Ukrainians have elected a comedian to be their president? I might have been more surprised by the news if my own country were not being governed by a former real estate developer and reality TV host.
This weekend’s landslide election victory by political novice Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a Ukrainian comedian known for playing an accidental president on TV, actually follows a recent international trend.
Just as we have seen turns toward right-wing populist nationalism across the West, we also see political experience slip and slide in many cases from an advantage into a handicap and even a joke — leaving a big open door for people who make their living off of laughs.
For example, political novice and stand-up comedian Marjan Sarec used to impersonate politicians in Melania Trump’s native Slovenia. Now he has become one. He was appointed prime minister last year by a center-left coalition to sideline the right-wing Slovenian Democratic Party, whose leader Sarec used to impersonate.
So has comic actor Jimmy Morales, whom Guatemalans elected president in 2015 after his 15 years as star of a weekly sketch comedy show. Elected under the modest campaign slogan “Neither corrupt nor a thief,” he since has displayed troubling signs of both. His popularity has fallen under accusations that he has undermined the justice system, empowered right-wing elites and turned the country into a corrupt narco-state. Not funny.
Why have various democracies taken this comic turn? Voters in each of the countries mentioned above appeared to be so fed up with what they saw as a corrupt and ineffective status quo that the big question became not “Why elect a comedian?” but “Why not?”
Social media played a role, particularly in the rise of Zelenskiy. His campaign, mostly through social media and comedy tours, had a lot more online followers than policy specifics. The country’s problems with poverty, corruption and Russian-backed insurgents in its eastern region are complex and well-known.
Yet, fuzziness about how he would govern differently from his predecessors apparently helped Zelenskiy’s popularity. A recent Gallup poll showed that only 9% of Ukrainians had confidence in their national government, the lowest among the more than 160 countries Gallup surveyed.
All of this should sound familiar to Americans, where similar signs of discontent contributed to the widely unexpected Electoral College victory for President Donald Trump in 2016. Like the comics-turned-leaders in Ukraine, Slovenia and Guatemala, Trump had what I call the “comedian’s advantages” — widespread name recognition, a talent for reading audiences, a knack for reducing complicated issues to simple slogans, set-ups and punchlines.
It also helps — as we have seen with Trump’s attacks on the courts, news media and other oversight — for a comedian to show a cheeky faux-respect for norms and institutions, even as he or she tries to undermine both.
And, yes, if you don’t think of Trump as a comedian, it’s because you aren’t listening. He fills his rally speeches with so many jokes, usually at the expense of liberals and other adversaries, they sound like right-wing stand-up tours.
Contrary to some people’s opinions, especially liberals’, Trump does have a sense of humor. As former Barack Obama speechwriter David Litt put it, Trump, with his “classic bully’s sense of humor,” doesn’t tell jokes — he gives wedgies.
I used to wonder how, with his easily triggered disdain for mockery of himself, Trump managed to sit through his own Comedy Central roast in 2011. Now I see it as part of his preparation for national politics.
This recent comic turn in populist politics should be taken seriously, especially by the platoon of 2020 Democratic presidential wannabes who are lining up to challenge Trump. Mundane characteristics, like the “likability” question that rankles feminists with its implied sexism, mean a lot on a visceral level with voters. Being able to come across as someone who is listening to voters, as Trump suggested with his audacious “I am your voice” declaration, can build trust among them, whether a candidate’s track record deserves that trust or not.
But as one of Hillary Clinton’s favorite writers, Maya Angelou, used to say, people may not remember what you told them, but they’ll never forget how you made them feel. That’s no joke.