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When Clowns Rule the World

Boris Johnson gets stuck on a zipline in 2012

But where are the clowns

Send in the clowns

Don’t bother, they’re here

-Stephen Sondheim, 1973


“The problem with political jokes,” Groucho Marx once said, “is that they keep getting elected.” Never has that been more true than today.  We live in a world ruled by clowns.  I mean that both literally and figuratively.  Our century has ushered in the Age of the Clown Politician.

In Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, who played a Ukrainian president on the popular television comedy SERVANT OF THE PEOPLE, was elected to be the real president with over 70 percent of the vote. Zelensky is literally a clown.  In Great Britain, Boris Johnson, who will replace Theresa May as prime minister, is a buffoon who elicits laughter –usually unintended- wherever he goes.  Mr. Johnson is figuratively a clown.  

The founder of Italy’s Five Star Movement, which is part of the government ruling coalition, is comedian Beppe Grillo, another clown, literally. Last year in Slovania, satirist Marjan Sarec, a comedic actor, was elected prime minister. And in 2015, another comic actor, Jimmy Morales, was elected president of Guatemala.

History provides us with no shortage of clowns and buffoonswho were in politics.  Some leaders may have appeared clownish yet did great damage. Adolph Hitler, the target of humorous jabs from Charlie Chaplin in THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940) would be a truly laughable figure had he not caused so much harm. Much the same might be said of Pol Pot of Cambodia, Idi Amin of Uganda, Maummar Qadaffi of Libya, Kin Jong Un of North Korea, and Mussolini of Italy. 

We are concerned here, however, not with deranged and demented leaders such as Caligula of Rome, or with leaders who are considered to have been just plain wrong. No, we are looking for buffoonery, cartoon characters who are in and of themselves, clownish. People such as Rob Ford, who served as Mayor of Toronto, Canada (2010-2014) and provided us with laughs throughout his term of office; or Nero, Justin II of Byzantine (who heard voices and would hide under his bed to find solace, and commanded his servants to play organ music to drown out the voices – and who bit servants heads when they disobeyed). These are people who deserved to be laughed at, who earned not our respect but our mocking scorn.  

It should also be noted that merely saying something stupid does not qualify. For example, former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott’s explanation that “No one, however smart, however well-educated, however experienced, is the suppository of all wisdom,” ranks among the funniest lines ever uttered by a politician, but one malapropism does not a clown make. The same goes for George W Bush, who once said that “Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.”

There is of course, a rich history of comedy used to skewer those in power, from the comic actors of ancient Rome to the classical Greek playwrights, to today’s late-night comedians. These comedic anthropologists dissect and ridicule power as a way to strike a blow against authority and bring the pretentious down a peg or two.

Most clown princes, however, are populists who bash the elites of society. These populist leaders tear down the haughty elites who –so it is believed – keep “us” down. Puncturing a hole in pretensions is a healthy thing; believing that the puncturing is also a way to rebuild society is a dangerous fiction.  The clown princes are good at tearing down, poor at building up.

Over the years, many world leaders have been funny – Abraham Lincoln, John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Winston Churchill come to mind. Their wit, their one-liners were often used strategically to disarm critics or make themselves appear self-effacing and therefore more human and accessible.  Clowns, while they sometimes use humor strategically, are buoyed by the fact that their clown persona is the draw.  Their very existence thumbs a nose at the status quo. The clown is “one of us” against the people who keep us down.  And as Napoleon said, “In politics, absurdity is not a handicap.” In fact, it is precisely the absurdity of the clown prince that sets him (they have thus far all been men) apart.  

Virtually all the clown princes today are virulent nationalists, nativists, opponents of immigration, fearful of “the other” at our gates, often openly racist, collect alleged resentments, blame the educated and the wealthy for their plight, and believe that they are ridiculed by those who see themselves as superior to the common folks.  The enemy is the status quo, and it is time to “get them”.  Their bite may be couched in buffoonery, but that bite can inflict great pain. 

Humor directed at leaders can serve important functions.  In THE JOKE AND ITS RELATION TO THE UNCONSCIOUS, Freud argued that jokes can serve as a rebellion against established authority, and help us cope with power disparities in society.  Making fun of those who have power over us is a small blow against authority. 

But the clown princes go further. What could be more anti-elitist than to take politics to the polar opposite extreme? Elitists read books, use evidence to make arguments, rely on science, demand proof; the clown prince needs no such intellectual crutches; they rely on passion, emotion, feelings. Lashing out is their feel-good option. 

While otherwise quite humorless, Donald Trump seems to come alive in his mass rallies where he is egged on by as he eggs on his passionate base.  It is a mob that still, 2 1/2 years after the last election, chants “Lock Her Up, Lock Her Up.”  Really?  Still? 

 America’s clown-in-chief even went so low as to mock a handicapped reporter (to the great amusement of our Pied Piper’s loyal followers).  Notorious for his rapier-like monikers he applies to critics to put-down his rivals, Trump, seemingly incapable of introspection or self-effacing humor, revels in these digs against his opponents. Lyin’ Ted Cruz, or Crooked Hillary, Low energy Jeb, or Little Marco, Pocahontas or Leakin’ James Comey, Trump dismissively labels his rivals to the delight of his base. Our clown prince tears down, but he is unable to build up. Trump’s rivals have tried to fight fire with fire, pinning Trump with their own sobriquets such as Con Don, Cheatin’ Don, Traitor Trump, Agent Orange, Hair Hitler, King Leer, and Benedict Trump, but thus far, no single moniker has demonstrated staying power. 

It is a sign of good mental health to occasionally laugh at ourselves, to see the humor in human folly, to take a joke. But Trump even went so far as to call Saturday Night Live “a Democratic spin machine,” that “can’t be legal,” adding, that “this should be tested in court.”  Trump seems incapable of laughing at himself, as if one crack in the constructed veneer – manly, strong, a winner – and the entire  Trump edifice will come tumbling down. So fragile is his ego that he can admit to no human weakness.  

Jokes can be deadly serious, and even today’s clown princes have a point to make. But clowns best serve us while on the outside looking in. Once in office, these clown princes cease to be funny.  They have also been failures at governing. When the court jester becomes the king, when buffoons are taken seriously, when clowns rule, is the end far behind? Of course, we’ve weathered worse storms before. At least with this one, we may die laughing.