What do Donald Trump, Hugo Chávez, Justin Trudeau, Silvio Berlusconi and Cristina Kirchner have in common? Considering the ideological aspect, experts’ debate goes around whether one is closer to the right wing than the others are or if one is conservative while the others typify themselves as revolutionary. When a specialist tries to classify them as populist, they are usually compelled to add some adjective to be precise, such as neo, post, light, left or right because the ancient concept of populism does not properly depict the variety of the recent regimes. The mentioned leaders probably do not fit strictly in the frame of populism, whatever that means nowadays, but they all are definitely popular. Beyond the ideological perspective, these politicians share a communication style that fits better in the contemporary pop culture than in classical populist politics.
Pop is a universal language, easy to understand and easier to apply to any campaign. As a magic spell, pop politics transforms Everyman into a universal celebrity loved by millions of followers in social media and converted into a pop icon printed in global T-shirts. Pop presidents are not only those who obtain the majority of votes: they are also the ones that reach the top TV ratings or the most popular YouTube videos. Pop politics is a celebrity-based regime; it is the mainstream pop dedicated to his Majesty´s secret service.
Italian intellectuals were the first to talk about the phenomenon, as Italy was pioneer in mixing pop and politics. When Gianpietro Mazzoleni coined the pop politics concept or when Umberto Eco defined the media regime, they probably did not imagine how fruitful these ideas would become later to describe the newest “Latin America top models”. Including Francisco I, the “Latino” pop-pope. Populism could be better retitled as “pop-ulism”: a demagogic style that seduces multitudes as well as it irritates intellectuals with its spectacular way of communicating. Like pop hits, the more decried by intellectuals, the more popular these politicians become. As we recently saw on the occasion of the Colombian plebiscite for the peace deal, the popularity of leaders like the former president Álvaro Uribe seems to rise as the approval of the progressive press goes down. It does not matter if the proportion of the favourable press were 27 to 1 for Hillary Clinton as happened in the US elections. In the end the mocked Donald Trump was nominated by the electors because the critical press tends to flaunt features they hate which common people love.
Pop politicians follow a celebrity program to make over their names and turn them into a global brand. For pop leaders, “government program” does not mean public policy but the peculiar media genre each one prefers to broadcast the official agenda. Stand up monologues were Chávez` favourite style to deliver his “cadenas nacionales”. Talk show is the way Rafael Correa uses every Saturday to televise his government reports to the audience while he celebrates his ministerial meetings. Reality shows gave Cristina Kirchner her most unforgettable TV moments. Uribe preferred radio interviews to spread his inflamed speeches. Nicolás Maduro spreads globally 40 thousand tweets a day on 17 accounts in a dozen languages.
Current charisma is the natural talent of fostering emotional reactions in the audiences. These pop leaders know how to translate the political debate into the drama of telenovela (as Latin Americans call their passionate soap operas). Through epic storytelling, the pop president acts as a super hero that fights against the latest public enemies, protecting weak people from the global perils. Any group considered liquid threats to the lost solid securities could be the nemeses of Latin American Presidents: immigrants, journalists, aristocrats, politicians or whoever dares to be an opponent to the regime. Appealing to the religious feelings of simple people, they awake fears around multiple uncertainties of the contemporary world. Then they present themselves as mundane gods, chosen to be the only saviours of humanity. This is the myth they try to build to enter History.
Pop presidents spend a whopping budget in propaganda and media management to obtain publicity. They tend to be the main source of national news mostly by media scandals rather than for political achievements. The communication system involves media, journalists, spin-doctors, direct beneficiaries of the pop politics. Accordingly, they are the main advocates of the promising cultural industry of pop political communication.
The lessons Latin America has learnt in the recent years is that pop politics is not forever. As it happens with entertainment, its intensity is proportional to its impermanence. In the same way no spectacle could last endlessly, society cannot eternally stand a celebrity president. All of this is about leadership that seemed to be eternal until it suddenly vanishes into thin air. The very air they love for broadcasting their show government.
Author of Política pop: de líderes populistas a telepresidentes (Buenos Aires, Ariel).