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Clowns on the Campaign Trail and the
Revolt Against Professional Politicians

| August 4, 2015

donald trump rick perry ian buruma

Thing 1 and Thing 2 in 2013. (Rick Perry)

By Ian Buruma

Donald Trump, the real-estate tycoon and reality-show host, also known as “The Donald,” is unlikely to be the next president of the United States. He is loud, crude, ignorant about most things, and looks absurd in his puffed up blond comb-over hairdo. Even ardent Republicans have dismissed him as a “rodeo clown,” and his campaign as a “circus.” The Huffington Post covers Trump’s campaign strictly as entertainment news.


Yet, for the moment, Trump is leaving all his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination in the dust. Even in US politics, which can be very strange, this is extraordinary. What explains Trump’s popularity? Are all his supporters “crazies,” as Senator John McCain, perhaps unwisely, called them?

Trump’s critics argue that he is playing to the basest instincts of disaffected voters, who hate foreigners (especially Mexicans), distrust bankers (or anyone with a higher education, for that matter), and still can’t get over the election of a president whose father was black. Trump, in the comedian Jon Stewart’s words, is “America’s id,” or at least the id of a large number of mostly white, mostly older, mostly small-town Americans.

Now, all this may be so. But Trump is part of a wider phenomenon throughout the democratic world. Disaffected voters can be found everywhere, whether in the US, Europe, or India. But they are not only turning away from mainstream political parties and following populists who promise to clean out the corrupt elites from the centers of power; they also share a taste for political entertainers, or clowns if you like.

Beppe Grillo, a real professional comedian, now leads the second largest political party in Italy. His aim is to overturn the country’s political establishment and upset the European Union by taking Italy out of the euro.

In a sense, of course, Italians already voted three times for a clownish figure as prime minister. Silvio Berlusconi, another real-estate billionaire, who began his career as a crooner on a cruise ship, was even more outrageous than Trump, as well as a master of the mass media – literally so, as he owned most of it in his country. As is true of The Donald, many people, especially men, liked him not despite his outrageous statements and behavior, but because of them.

A television comic named Victor Trujillo, but better known as Brozo the Creepy Clown, became the most influential political commentator in Mexico. In the Netherlands, not normally a country known for clownish politicians, the surge of populism was first led by Pim Fortuyn, a flamboyantly gay man who staged provocative, and always richly entertaining, public appearances. Again, his talent for shocking statements was an asset, not a hindrance. After his violent death in 2002, Geert Wilders, a former punk rocker with a pile of dyed platinum blond hair, shone brightest in the Dutch populist firmament.

Apart from peculiar hairstyles (the balding Berlusconi has his head painted), the new populists have several things in common. Whether billionaires or not, they share a prickly hostility to so-called elites, from whom they feel socially excluded. Wilders and Trump, among others of their ilk, also play on popular anti-immigrant sentiment. Trump called Mexicans in the US “rapists.” Wilders wants to ban the Koran and stop Muslims from moving to his country. But this, too, is part of the same resentment against elites, who are blamed for allowing foreigners to arrive in the first place.

In Europe, antipathy to immigrants, or Islam, can quickly switch to hostility toward the European Union, which is seen as yet another bastion of entrenched elites. This is what Wilders and Grillo have in common.

But I think there is a more basic reason why political clowns are doing so well. Many people are fed up with the professional political class. In the past, politicians of the left often came from the trade unions, while conservatives were rich businessmen or landowners. Social classes had their own interests, which were represented by parties divided by clear ideological differences.

Increasingly, however, people see no difference between politicians from one party or another. They are lumped together under such rubrics as “Washington,” “Brussels,” or “Wall Street.”

This perception is exaggerated, especially in the US. The country really would be a different place under a Republican president, especially with a Republican majority in both houses of Congress.

But it is certainly true in many places that ideological differences have largely collapsed. Social democrats govern in coalition governments with laissez-faire conservatives. Neoliberalism reigns. More and more, politics looks like a rigged system whereby members of the same political class compete for jobs, rather than for the victory of ideas, or on behalf of larger collective interests.

