestant martyrs memorialized by John Foxe (1516/17–1587) to become famous with greater speed and extent than had been possible.

A page from the first edition of John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments, in 1563 by Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection. CC-BY-SA-4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The political turmoils of early modern England helped to create new celebrities. The most effective means of turning ordinary people into celebrities was through persecution, and particularly through the spectacle of judicial process. Political trials were full-scale media events in early modern England. John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments (1563) cultivated an appetite amongst early modern readers for the stories of the tribulations of otherwise ordinary people who were persecuted for their religious beliefs. In the seventeenth century, the stories of people who were prosecuted for political transgressions also garnered a large readership. By the early eighteenth century, these stories would be collected into volumes called State Trials (1719) and they would be reprinted, augmented, and further anthologized right through the nineteenth century. Works such as the State Trials and Foxe’s Acts and Monuments served to preserve for posterity the fame of individuals who had gained notoriety through their persecution.

In some cases, judicial persecution could create a political celebrity. The Tory clergyman, Dr. Henry Sacheverell, was impeached in Parliament for high crimes and misdemeanors in 1710 in response to some intemperate and fiery words he had preached at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Although Sacheverell was found guilty, his punishment was mercifully light – he was simply banned from preaching for three years and his sermon was ordered to be burned – and so he emerged from the experience as a celebrity and a hero for the Tory cause. Sacheverell became perhaps the best known person in England with the exception of the reigning monarch, Queen Anne, and he even took to imitating monarchical practices such as going on a celebrated progress across the country. Religious and political divisions helped to construct a new celebrity.

Perhaps it is too easy to forget that politics has always been at the heart of celebrity. While some historians of celebrity have been inclined to draw a direct line between the London stage of the eighteenth century through to modern-day Hollywood, it is better to remember that the charisma that is at the heart of celebrity has always been as much about power as well as entertainment.

During his presidency, Barack Obama has sometimes been referred to as ‘the first celebrity president’ in which he remodeled the presidency in ways that were more suited to twenty-first century forms of communication, such as social media, and his careful construction of a public persona that resembled likeable film stars more so than aloof policy wonks. While the juxtaposition of the presentation of personality for public entertainment as well as for political leadership has sometimes seemed awkward, theatricality and politics have always been closely related. The election of a former reality TV star to the office of President of the United States of America is less surprising than it might otherwise seem if we recognize the importance of attention grabbing and performance skills are to a highly mediated political culture such as our own.

Featured image credit: Donald Trump holds a rally in Newtown, PA, October 2016 by Michael Candelori. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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