A television comedian was elected President of Ukraine last Monday, provoking headlines such as: “Buffoons Are Taking Over the Court” and “Why a Bit of Humorlessness Might Go a Long Way.” Volodymyr Zelensky – who once played a sitcom character shockingly elected President after his angry video rant goes viral – beat the incumbent Petro Poroshenko in a landslide, reaping over 73% of the vote. Are clownish outsider candidates like Zelensky the future of global democratic politics?
Pranksters run for government
Pranksters have been gaining a foothold in national elections since the news satirist Stephen Colbert ran a fake Presidential campaign in 2008, following the publication of his best-selling book I Am America (And So Can You). Like Pat Paulsen, whose joke bid for the White House in the tumultuous year of 1968 started as a gag skit on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (CBS, 1967-1969), Colbert’s campaign was pure parody.
Sponsored by Doritos snack chips, it quickly ran afoul of FEC rules, just two years ahead of the 2010 Citizens United Decision that unleashed vast corporate wealth on political elections. Colbert used dark satire, not grey money, to gain national attention. He ran in South Carolina with the outrageous slogan, “First to secede, first to succeed,” taking aim at the dog whistle race-baiting that’s clinched the southern electorate since Barry Goldwater’s 1964 Presidential Campaign. But Colbert’s nonsense rhetoric clearly marked his own candidacy as a farce, not the real thing.
Since 2008, however, clownish outsider candidates have deployed Colbertian tactics with remarkably successful results. In Italy, the activist-comedian Beppe Grillo launched his anti-elitist Five Star Movement (M5S) in 2009, which quickly gained regional influence and now holds a significant national minority that governs in coalition with the fascist Lega Nord (Northern League).
M5S rode to power on the coattails of a public prank in 2007, when Grillo organized mass rallies to celebrate V-Day (Vaffanculo or “Fuck You” Day). Invoking the Allies who landed in Normandy in June 1944, V-Day urged Italian citizens to “invade” the bad legislative body, further protesting endemic corruption in Silvio Berlusconi’s government.
M5S derived its populist credibility (or its grillismo) from a mixture of diffuse outrage and obscene antics. As the movement gained electoral traction and political legitimacy, its pretenses of direct democracy and digital participation (spurred by Grillo’s rabble-rousing blog) have yielded contradictory and often bizarre policy positions. Buffoonish utopianism – sullied by political reality – has shaped a party that is now both egalitarian and nativist, progressive and ultra-nationalist, anti-insider and increasingly tribal.
Its platform panders to rising hostilities against immigrants and refugees, the European Union, and even medical vaccines – as clownish imagination buckles under the pressures of racial hostility and conspiratorial belief.
TV clowns go to Washington
Like Grillo, Zelensky jumpstarted his political career by speaking truth to power with an expletive-laden rant. In the pilot episode of Servant of the People (1+1, 2015-2019), he tirades against Ukrainian government corruption in a viral video that unexpectedly catapults his character to electoral victory. The episodic foibles that ensue evoke classic presidential film satires such as Duck Soup (1933), Being There (1979), and Wag the Dog (1997), in which idiocy alone guarantees authenticity.
Zelensky’s seamless trajectory from television clown to successful politician further mirrors the ascent of Donald Trump – who crossed over from reality game show host to unprecedented leader of a representative democracy. Trump’s revolving door Cabinet Administration – which grows and shrinks by the whim of a Tweet – has been a major point of continuity between his Presidency and its basis in The Apprentice (NBC, 2004-2017), the tagline for which was “You’re Fired!”
Both Trump and Zelensky further rely on absurdity to fill the gap between their fictional characters and their electoral ambitions. Trump’s outlandish buffoonery garnered him abundant media coverage, while Zelensky’s unorthodox background boosted his candidacy from inside joke to international news headline.
What was the tipping point between gag campaigns like Colbert’s 2008 run and this new frontier of democratic politics, whereby one’s grotesque inexperience actively fosters their populist viability and broad-based support? With the infusion of corporate money into national elections, immense influence of dubious digital news sources, and increasing class inequality around the globe, voters apparently trust comedian underdogs over incumbent insider politicians.
With the infusion of corporate money into national elections… and increasing class inequality around the globe, voters apparently trust comedian underdogs over incumbent insider politicians.
Insult comedy rallies the base
Elected leaders have always used humor as a political weapon, but only to a degree. This is why Plato wanted to ban excessive laughter from his idealized city-state in The Republic. Now that the center will no longer hold, political humor has grown ever more extreme.
Trump notoriously mocked a reporter with a disability, derisively refers to Senator Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas,” laughed off global warming during the 2019 Midwest polar vortex, and even ridiculed Christine Blasey Ford for stating that she had “only one beer” on the night of her alleged assault by Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
Offensive shock tactics such as these rally the true believers, displacing light-hearted burlesque with bald-faced invective. If absurd unorthodoxy helped to establish these unlikely candidates as electable, now their obscene defilement of decorum further burnishes their anti-elitist chops.
Far-right authoritarian leaders know that insult comedy is crucial for firing up the base in moments of crisis. Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil), Rodrigo Duterte (the Philippines), Recep Erdoğan (Turkey), Benjamin Netanyahu (Israel), Viktor Orbán (Hungary), Vladimir Putin (Russia), and Matteo Salvini (Italy) pitch their bellicose rhetoric to a social media-based attention economy with pithy taunts, schoolyard jeers, and ludicrous exaggerations.
An age of permanent carnival
We’re living in an age of “permanent carnival,” argue Lauren Berlant and Sianne Ngai, referring to the popular medieval folk festival that the people celebrated every year between Christmas and Lent. Carnival was a temporary social revolution in which holy scripture was profaned, the king was decrowned, and anything serious became fair game for grotesque ridicule and outrageous satire.
Political theorists have emphasized that carnival actually contributed to the health of the state. It ignited joyful anti-sovereign rebellion, in which all repressed urges and scandalous ideas had momentary free rein. Since the Middle Ages, carnival has gone underground in literature, film, television, and other mass media. But as the boundaries between carnival and sovereignty erode, serious politics have become extravagantly absurd. Comedic buffoonery no longer marks the dividing line between satire and news (between jokes and elections). It is now the starting point for participatory democracy.
But what will happen if the clowns continue to wear the crown 365 days a year? Can democracy survive the sustained unleashing of its primal ungoverned impulses? I don’t believe anyone knows the answer to those questions. But it’s clear that this carnivalesque zeitgeist will not be losing steam any time soon.