Trumpism, then, or Grilloism, is a revolt against the professional politicians. Trump is not just trying to run against a Democrat for the presidency; he is running against his own party’s establishment as well. His supporters are disgusted with the compromises made in Washington between leading Republicans and Democrats. To them, bipartisan cooperation is not necessary to the governance of a large and diverse country; it is a form of corruption.

That is why they voted five years ago for Tea Party politicians, who preferred a government shutdown to a negotiated deal with Democrats. And that is why they are cheering for a showy loudmouth like Trump.

But, without compromise, a democracy becomes ungovernable. The US is in grave danger of this now. Even though Trump will not become the next president, the populist damage has already been done.

ian-burumaIan Buruma an Buruma is Professor of Democracy, Human Rights, and Journalism at Bard College. He is the author of numerous books, including Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance and, most recently, Year Zero: A History of 1945. © Project Syndicate.

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35 Responses for “Clowns on the Campaign Trail and the
Revolt Against Professional Politicians”

  1. The Ronald says:

    Me think Ian is SCARED !!!

  2. FedUp says:

    I am a NY born female, previously “dyed in the wool” liberal ( no old man white Republican stereotype here) and what I’m finding appealing about Trump is his ability to shake up the complacent, politically correct state of the current field, both Democrat and Republican. Of course he’s an egomaniacal idiot, but who out there who runs for President is not? I’m sorry, Mr. Buruma (and also, Mr. Tristam) but I don’t trust Hillary at all, I’m disappointed in President Obama and I am not at all excited by any of the Republican candidates. I’m actually enjoying the Trump candidacy. Perhaps Trump’s charades might shake up the current inertia we now have in DC as well as the cures for insomnia known as our Presidential candidates. Lord knows the concept of bipartisan cooperation is nonexistent so something has to be done before we have another potential Bush-Clinton race, God forbid.

  3. biker says:

    Time to end the Washington Cartel on both sides of the isle.

  4. ScotchRox says:

    The author proves that liberalism is a mental disease.

    So sad…

    • JenS says:

      @ScotchRox: I’m curious… do you consider yourself patriotic? And if so, do you feel the rudimentary constructs of being an American includes the capacity to tolerate differing opinions? A country where those whose opinions differ from our own have a place in public discourse?

  5. Anonymous says:

    It is a pity that Republicans would rather indulge their prejudices in a dog and pony show rather than promote the views of serious candidates for the office of President. Which is why they will lose. Again.

  6. Charles Ericksen, Jr says:

    Minnesota has had it’s share of goofy candidates and winners, ( Jesse and forgot his name, a comedian) and since I’ve been young, anyone from Vermont..

  7. m&m says:

    The GOP is scared of him because he speeks the truth without a lot of fluff. Look who we have now, a liar, a fraud, a non born citizen, A non decision maker and a imbarasment around the world. Would’nt it be refressing to have a business man run this country? The politican of late haven’t done anything but work on being reellected.

    • Patriot76 says:

      And by “Truth” I am assuming you are referring to the fact Trump has been fact-checked by independent organizations as making total of mostly false statements throughout his entire campaign this far?

      Or by “Truth” are you referring to the internal bigotries your kind forces down the throats of educated and civilized followers of democracy?

      No “ragrets” right? Not even one letter???

  8. mel guillory says:

    Yet another article on how Trump will fizzle out soon but he keeps on growing and growing, Lol. Stuffed shirt politicians are flabbergasted on how he is doing it. Rock on Donald.

