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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

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Satire Without Retribution, and Other National Emergencies

Nothing much happened over this past cold weekend, despite a State of National Emergency, but of course the long running Saturday Night Live program on the National Broadcasting Company once again made fun of President Donald Trump. Trump, of course, “tweeted” back his indignant response.
Trump “tweeted” that “Nothing funny about tired Saturday Night Live on fake news NBC! Question is, how do the Networks get away with these total Republican hit jobs without retribution? Likewise for many other shows? Very unfair and should be looked into. This is the real collusion.”
Although we wouldn’t go so far as to declare a State of National Emergency, we did find Trump’s reaction to a comedy skit rather alarming.
There’s no accounting for taste, but we found the bit quite funny, and all too accurate a parody of Trumps rambling and incoherent and dissembling press conference on Friday, and we note that NBC’s “fake new” division is independent of the entertainment division that used to air Trump’s fraudulent yet hit reality show “The Apprentice,” and once featured Trump as a guest host on “SNL” during unlikely primary campaign. As for how the networks get away with it without retribution, we’re pretty sure there’s a loophole in the constitution that allows satirists to to satirize even a president. You can look into it, but if you do you’ll find it right there in ┬áthe First Amendment to the Constitution. As for that part about Trump calling the skit “the real collusion,” we have absolutely no idea what the hell he’s talking about.
Those late night network comics are an insufferably smug bunch, we must admit, but they make undeniably funny jokes and good points, and as old-fashioned constitutional conservatives we hope they’ll continue to do so without fear of retribution. We also wish Trump well in his efforts to make America great again, but we don’t hold out much hope if he doesn’t learn to take a joke.

— Bud Norman

The Reality Show Goes On

President Donald Trump is now calling Omarosa Manigault Newman a “low-life,” and we can’t argue with the description. Newman is now saying that Trump is a racist and sexist with diminished intellectual capabilities, and that also sounds apt. There’s no one to root for in this tawdry feud, and we don’t expect either combatant will come out of it looking at all good.
In case you’d happily forgotten, Newman is the recurring reality show villainess who once helped make “The Apprentice” a ratings hit and wound up as the highest-ranking African-American in the White House as a reward. She was obsequiously loyal to her benefactor, at one point telling an interviewer that “every critic, every detractor will have to bow down to President Trump,” but she didn’t seem to do much else for her $180,000-a-year salary but created scandals, and she was ushered out by chief of staff John Kelly. At first Newman remained loyal to Trump, although she had some choice words for Kelly and her mostly black critics in the press, but that’s no longer true.
Newman landed on her feet with a role in yet another reality show, “Big Brother,” where she whispered to another contestant that the Trump White House is even more chaotic than it seems, and that “It’s not going to be OK.” Now she’s on seemingly every channel plugging a soon-to-be-released tell-all book that contradicts every kind word she ever had for Trump. In doing so, she’s created a couple more embarrassing stories about the administration.
On the National Broadcasting Company’s venerable and usually polite “Meet the Press” Sunday morning program, Newman played a recording she’d surreptitiously made of her firing in the White House “Situation Room.” The fact that she would surreptitiously record a conversation in the White House does not speak well of her character, but that she was able to do so in the White House’s most carefully secured space does not speak well of the administration’s competence.
The tape also includes Kelly telling Newman that no harm would come to her reputation if she kept toeing the administration line in her comments to the press, which isn’t even a veiled threat about what would happen if she didn’t, and that will only enhance the Trump administration’s reputation for bullying people into silence. She’s also got a contract that was offered her by presidential daughter-in-law Lara Trump to stay silent in exchange for a $15,000-a-month job as a a “minority outreach” consultant for Trump’s never-ending presidential campaign, which included the offer that she could work at home or not all, which will only enhance the administration’s reputation for buying troublesome women’s silence.
The president should be pleased that Newman is getting some scathing press, with critics noting that she defended Trump against charges of sexism in the aftermath of the “Access Hollywood” and insisted he wasn’t racist when he found very fine people on both sides of a neo-Nazi rally, and her efforts to lament that she was the only African-American in the White House only further infuriate the many credential black conservatives who believe she blocked them from jobs. She defends her surreptitious recordings by saying that the White House is full of back-stabbers, but she still seems to relish own villainous role there.
None of which, of course, does much to help guy who promised hire only the best people and wound up with such a low-life as Newman instead.

— Bud Norman

The Strange End of the Omarosa Subplot

Omarosa Manigault Newman is another one of those reality show celebrities we’re usually happy to ignore, but it was hard to turn away from the strange story of her sudden departure from President Donald Trump’s administration.
Accounts of Newman’s departure differ, with some saying she was escorted out of the White House by Secret Service agents and others denying that, and it’s not clear exactly what led to her firing, although by all accounts it was insisted on by chief of staff John Kelly, but in any case she’s no longer on the job. Also unclear is why she was ever on the job in the first place.
Newman was once a contestant on “The Apprentice,” Trump’s popular game show, and apparently she helped boost the ratings as a confrontational and caustic character viewers loved to hate. That so endeared her to Trump that he invited her to join his presidential campaign, and she further endeared herself with her controversial and caustic interviews in his defense on television, which included one memorable exchange with Fox News contributor Tamara Holder that culminated with Newman causticly commenting on the questioner’s “big boobs.” After Trump’s unlikely victory Newman was his unlikely pick for the position of communications director for the Office of Public Liaison.
While on the job Newman made headlines with a public screaming jag with former friend and journalist April Ryan, took time out appear on a reality show called “Say Yes to the Dress,” wound up getting roundly booed after a threatening speech to the National Association of Black Journalists, and was roundly booed again by the crowd at the Congressional Black Caucus’ annual gala. Although Newman is black, and liked to brag about all the black votes she helped Trump win, her public liaisons with the black community were always especially confrontational and caustic.
Trump loves confrontational and caustic, of course, but the style does not play as well with Kelly. The four-star Marine general was hired as chief of staff to impose some semblance of discipline on White House, and by all accounts Newman resented his efforts, although the accounts of her her screaming profane threats at the decorated combat veteran are also disputed. In any case, Kelly predictably won the battle, and Newman wound up getting fired from another Trump reality show.
Perhaps Trump will replace Newman with Meat Loaf or Dennis “The Worm” Rodman or one of the other “Apprentice” contestants who aren’t currently accusing him of sexual harassment, but otherwise we expect he’ll wind up with someone better suited to the job communications director for the Public Liaison office, whatever that is. Back during the campaign Trump promised voters he’d pick all the best people, but he’s already had to fire quite a few of them, with his Secretary of State and several others clearly headed for the exits, and on Wednesday even the Republicans on the Senate judiciary committee passed on a couple of Trump’s obviously unqualified nominees for the federal bench.
Back during the campaign Trump also promised to do battle with those smartypants elite establishment types, a promised he has better kept, but he might want to consider hiring a few.

— Bud Norman