On SAGE Insight: Is Donald Trump a ‘superstar celebrity politician’?

Article title: What is Donald Trump? Forms of ‘Celebrity’ in Celebrity Politics

From Political Studies Review

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Media reporting of elections and of political leaders draws parallels with the world of entertainment. Journalistic metaphors and analogies are designed to capture the style of the politician and the response they elicit; they also serve to explain them. The suggestion of such reports is that we understand better the political process by seeing its participants less as representatives and their citizens, and more as performers and their fans.

The article uses the case of Donald Trump to argue that, as political analysts, we need to look more closely at the behavior of celebrity politicians as celebrities (as opposed to politicians), both because this helps us to understand their behavior and it helps us to comprehend their popularity. In what follows, the paper begins by reviewing existing definitions of ‘celebrity politics’ as they are used by political scientists. It then contrasts these with media representations of Trump and his celebrity persona, arguing that they raise questions and issues that are not fully acknowledged by the political science literature. The article ends by exploring the implications of this refined definition for our understanding of celebrity politics in general and Trump in particular.

The rise of populism, and how this is understood, draws the celebrity politician within its ambit, as does discussion of the mediatization and personalization of politics more generally. Understanding the celebrity politician depends on us understanding the feelings and emotions, as well as the preferences and interests that are in play within politics. It also requires us to understand the celebrity role they perform and the style in which they perform it.


It is widely assumed that Donald Trump is a ‘celebrity politician’ and that he has cashed in his success on the reality show The Apprentice to secure political credibility and attention. In this respect, he fits what Matthew Wood et al. have labelled the ‘superstar celebrity politician’. This characterisation is the latest in a number of refinements to the definition and understanding of the celebrity politician. While this is a helpful move, I want to suggest that it might overlook one key dimension of the phenomenon. Definitions of the celebrity politician tend to focus on the source of their ‘celebrity’ – how they became famous, rather than on how they act out their celebrity role. This latter dimension features in media coverage, where journalists and commentators borrow from show business to describe politics, but is less often analysed in the political science literature. It matters because, I want to suggest, celebrity politicians like Trump act as stars, whether of reality television, rock music or film. They do not just resemble stars, they are them. This is evident in how they are represented, how they perform and how their ‘fans’ respond to them. It is also symptomatic of wider changes in the conduct and form of the contemporary, mediatised political realm.

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Article details
What is Donald Trump? Forms of ‘Celebrity’ in Celebrity Politics
John Street
First Published May 10, 2018 Research Article
DOI: 10.1177/1478929918772995
Political Studies Review

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