In 2015, 2016, and 2017, three “political outsider” presidential candidates rose to prominence in the Americas: Guatemala’s Jimmy Morales, the United States’ Donald Trump, and Honduras’s Salvador Nasralla. All three men campaigned on “anti-elitist” platforms: Morales and Trump rode public distrust of the political elite straight to their respective presidencies, while Nasralla barely lost in a close and extremely contentious election. Scholars and journalists have noticed the “populist” tendencies these three candidates share, particularly their anticorruption stances. However, they also share one common trait that is not as widely recognized—they are all former television entertainers, or “pop culture icons.” In this essay, I argue that prior fame gives these candidates advantages that are, in key ways, similar to the traditional incumbency advantage of established politicians.
Setting the political stage“Morales, Trump, and Nasralla were memorable for not only their professional and entertainment achievements, but also their flamboyant and occasionally incendiary personalities.”
Before Trump, Morales, and Nasralla entered the political arena, each was already famous. Trump was perhaps the most widely recognized—particularly internationally—for his reputation as a commercial real estate mogul and popular reality television host. Morales and Nasralla were also both well-known entertainers before their candidacies. Morales, a comedian, was a “household name” after hosting the popular Guatemalan satire show Moralejas (“Morals”) for 14 years. Nasralla, or the “Lord of TV,” hosted both a sports program and a game show before his run for president. Additionally, like Trump, Nasralla had a well-established business background: before his entertainment career, he served as the CEO of Pepsi Honduras. Morales, Trump, and Nasralla were memorable for not only their professional and entertainment achievements, but also their flamboyant and occasionally incendiary personalities. Trump and Nasralla both have historically boasted shamelessly in interviews of their self-proclaimed sexual prowess. Notably, this includes Trump’s now-infamous Access Hollywood tape, which revealed how his sexual “prowess” may be more accurately labeled “assault.” Morales, too, has been the subject of controversy concerning crude and inappropriate jokes, specifically those at the expense of the country’s indigenous populations. For example, Morales frequently donned blackface to play “Black Pitaya,” a character who belongs to the indigenous mixed race Garífuna people, for a recurring segment on Moralejas.
In a political climate where anti-elitism and populism are on the rise, voters are shifting away from more traditional political candidates. While this trend has historically been present in Latin America and is noticeably growing in Europe and the United States, the popular candidacies of Trump, Morales, and Nasralla indicate how entertainers have emerged as successful “political outsiders.” At a cursory glance, the triumph of Morales—and the near-triumph of Nasralla—compared to seasoned political elites, contradicts the incumbency advantage theory (specifically among presidents in Latin America) proposed by Michael Penfold and Javier Corrales.1Javier Corrales and Michael Penfold, “Manipulating Term Limits in Latin America,” Journal of Democracy, 25, no. 4 (October 2014): 157–168. However, when examined together, the candidacies of Trump, Morales, and Nasralla reveal a new trend: As popular icons, these three men have enjoyed many of the benefits Penfold and Corrales argue are granted to incumbent candidates. This relationship illustrates the consequences of conflating entertainment with politics and suggests that this fusion may cause similar distortions of a “level playing field” as does elite domination in politics.
The incumbent’s advantage
A traditional, political understanding of incumbency advantage is described as a variety of “direct and indirect” factors that may account for the high reelection rates of incumbents, including:2Corrales and Penfold, “Manipulating Term Limits in Latin America.”
1. Higher media exposure
2. Psychological preference of citizens for the “devil they know”
3. Psychological preference of voters to identify with “people,” not parties.
Trump, Morales, and Nasralla’s statuses as entertainers afforded them similar advantages to those that improve incumbent reelection prospects. This is an especially potent dynamic because not only were these candidates not incumbents, but they were each running against either an incumbent or an established member of the political elite. Nasralla ran against incumbent Juan Orlando Hernández, while both Trump and Morales ran against former first ladies. Still, all three candidates benefited from these supposed incumbency advantages, and in two of the three cases, triumphed over their incumbent counterparts.“In the same way that Trump used Twitter, Morales relied on social media to spread his emotionally charged anticorruption platform, consequently saturating the lives—and news feeds—of everyday Guatemalans.”
