Whatever else we might want to say about the rise of right-wing governments around the world, they have certainly been a boon for America’s talk show hosts. All that power with so few restrictions is a recipe for mockable excesses, which is one of the reasons over-the-top autocrats are such staple comic characters in American popular culture.
No one has gotten as much mileage out of dictators as John Oliver. Since his HBO show Last Week Tonight With John Oliver launched in 2014, Oliver has ridiculed everyone from Rodrigo Duterte and the Sultan of Brunei to Thailand’s royal family. But he seems to have a special place in his heart for Eastern European authoritarians: in addition to multiple segments on Vladimir Putin, he has also repeatedly featured Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, and former President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych.
So it wasn’t exactly surprising that he spent an entire episode earlier this summer making bestiality jokes about Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, the President of Turkmenistan.
Berdimuhamedow, by all accounts, is a nasty piece of work. But Oliver is a comedian, and his fascination with Berdimuhamedow has less to do with the man’s policies than with his propaganda: specifically, Berdimuhamedow’s buffoonish attempts to cultivate an image of himself as an excellent marksman, musician, equestrian, and bodybuilder.
Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, corrupt President of Turkmenistan and the Turkmenian NOC, human rights abuser, press freedom oppressor, self acclaimed athlete, writer, greatest poet and shooter of his country. pic.twitter.com/CvCkneC0ik— SPORT & POLITICS (@JensWeinreich) October 26, 2019
Deflating propaganda is something of a hallmark of Oliver’s show, but for all that Oliver gleeful skewers propaganda abroad, he has a pretty hard time understanding how it works in America.
In the segment on authoritarianism that capped his 2018 season, Oliver argues that projection of strength, demonization of enemies, and the dismantling of institutions are key authoritarian traits — the punch-line being that President Donald Trump is guilty of all three. In his rush to warn ordinary citizens about the dangers of authoritarianism, however, Oliver misses an essential truth about the Trump era: plenty of U.S. presidents have projected strength, demonized enemies, and dismantled institutions. Trump’s most significant break with the past lies in his embrace of forms of propaganda that no longer play lip service to the old democratic norms.
From the beginning, Trump presented himself as being different from other members of the political class. Not beholden to either party, his mind untroubled by the nuances of policy, or ideology commitments, he positioned himself as the only person who could solve America’s problems. In his own memorable phrase, delivered during his moment of triumph at the Republican National Convention in 2016, “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”
Let’s call this the propaganda of exceptionality. The argument Trump and leaders like him make isn’t that they are good people, but that they operate beyond the pale of ordinary politics. Their unique abilities give them the power to do things lesser politicians couldn’t, which is why voters should give them a pass on their moral shortcomings. The genius of this kind of propaganda is that the kind of ham-fisted criticism it usually provokes in liberals only tends to reinforce its underlying premise.
We can see this dynamic at work in the notorious photographs of Putin riding shirtless through Siberia, or finding ancient Greek amphorae in the Black Sea. These images have been endlessly parodied on Russian social media, with Putin being photoshopped to look like he was riding birds, kittens, and biscuits; as for the amphorae, it quickly came out that the Black Sea discovery had been staged. At the time, independent media outlets in Russia and the West took this as a sign of weakness, evidence that Putin’s macho shtick was getting old. If the only point of the original pictures had been to show that Putin was some kind of rugged woodsman or preternaturally gifted archaeologist, the parodies might have damaged his image.
But the pictures served a dual purpose: for Putin’s loyal base (many of whom believe progressive western values to be decadent and immoral), they portrayed the President as a defender of traditional masculinity. For Russians indifferent to or disillusioned with politics (a not insignificant number of people), they reinforced the idea that Putin is exceptional; not only because he can stage these theatrics, but because he can get away with them.
The form of propaganda that is by far the most ubiquitous in American political culture is, I believe, the humble candidate selfie.
But at the most basic level, this sort of propaganda works because it is fun. There is a libidinal thrill in watching immensely powerful people do wildly impractical things. The former prime minister of Canada, for example, was famous for carefully staging whimsical publicity shots like this one of him pirouetting behind Queen Elizabeth II’s back at Buckingham Palace.
If this kind of traditionally masculine propaganda imagines the ruler as some kind of superhuman standing above ordinary politics, the far more insidious political messaging favored by liberal politicians asks us to swallow an equally ludicrous lie: that our leaders are ordinary people like us. The form of propaganda that is by far the most ubiquitous in American political culture is, I believe, the humble candidate selfie.
As Vox reported in September, selfie lines are now “officially a major part of the 2020 Democratic primaries,” with candidates sticking around for hours after their political rallies to take pictures with fans eager to meet them in person. Senator Elizabeth Warren in particular has embraced the candidate selfie as a key part of her digital strategy, having posed for more than 60,000 selfies since she started her campaign in January.
The selfie line would seem like a direct repudiation of the propaganda of exceptionality. Instead of the monologic relationship between the individual leader and the faceless mob, the candidate selfie is dialogic, emphasizing equally the individuality of candidate and fan. In the candidate selfie, the political force becomes a human being, the representation of whom is taken out of the hands of their own spin doctors and democratized, freely circulated by enthusiastic individuals engaged in the democratic process.
Warren might have been making a stab at irony when she said sticking around for selfies was “the heart of democracy,” but it is true. For liberal capitalists, this is exactly what democracy looks like: a series of individuals lining up to engage in a ritualistic, managed, and largely symbolic encounter between the technocratic elite and the people they are nominally meant to serve.
As an encounter between politician and people, the candidate selfie communicates the leader’s authenticity, their desire to connect to the public, to press the flesh and hear from real folks. This, of course, reinforces what we as citizens of liberal capitalist democracies often want to believe about our leaders: that they are just like us. That after a long day of abetting genocide and selling leases for offshore oil drilling, they listen to the same music and read the same books and have the same deep thoughts about the paradoxes of freedom and the moral complexity of power.
I have met several prominent politicians, but I always feel uncomfortable asking them for selfies. I confess that the candidates I am most drawn to are the ones who seems to understand the necessity of selfies and interviews and media profiles while seemingly deeply ambivalent to them. I like their wrinkled suits and irritable manners, their frustrations with the dog and pony show of democratic politics.
But then, of course I do: this, too, is propaganda, propaganda that is directed at people who like their leaders to seem morally serious and exhausted. And that’s the thing about effective propaganda — it works best when you can recognize it as such and still be swept away by the illusion.