Advertisements

Celebrities, Populists, and Celebrity Populists

Ukraine has apparently elected a populist celebrity with no previous political experience as its president, and we hope it works out better for them than it has for Italy, Guatemala, Peru, Liberia, Pakistan, the United States of America, and the other countries that have recently made similar choices.
The Ukrainian president-elect is Volodymyr Zelensky, a 41-year-old comedian best known for his starring role on the hit Ukrainian sitcom “Servant of the People,” about a comedian who somehow becomes president of Ukraine. We eagerly anticipate the English-dubbed version showing up on Netflix, as it’s apparently a compelling show. From what we can tell by the press accounts Zelensky’s character is constantly doing battle with the country’s entrenched and corrupt establishment, and although he doesn’t necessarily win he at least gets some humorous insults in, and according to a prominent Ukrainian political observer quoted in The Washington Post “People are voting for the plot of the show.”
None of the western press reports about the election say much about Zelennsky’s opponent, who might well have been just as awful as Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in the last American election, but it still strikes us as a fanciful choice. Zelensky will likely get some zingers in during his time in office, and his fans will surely love it, but recent experience indicates that only does so much good for a country.
Italy elected comedian Beppe Grillo as its leader, and although he’s gotten a lot of laughs the country is still the same corruption-ridden economic basket case it’s been for the past 100 years or so. Previously the Italians had elected multi-billionaire media mogul and crusading populist Silvio Berlusconi, but his several terms were frequently interrupted by indictments and convictions on various corruption charges, which majorities of the Italian people didn’t mind given his crusading anti-corruption populism.
In 2015 Guatemala elected anti-corruption comedian Jimmy Morales, who had also starred in a hit comedy about a comedian becoming president, but the country remained so violent and impoverished that a troublesome segment of its population is currently seeking aslyum in the United States. Liberia elected a popular soccer star, Pakistan elected a cricket star who’d become a national hero by leading the country to its only world championship, but neither has proved nearly so successful in playing the more complicated game of governance.
Once upon a time in America we could have rolled our eyes at such Third World craziness, but in the age of President Donald Trump’s we have no standing to sneer. Trump was elected by an electoral majority without any previous political experience partly because of his much-bragged about yet frequently-bankrupt business career, partly because he’d portrayed a tough-talking take-charge “you’re fired” businessman on the reality show “The Apprentice,” partly because he promised to use that experience to “drain the swamp,” and mostly because he had the good fortune to be running against “Crooked” Hillary Clinton, who was arguably almost as corrupt.
Despite his political inexperience Trump has kept the American economy chugging along the same slow upward trajectory it was on when he elected, and during the two years his party controlled both chambers of Congress he won a budget-busting tax bill and installed a couple of conservative Supreme Court justices that any old establishment Republican would have championed, but mostly his fans love him for the zingers he gets in.
The people in the red “Make America Great Again” ball caps find Trump’s current hit reality show downright hilarious, but we admit we just don’t get it. They loved it when Trump mocked a reporter’s degenerative muscle disease, but it reminded of us how the kids at our elementary school laughed at the playground bullies’ mocking of the handicapped students, and they thought it funny that Trump called his Democratic nemesis Rep. Adam Schiff “Little Adam Shitt” in a “tweet,” but we thought it juvenile and vulgar and far beneath the dignity of the American presidency. A friend of our complains that the stuffily literal media took Trump seriously when he hilariously requested the Russian government to hack Clinton’s e-mails, and Trump himself has won laughs from his rally crowds by recalling how he said that during a raucous campaign rally where everyone was laughing and in on the joke, but in fact he said it at a somber press conference, where reporters pressed him to verify that he wasn’t joking, and the Mueller report makes clear that the Russian government didn’t get Trump’s sense of humor and attempted to hack the Clinton e-mails that same day.
Call us old-fashioned, but we preferred the more sly and subtle and profanity-free wits of Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan. These days much of America is so contemptuous of its fellow citizens on the opposite side of the political divide that it will happily settle for even the most puerile zingers, though, and hold out little hold that our differences can be reconciled through civil and reason debate. Apparently much of the rest of the Third and second and First Worlds have reached the same desultory state.
Here’s hoping it works out better for Ukraine than it has elsewhere. Zelensky is reportedly pro-NATO and anti-Russian, which is more than we can say for Trump, so we wish him the best of luck with that. Besides, for all we know the other candidate was arguably even more awful.
Even so, and at the risk of being called old-fashioned, we think there’s still something to be said for seasoned public servants making serious and fact-based arguments in a civil and reasoned debate. Maybe someone should make a show about that, but it probably wouldn’t get big ratings.