As entertainment figures, the most obvious benefit Morales and Trump derived from their fame was higher media exposure, both preceding and during the presidential campaigns. Even before his campaign began, Morales—and Nasralla, to an extent—had a very wide breadth of media presence, specifically apart from the politics of the electoral race. In the same way that Trump used Twitter, Morales relied on social media to spread his emotionally charged anticorruption platform, consequently saturating the lives—and news feeds—of everyday Guatemalans. Speaking on what motivated him to run, Morales, an evangelical Christian, specifically cited that he had “started an emotional and spiritual journey” to fulfill his longtime dream and give Guatemalans a leader who is “not a thief.” Trump also exemplified how a celebrity with a controversial and unorthodox approach can benefit from strikingly disproportionate media coverage during a presidential campaign. In addition to his endless Twitter presence and being a household name before the campaign began, news coverage of Trump’s candidacy was drastically higher than that of his competitors. A study by mediaQuant, a firm that tracks media coverage of candidates in the United States, found that Trump earned essentially $2 billion worth of “free media,” compared to Hillary Clinton’s $746 million. The study noted that “Mr. Trump is not just a little better at earning media. He is way better than any of the other candidates.”
Penfold and Corrales argue that incumbency in a national election is advantageous because mainstream news networks will automatically allocate more coverage to those currently in office, giving them a leg-up over their outsider opponents. This was notably the case in the Honduran election, where Nasralla did not reap the same benefit from his prior fame as did Trump and Morales. President Hernandez’s incumbency and established relationship with the media afforded him 65 percent of election coverage (most of which was positive), while Nasralla only received 15 percent. However, Morales’s and Trump’s victories show how a structure that usually benefits political incumbents can be successfully undermined by candidates who utilize various media platforms and sport attention-grabbing personalities that even CNN cannot ignore.
Connecting with the voters
Morales, Nasralla, and Trump all ran on highly emotional, anti-elitist platforms, which may have a profound effect on the psychology of voters, similar to the effects of incumbency advantage that Penfold and Corrales describe. A 2008 study of the Italian electorate found a link between “hot,” or reactive, emotional cognition and voting preferences, which has been historically underestimated in studies of political decision-making (in favor of “cold,” logical thinking).3Luciano Arcuri et al., “Predicting the Vote: Implicit Attitudes as Predictors of the Future Behavior of Decided and Undecided Voters,” Political Psychology 29, no. 3 (2008): 369–387. This connection implies that voters’ psychology is likely to be heavily influenced by their emotional link to a candidate, as well as by their reaction to the current political atmosphere. Morales, for example, ran at an optimal time to capitalize on the mindset of voters—his slogan, “Neither corrupt, nor a thief,” resonated deeply with constituents shaken by the corruption scandal that had ended in the arrest and resignation of his predecessors, former president Otto Pérez Molina and vice president Roxana Baldetti. According to Guatemalan political analyst Hugo Novales, Morales explicitly admitted to having no real policy platform; his support came from “a direct, emotional relationship with voters.” This active refusal to take meaningful policy positions may indicate the presence of voters’ psychological preference to vote for people rather than parties in the case of Morales.“Voters’ distrust of the establishment’s corruption, real and imagined, exploded in violent protests following the election’s highly contentious conclusion.”
In Honduras, Nasralla ran against Juan Orlando Hernández, the first president in the country’s democratic history to attempt reelection. In fact, Hernández’s run for reelection was actually unconstitutional at the time; former Honduran interior minister Victor Meza warned that abolishing term limits will increase concentration of power and could “unleash an unchecked authoritarianism.” United States representative Jan Schakowsky further emphasized this sentiment, claiming that with his bid for reelection, Hernández was “inching closer to authoritarian rule and all-out dictatorship.” The threat of corruption and authoritarianism was further exacerbated when Hernández was also implicated in a scandal involving stolen public money, similar to Pérez Molina in Guatemala. Voters’ distrust of the establishment’s corruption, real and imagined, exploded in violent protests following the election’s highly contentious conclusion. Finally, Trump focused his campaign on the corruption of Hillary Clinton and the US political elite, dubbing Clinton “Crooked Hillary” and appealing to sentiments of disenfranchisement and alienation from politics among some American voters.4The New Press: January 2018More Info → As entertainers, Trump, Morales, and Nasralla presented themselves as “closer” to the people than their corrupted, political elite counterparts, and all three capitalized on that image during their campaigns.
