What do Trump, Putin, the Presidents of the Czech Republic and Philippines, right-wing anti-EU Europeans and the British Foreign Minister have in common? Ideology? Not always. Gender? Closer – but the answer is simpler: their sense of humour. These men all constantly joke about private parts, fucking and shitting, often partnered with boasts about excessive screwing, eating and drinking. Their bawdy lingo tells us more about their political strategy and strengths than any manifesto: populism and penis jokes go hand in hand.
Vladimir Putin has been a pioneer of the trend. ‘If my aunt had balls she’d be my uncle’ he once told surprised foreign correspondents, a way of dismissing their questions about a potential dip in Russian currency. This week he made headlines by declaring that Russian prostitutes are ‘the best in the world’. He made his rhetorical mark early in his presidential career, breaking diplomatic taboo by saying that if foreigners wanted to find out about Islam in Russia they should come to Moscow and be circumcised, and, less in jest, promising to whack terrorists ‘while they are on the shitter’.
Donald Trump talks in the same way – he’s boasted of grabbing women ‘by the pussy’ (what he calls ‘locker-room talk’), accused journalist Megyn Kelly of asking him tough questions because she had ‘blood coming out of her wherever’, and at one point reduced a US election debate to a discussion about the size of his cock (he claims no one has ever been disappointed). In Holland, GeenPeil – the anti-EU, anti-immigrant group who made Putin’s day by calling for and winning a referendum opposing the EU Association Agreement with Ukraine – uses the social media handle ‘E-penis’. And among many other instances of bawdy talk, Nigel Farage, the man who helped lead the movement for the UK leaving the EU, boasted about taking home a twenty-five-year-old Latvian, Liga, after a heavy night of drinking. She claimed he shagged her seven times before falling asleep and ‘snoring like a horse’. Farage confessed in his autobiography that he was too drunk to perform: ‘Liga wasn’t screwed: I was.’1
This politically incorrect, ‘earthy’ humor is a way for politicians to show off how ‘anti-establishment’ they are: their ‘anti-elitist’ politics are branded via a rejection of established moral and linguistic norms. On a deeper level, they are disassociating themselves from the ‘elite’ head of the ‘body politic’, and aliging with the more ‘common’ activities of the lower strata. They thus tap into the folk tradition of carnival, the medieval and renaissance Saturnalia where all the usual hierarchies and rules were thrown out to be replaced with a drunken anarchy, where ordinary people would dress up in grotesque parodies of clergy and royalty, where licentiousness was legitimized and social nobodies were made swearing, farting and puking Lords of Misrule for a day.
Writing about the carnival tradition in late-medieval French literature, the Soviet literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin wrote:
‘The mighty material bodily element of these images uncrowns and renews the entire world of medieval ideology and order . . . this mode of representation still exists today. For example, the theme of mockery and abuse is almost entirely bodily and grotesque. The body that figures in all the expressions of the unofficial speech of the people is the body that fecundates and is fecundated, that gives birth and is born, devours and is devoured, drinks, defecates, is sick and dying. In all languages there is a great number of expressions related to the genital organs, the anus and buttocks.’
Sometimes the present political movement openly invokes its connection to carnival traditions. Milo Yiannopoulos – the Trump and Leave UK supporting Breitbart News columnist – is a prime example. He describes himself as a lover of Halloween and all that ‘dark, subversive stuff’, selling himself as fighting the prudery of political correctness, rebelling against the social justice and feminist ‘thought police’ who allegedly don’t allow the public to talk about society’s real problems. He denies the idea of ‘white privilege’, rails against ‘obese lesbians’, ‘immigrant loving’ and ‘muslim pandering’, while praising the superiority of Western civilization and Christianity. He has been banned from Twitter for inciting racist attacks on a black actress. But he is no stick-in-the-mud social conservative, boasting of his love for ‘black dick’ on his ‘Dangerous Faggot’ tour and posing in a clown costume for an LGBT magazine.2 His carnival act allows him to get away with breaking taboos.
Donald Trump, meanwhile, is a creature from the contemporary folklore of reality television: for the past decade he has been the presenter and ultimate judge of the hit show The Apprentice. Like the medieval carnival, reality shows are a way for ordinary contestants to achieve the heights of fame and wealth. Reality shows allow people to break through the ceilings of social status and ability by, more often than not, being lewd and shocking: the more outrageous you can be, the more chance you have to avoid being voted off the show. The Donald presides over their fates, granting magical rewards or berating them like an angry Punch. It’s pointless holding a fairy tale character to the standards of rational logic: Trump can lie and tell tall tales with delight because people associate him with a world where normal rules don’t hold.
For Bakhtin, the carnivalesque is something positive, a chance to mock existing elites (a latent criticism of the lack of critical satire in the Stalinist Soviet Union). He argued that the carnival allows the social order to be reformed and re-energised with revolutionary impulses and the demands of the broader public. Even when works such as Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel invoke casual murder, he wrote, this is done in partnership with rebirth: the grotesque body is the scene of both destruction and renewal.
