What can it mean, all these comedians suddenly rising to prominence in so many of the world’s ‘democracies’? I call them ‘comedians’, but some of them are downright sinister. Berlusconi probably was. Trump certainly is. It’s more difficult to see the barbs beneath Boris Johnson’s cuddly teddy-bear persona, but easy to spot the ambition, cynicism and Thatcherism that lie quite close to the surface. Farage is the only one who looks just too silly to be positively dangerous, but that may be because his bonhomie is a more effective disguise. (Even I wouldn’t mind sharing a pint with the old 1950s throwback. We could talk about the golden age of cricket.) They have one thing in common: an astonishing ability to gain the enthusiastic support of voters whom they can’t be said to ‘represent’ in any real sense, and whose true interests their right-wing policies are in fact fundamentally inimical to. They have this amazing ability to persuade turkeys to vote for Christmas. And Americans to vote for the end of the world, if we don’t look out.
Maybe it’s the influence of the TV stand-up comics and ‘reality’ shows. And the decline of newspapers. And the diminution of politics to the status of a mere ‘game’, with the consequent morphing of politicians into ‘players’ and ‘celebrities’. Conventional politics are not much fun, compared with ‘Big Brother’. ‘Britain’s got Talent’, and ‘Have I Got News for You’. Or even Jeremy Kyle. (Is that where the toffs get their idea of the proles from?) Politicians only become figures of ‘human interest’ when they do something naughty. Boris of course has been a very naughty boy. Oh what a scamp! Nigel’s silliness is always worth tuning in to. It’s the entertainment that counts.
This is to be contrasted with the diminishing respect paid in recent years to more serious politics, for many reasons: the decline of ‘respect’ more generally; the tabloid press’s years of denigrating politicians as self-serving (and probably corrupt) careerists; the dishonourable part played in this by some MPs themselves – votes for cash, money for honours, expenses fiddling, and so on; the fact that most politicians, of all parties, don’t really represent anyone but themselves – have never, that is, done proper jobs, but are plucked straight from student politics or party HQs; the ‘bubble’ that surrounds them, together with most of the commentariat, around Westminster; the grossly unrepresentative nature of both Houses of Parliament – just 30% of the votes, or 25% of the electorate, enabling an extreme Conservative government to do more or less what it likes; all this, and widespread electoral gerrymandering, deterring something like 35% from voting at all, on the grounds that the result is unlikely truly to reflect their wishes – so ‘what’s the point’? (Or they just haven’t received their voting cards.) Added to all this is the dim realisation, in Europe at any rate, that Parliaments – supposedly a country’s ultimate authority – have little power in any case, by the side of (a) those bureaucrats in Brussels, or (b) the global capitalist Leviathan. It’s all pointless. So why not have some fun?
Or, alternatively, use your vote to protest against all this. That is surely what many of the Trumpeters and Farageists are doing. It’s hard to believe that they really do identify with a property billionaire and an ex-stockbroker; or share their more extraordinary, racist, sexist and frankly foolish policies. Except perhaps for one. Trump’s hostility to ‘free trade’, at least as understood by Obama and Clinton, is clearly a powerful attraction. It’s shared, in one form or another, by most of the emerging popular political movements in Europe and America, including those led by Bernie Sanders, whose mass meetings are at least as large and enthusiastic as Trump’s, and by the anti-austerity Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. Trump voters tell TV interviewers that if Trump were out of the running, but Sanders still in it, they’d vote for the latter, in preference to Clinton or any other Republican for precisely this reason. That indicates a pretty widespread opposition to ‘globalisation’, which doesn’t look like being reflected in either country’s next election results.
This really is a ‘crisis of capitalism’, or at least of capitalist ideology, which the Democratic Party in America and Labour in Britain could exploit, and I think probably successfully, if only they were structured to do so. The Labour Party has made the shift by electing Corbyn as leader. It just needs its embittered Blairite dissidents to fall into line. The Democratic Party is probably saddled with the neo-liberal Clinton. That will leave a majority of American voters unrepresented on this issue, unless Trump beats her, which – on the strength of his policies on other issues, as well as his personality – hardly bears thinking about.
In Britain a Corbyn electoral victory might bring people back to serious politics, and lessen the appeal of the comedians. But there’s a hard road ahead. The press is pretty much against him, as well as Laura Kuenssberg on BBC1. (See below, May 12.) So he’ll probably fail. In which case the media can get back to politics as an entertaining game. And the ‘people’ will continue unrepresented, alienated and apathetic, and probably poorer, until an even more charismatic but less comical ‘Leader’ than Nigel or Boris steps in, to mop up all this disillusionment – which by now will have turned to anger and hatred – to the benefit of the even further Right.