— Bud Norman

Advertisements

La Dolce Vita

Italy has given much to the world over the centuries, from Cicero to Michelangelo to Lollobrigida, but in recent decades its chief contribution has been making other countries feel better about their own dysfunctional politics. The election in Italy today might be its most generous gift yet.
The results are still unknown, but it is hard to envision any happy outcome. On the ballot for Prime Minister is the usual mélange of neo-fascists, socialists, ultra-socialists, outright communists, and assorted crackpots, with four front-runners who represent only a slight improvement. Italy’s economy is moribund, its debt suffocating, its institutions corrupt, and each of the candidates are offering only different varieties of wishful thinking.
One is the incumbent, Mario Monti. A former Senator for Life who is invariably described as a “technocrat,” Monti is the favorite of the continent’s political establishment due to his policy of raising taxes, slashing spending, and otherwise adhering to the dictates of the country’s nervous European Union creditors. This what is President Barack Obama likes to call a “balanced approach” to deficit reduction, but it hasn’t done much to balance Italy’s budget. The taxes have had their predictable dampening effect on the already-reeling private sector, the cuts have inflicted the expected pain on a country that has become reliant on government spending, and the supposed blessing of continued EU membership only means that Italy can’t devalue its way to competitiveness. To his credit Monti has attempted to de-regulate the country’s straitjacketed labor market, but he has failed to persuade the country’s left-leaning legislators.
Another contender is the former Prime Minister, Sylvio Berlusconi. A super-rich media and sports magnate once considered something of a conservative by European standards, Berlusconi is promising tax cuts and rebates to go along with continued austerity, a plan likely to worsen the nation’s debt crises absent the sort of deregulation that the more politically adept Monti failed to achieve. The tax cuts are naturally popular with the voters, as is Berlusconi’s offer to pay off €4 billion of the nation’s debt with his money, but his campaign has been plagued by the sorts of scandals that would be fatal to any conservative American politician. In addition to countless bribery and abuse of power accusations, the 76-year-old Berlusconi is currently on trial for having sex with an underage prostitute during what Reuters calls a “bunga bunga” orgy at his Milan villa, and he’s even reported to have made suggestive remarks to a woman who shared a stage with him at a business event. Political corruption and sexual harassment are longstanding Italian traditions, but Berlusconi was nonetheless protested by a group of topless women who apparently believe that the proper punishment for a dirty old man is to wave bare breasts in his face.
The campaign’s dark horse is Beppe Grillo, a former television comedian. His newly-formed Five Star Movement party is promising lower taxes, a 20-hour work week, free internet and electronic tablets for all schoolchildren, and a “green economy” that will replace the gross domestic product with “gross domestic happiness.” None of this is intended as a joke, apparently, despite Grillo’s past occupation.
As we post this the betting favorite seems to be Pier Luigi Bersani, a longtime political leader of the center-left Democratic Party. Bersani’s prescription for the economy is higher taxes on the rich, a favored solution of center-left Democratic parties everywhere, but the idea hasn’t worked anywhere yet and is even more likely to fail in Italy. There’s a dwindling supply of rich Italians , and they will soon find that there are any number of more accommodating tax jurisdictions where they can spend their euros.
There is some comfort in knowing that there are still places that make America look relatively sane, but it is nonetheless sobering to contemplate how bad things might yet get. America has a staggering economy and skyrocketing debt of its own, and its political leadership is reduced to the same failed notions of “balance,” class resentments, and resistance to freeing the private sector from burdensome government control. We also have allegedly underage-prostitute-loving politicians of our own, too, along with cronyism, elected officials who are both literally and figuratively comedians, and a wishful-thinking public that seems bored rather than outraged by it all. It’s easy to sneer at the Italians, and quite fun, but they should serve as a warning.

— Bud Norman