Comedians as presidents

“Jesters and satirists have always been valued for speaking truth to power. But now they’re winning office themselves. When comedian Beppe Grillo joked his way into Italian politics a decade ago, he seemed a one-off. Turns out, he was a “harbinger of things to come”. Since then, Tiririca – an actual clown – has become a congressman in Brazil (“It can’t get any worse”, was his campaign slogan); the comic actor Jimmy Morales is president of Guatemala; and comedian Volodymyr Zelensky, who played a president in a TV comedy, has just become Ukraine’s president. What’s going on?

“The rise of the comedian-politician is partly due to the fall – in the online era – of the barriers to entering politics: instead of holding rallies and pressing the flesh, Zelensky was able to broadcast his message with stand-up routines and the social media. But it’s also a symptom of voter disillusion with mainstream politicians: seeing an outsider mock the political elite is one sure benefit they can get from politics. Electorates “that look to their politicians for entertainment are living through humourless times”. (Jenny Lee,  Financial Times,  25 May 2019)

She left out, maybe because it is glaringly obvious, Trump in the US and Boris Johnson in the UK, both of them popular with a certain segment of the electorate who seek superficial entertainment from the serious business of actually running a country.  Not only are these joker-politicians iconoclasts, supposedly “strong” and “telling it how it is”, but they know how to use the media and play to the gallery, with the collusion of the printed and broadcast Press (Trump-hostile CNN advertises Trump on a minute-by-minute basis).  Not for any of these people the gritty business of reading long, involved briefs and using experts for advice. They use instinct and the lowest common denominator, with a sharp eye on the polls and trending ephemera on social media.  Nothing is serious, at least until they start trade and real wars.

One is reminded of the latter days of the Roman empire, when the mob required bread and circuses and emperors came and went, occasionally three in one year, never mind the barbarians at the frontier.  At this distance we can see that the Roman empire was dysfunctional and was in decline.  Well, the modern jokers are signaling  to us all – it’s deja vue all over again.  If this new crop of “leaders” don’t produce utter chaos, the climate crisis will, in any case.


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