  9. Billy Bob Boo says:

    I’d much rather have Trump in office than Hillary, just think of the hundreds of political scandals she’s been in. From drug running with the cartels, countless murders under her and Bill’s belts, money laundering, misappropriation of taxpayer’s funds, the list goes on and on. At least Trump made his money, speaks his mind, and doesn’t hide behind the taxpayer’s money, he has his own (and he didn’t get it by breaking the law, giving cartels guns, and drug running). The Clintons, as well as the Bush’s need to understand when they’re not wanted anymore, funding their campaigns with other’s money. NOT Trump though! I personally hope that Rand Paul gets the spot, but this country is so in the dark about most issues that we’ll probably just end up with another trick pony like Jeb or Hillary. It’s a sad day in America when we the people realize that our votes don’t even really count, the country is being led down the tubes by zionist jews disguised as free thinking liberals, although most libs fail to see the big picture. Most of the current white house staff have changed their last names, religion, etc., as soon as their in the spotlight, in hopes of capturing their audiences attention through lies. This country needs to wake up, both parties have to unite in order to push all of these aristocratic monsters out of their positions, we need real people leading the masses, not elitist privately schooled, trust fund babies that are completely out of touch with reality.

    • Lancer says:

      Now, now…Hillary and the Clintons are attempting to become billionaires from their corruption.

      Who are we, the little people, to get in the way of that???

  10. Anon says:

    Saw the title and was expecting to see a picture of Hillary (insert gagging noise here) and Obama. But I guess the title would have been Liar Liar…….

  11. Patriot76 says:

    Is it not ironic that if the author of this articles assertions are true about the reasons Republican voters are supporting Trump in droves.. They would be supporting an elite who is anti elitism.

    That’ makes about as much sense as a Cuban upporting a Castro for being anti Castro…

    Or a poopie flavored lolipop for that matter. Then again, we are talking about Republican rationale

  12. Lancer says:

    The republican debates will be entertaining. Why? Because there such a difference in opinions: Libertarian to Liberal. Limited government and defending individual freedoms beliefs to more government and limiting personal freedoms…the whole enchilada.

    Let’s look at the democrats:

    1. A completely corrupt, lying failure of a woman who has sold her country for personal wealth.
    2. A middle aged personality who failed as mayor of Baltimore and increased taxes so much as Governor of Maryland, many businesses and successful people moved out of the state.
    3. A “cute” elderly socialist…who would smile and wink as he took away your rights, increased government in every aspect of our society and, after his term, would give this control and power to, God knows who, who wouldn’t be so cute and cuddly. More people have been slaughtered under the guise of communist/ socialism than by organized religion.

  13. Sherry E says:

    Excellent article. . . with the “usual” comments from the FOX lovers. . . who studies prove to be our least informed citizens.

    Now for a chuckle. . . M&M. . . if President Obama were a “non born citizen” wouldn’t that make him a fetus. . . that, of course, you would be bound to honor and protect. . . until he was born, that is? Why not just “paste” your same comments onto every article to save time (spell checking first, please) . . . since you passionately believe “fetus” President Obama is personally to blame for everything that happens on the planet, and that FOX is the oracle of all wisdom?

  14. snapperhead says:

    Nominees for the Trump cabinet…Sarah Palin-Secretary of State since she’s so well versed in foreign affairs. Gary Busey-Secretary of Defense..who’d really mess with us with that crazy SOB as SoD… Head of Homeland Security…Chuck Norris. Department of interior- Duck Dynasty guys. Department of Justice- again..Chuck Norris. Department of Agriculture- Cliven Bundy. Department of health and Human Services- Chris Christie. Department of Housing and Urban Development- Donald Trump Jr… Department of Veterans Affairs-Sgt Slaughter. Department of Energy- Energizer Bunny. Department of Transportation-Dale Earnhardt JR..Department of Education-Rick Perry

  15. KB63 says:

    Bring in the clowns, bring in the clowns! At least Trump has the ability to get people excited about what’s happening in the country again. He is giving them a reason to hope things will get better. He is shaking up the whole system and that is a good thing!

  16. starryidgirl says:

    TRUMP 2016 – MAKING AMERICAN GREAT AGAIN!!!