Today, Bakhtin’s model of the carnival should give the US elites a way of taking stock of how Donald Trump tapped into so much popular frustration. In the UK, the buffoonery of Farage has ended with the installment of the most dour and sensible Prime Minister of living memory, Theresa May, who has taken in the potency of Farage’s anti-immigrant talking points and is moving them, she would argue, into less toxic practical policies. Knowing she needs to keep the carnivalesque onside, May has made the Leave campaign’s star attraction Boris Johnson her Foreign Secretary. Johnson is the Pantagruel of English politics: obese, wise-cracking, famous for his affairs, extramarital child and ‘daring’ racist descriptions of Africans as ‘Picaninnies’ with ‘watermelon smiles’.
There is, however, a significant difference between today’s Lords of Misrule and Bakhtin’s. In Bakhtin’s version, they are truly humble people raised up to be kings for a day. Today, they are often elites pretending to be men of ‘the people’; or worse, elites in a double fancy dress where they dress up as the common man dressing up as elites. And they plan to use the carnival to stay in power much longer than one day.
Donald Trump campaigned on the promise to fight the ‘establishment’, despite being the son of an established real estate tycoon and making a living off his image as a member of the country’s financial establishment. During the election he released attack ads against Hillary showing her shaking hands with members of Goldman Sachs and decrying the ‘global power structure’ they represented. Since winning the election he has nominated a trio of Goldman Sachs veterans to his cabinet, all while continuing to tweet about the good he’s doing for the common American.
And then there’s Putin. In the spirit of carnival, Putin likes to satirise the ‘international order’ and the thing recently known as ‘the West’. If America accuses his elections of fraud – he will emphasize the US has its rigged moments too; when independent human rights organisations criticize Russia, he creates his own ones to criticize the West; and after America and the UK base a war on disinformation in Iraq, he organizes his own in Ukraine and taunts them with the parallels. But while Putin plays the satirical rebel (or troll) to the global order on the world stage, he shuts down any genuine carnivalesque mockery aimed at himself at home – from passing anti-terrorist laws that limit free speech to the banning of the Russian version of the puppet political show Spitting Image and the arrest of Pussy Riot.3
And the false Lords of Misrule are different to the original carnival in another way too. Bakhtin’s vision was about punching up at those stronger than you: here it’s about punching down at the vulnerable. Trump picks on immigrants and Farage defends UKIP members right to joke about ‘Chinkys’ and ‘Poofters’, saying it is ‘snobbish’ to not use such language. Geopolitically, Putin wants to subvert the global order – to replace it with one where the Kremlin can crush powerless domestic dissidents or weak surrounding states even more easily.
The use of humor to enable abuse of power is particularly noticeable around the question of rape. Take Putin’s jest when he found out Israeli President Ehud Moshe Katsav had been put on trial for molesting co-workers: ‘He turns out to be a really powerful guy! He raped ten women! We all envy him!’4 . Or consider this interview with the hard-drinking, chain-smoking, elite-hating, Putin-admiring Czech President Zeman, where he argues that the difference between his humble self and his aristocratic presidential rival Karel von Schwarzenberg is that:
‘Aristocracy had the right for the first night and thanks to that they degenerated, because they did not rape their (female) serf . . . While we, simple yeomen, we had to fight for our rights, and not only in the sexual sphere, we always had to fight hard, that’s why we did not degenerate.’5
As the Slovak political scientist Ivana Smolenova points out, Zeman is using anti-elite rhetoric to essentially praise rape. With Zeman it can be hard to know where the joke stops and outright incitement to violence begins – he has also quipped that gypsies need to be burnt until they are turned black and that the Green Party should be ‘burned down, urinated on and seasoned with salt’.6
The fusion of toilet humor, violence, populism and power is even more glaring in President Duterte of the Philippines. Duterte has called the US President and the Pope sons of whores, asked a journalist he didn’t like whether his wife’s vagina was smelly, brags about having two mistresses, jokes about how a good-looking hostage should have been raped by the local mayor instead of her kidnappers, and openly admits to killing suspected criminals while driving around on his motorbike.
The false Lords of Misrule have managed to hack into the energy once associated with democratic movements – and have turned it into an instrument of oppression. They have adopted the banner of ‘freedom of speech’ and used it to spread hate and lies, and to make any sort of public discourse impossible.
But perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at this menacing, murderous aspect of the carnival. The anthropologist James Frazer notes how carnivals could involve outbreaks of mass murder, celebrated with ‘fireworks, bonfires and assassinations’. The carnival is a place without rules, a moral and legal vacuum where crime and violence can flourish. As reinterpreters of Bakthin Boris Groys and Slavoj Žižek have pointed out, Stalinism needed its own brand of no-rules carnivalesque to make mass-slaughter possible. Žižek, a leftist, endorsed Trump during the elections, arguing that his grotesquerie was necessary to show the ugliness of the whole system. It’s a dangerous conceit to indulge: when the False Lords of Misrule start running countries, the only ones permitted to operate with ‘no rules’ are the Lords themselves.
Thanks to Hella Rothenberg and Ivana Smolenova for research and translation for this piece.