Entertainment politics and democratic erosion
If, when running for elected office, entertainers and pop culture icons enjoy benefits typically awarded to incumbents, what implications does this have for the state of democracy in a political landscape where the conflation of entertainment and politics is pervasive? Penfold and Corrales argue that “if presidential accountability were playing a major role in electoral outcomes, then incumbency would not confer such an automatic advantage.”5Corrales and Penfold, “Manipulating Term Limits in Latin America.” Thus, the existence of any incumbency advantage at all—whether it be to the benefit of an incumbent or a popular entertainer—implies a lack of, or decrease in, a key tenet of democracy: presidential accountability.
Ellen Lust and David Waldner argue that a lack of accountability—which they define as “answerability and punishment”—can be a triggering factor for democratic backsliding or erosion.6Ellen Lust and David Waldner, Unwelcome Change: Understanding, Evaluating, and Extending Theories of Democratic Backsliding (Institute of International Education/USAID, June 11, 2015). Because of their status as “entertainers,” Morales, Trump, and Nasralla have all enjoyed elements of a quasi-incumbency advantage. This very advantage is associated with the diminished importance of presidential accountability to voters. While this may not constitute democratic erosion per se, the cases of Morales, Trump, and Nasralla demonstrate that the conflation of entertainment with politics might be correlated with a decreased importance of presidential accountability in elections, which in turn has implications for the quality of democracy.“The elections of Morales and Trump demonstrate that the conflation of entertainment and politics can have a negative impact on how well democracies function.”
The elections of Morales and Trump demonstrate that the conflation of entertainment and politics can have a negative impact on how well democracies function. However, the Honduran election could also exemplify how “celebrity” advantage may serve as a tool against democratic erosion. While the popular icon’s “incumbency advantage” took both Morales and Trump to their respective presidencies, Nasralla was ultimately thwarted by the existing incumbent. Although at times throughout the race Nasralla appeared to hold the upper hand over his incumbent counterpart, Hernández, he simply did not have enough sway to ultimately overcome the establishment elite. Nonetheless, the combination of Hernández’s incumbency advantage and Nasralla’s “entertainment” advantage caused deep-seated tensions that came to a head after election night, when both candidates proclaimed themselves victorious and protests erupted throughout the nation. While Nasralla did not ultimately win, it is possible that, with help from his “celebrity” advantage, he generated a significant enough emotional response within his constituency to pose a credible challenge to Hernández’s threat of authoritarian rule.
The fiery response to Nasralla’s loss demonstrated that in Honduras, as in Guatemala and the United States, the pop-icon “incumbency” advantage foreshadowed a massive upset in the democratically established status quo. In all three countries, it is clear that fame, personality, and an emotional connection to voters can substitute—or at least fiercely rival—electoral advantages that stem from political experience and office-holding. Such an advantage among incumbents is dangerous as their continued success has less to do with their tangible accomplishments and more to do with their incumbency in and of itself.7Corrales and Penfold, “Manipulating Term Limits in Latin America.” The Morales, Trump, and Nasralla cases indicate these same advantages may not only exist for political outsiders with no public-sector experience but may also actively ease their paths to office. Rather than encourage “elite recycling” and discourage political alternation, this new trend encourages the success of those with inflammatory personalities, eccentric or impractical policy ideas, and little to no experience in civil service. This seems deeply problematic—the rise of entertainment in politics provides a straight path to the presidency for those with little-to-no experience. However, these three cases also demonstrate that, despite the dangers of facilitating the election of someone with no relevant experience, a pop-icon’s fame may be a force powerful enough to overcome incumbency advantage as we know it.