  17. Sherry E says:

    LOL! LOL! LOL! Good one Snapperhead!

  18. Commom Sense says:

    The Hilary haters don’t seem to realize that most of the negative stuff about her is Republican lies. Has she been convicted, indicted, prosecuted for anything? Big NO on that. Even after 8 Benghazi investigations.
    FAUX and the Republicans tell their lies and the same people who support Trump believe them.

    As for M & M and the “non born..” statement, even Trump has admitted that is not the case.

  19. YankeeExPat says:

    “I’m Rich!”

    Doesn’t come across as a good choice for a campaign Slogan, but that’s just me.

  20. tulip says:

    [Selected as the Comment of the Day for Aug. 6.]

    Not afraid to speak his mind, doesn’t back down, pays for his own campaign, owes nothing to super pacs, lobbyists, government people, other politicians and people looking for favors. Sounds good to me.

    All the other candidates just speak the same ol rhetoric and spin their wheels. Trump says it like it is. The United States has lost it’s greatness and succumbs to China and overseas, our homeland is in terrible danger from Isis and AlQueda and the rogue terrorists over here, etc. You sure don’t hear that kind of honesty from the other candidates trying to get elected.

    Let’s see what happens if Joe Biden chooses to run. I want to see Hillary gone and he might be able to do it. People like what Trump has to say but a lot of them are hesitant to vote for him, at least so they say. This country is in bad shape now , so maybe Trump is worth a shot.

  21. Patriot76 says:

    I thought Liberty was supposed to die with thunderous applause?

    But now I realize it dies with thunderous shouts and a toupee and a collage of republican candidate profile photos that looks like a constipation epidemic..

    Nope, just GOP candidates thinking

  22. Anonymous says:

    Trump has already announced that he does not plan to make any statements as regards to policies but will, instead, respond to what the other candidates have to say. Just another way of saying: I have nothing to offer in the way of policies or ideas on how to actually run this country–I just throw sh*t against any wall, Republican or Democrat, that I see in front of me and call THAT statesmanship. Which pretty much fits right in the with the Tea Party way of doing things.

  23. tulip says:

    In response to Yankee Ex Pat post about Trump saying “I’M Rich. At least he is honest enough to say that unlike Hillary who claimed they were dead broke when they left the White House when they really had millions.

    I’m still unsure about Trump, but so far he is the most credible of all the candidates, although Christie runs a close second.. A person may not like what he or she hears Trump say, but a person knows it’s his honest opinion and not what he thinks someone wants to hear.

    • YankeeExPat says:

      When Donald Trump states, “I’m Rich!” ….he is not parroting what his accountant tells him, he sincerely believes that is he is a better Human being due to his wealth, and those that are not wealthy are not entitled to the same Rights and Freedoms. The protection of an Americans citizens’ Rights and Freedoms are not proportional to their net worth.

  24. Sherry E says:

    Here are the obvious flaws those lacking on intellect, ethics, honor, integrity, education and civility may ignore and vote for Donald Trump anyway:

    1. Donald Trump companies used our bankruptcy laws FOUR times to his great advantage. . . causing thousands of people to loose their jobs and his creditors great financial losses. AND PROUD OF IT!

    2. He’s a foolish chauvinist . . . Women carry more than half the votes in our country, yet he has no problem calling the ones he doesn’t like very demeaning names. . . arrogantly non-apologetic. . . “doesn’t have time to be politically correct”.

    3. He’s prejudice . . . proclaiming that Hispanic immigrants are vicious criminals and claiming (with no real evidence) that the Mexican government is sending them over our border.

    4. He’s a childish narcissist who only wants to be “King of the Hill” regardless of which party gets him there. He really believes that he can “buy” his way into the White House of the USA.

    I could got on and on. . . but I will just end by saying that our society has sadly reached a new low when we consider that even one person in the USA would vote for such a complete and total horrific buffoon!

    I pray the illusion that wealth completely excuses and defines a person in every way, is NOT our reality in the future!

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