Taking on Authoritarians with Humor and Ridicule

[Note, this post was written before the latest bombshell revelations about Trump’s statements to the Russian diplomats in the Oval Office and former FBI Director Comey’s notes about his meeting with the president in Feburary]

With the firing of FBI Director James Comey and the continuing slide of the United States towards authoritarian government, there has been much discussion and hand wringing about how to confront the president and his allies in Congress, who continue to support and enable him for the most part. The problem is that there appear to be few pressure points or ways to significantly weaken some of the administration’s pillars of support.

One way to look at this struggle is in the sphere of public opinion. Although Trump’s approval ratings are dismal in comparison with all other recent presidents, he is still strong among republicans and his other supporters. In a Washington Post article May 12, Phillip Bump presents data showing conclusively that republicans think Trump was correct to fire Comey, have little concern about the accusations of Russian meddling in the US elections, and approve of the overall job Trump is doing.

What this means is that there is very little political incentive for republicans in Congress to hold him accountable. In fact, as Bump explains, for many of them, their main political vulnerability at the moment may be a challenge from within their own party at the next election. So as long as Trump remains reasonably popular among the base, they are likely to stick with him for the most part.

Is there a way to undermine this support among his base?

One answer may lie in the lessons of Otpor, the Serbian anti-Milosevic movement in the late 1990s and early 2000s. As told in Blueprint for Revolution by Srdja Popovic, dictators are brands, wrapped in national symbols and a larger-than-life presence on the national stage. In Popovic’s telling, “all dictators are baked from the same basic ingredients: corruption, nepotism, mismanagement, social injustice, violence, and fear.”

This sounds very much like how many journalists and social scientists are talking about Trump. One could quibble with the use of the term “dictator” of course, but the term “authoritarian” is increasingly being used to describe Trump and his posture towards democratic institutions and practices in the US. The baking ingredients Popovic lists are spot on when applied to Trump.

So the idea of Trump as brand is something to take a look at. He is, of course, a businessman and a TV star, having honed his speaking style and messaging for decades. At the same time, there is the ubiquitous Trump brand on everything from steaks to wine to shirts and big fancy hotels. He has created a larger-than-life persona that he has carried over successfully into the political realm. And he is very careful about how he markets himself. We see this in the classic photo of Trump where his sneering facial expression is intentionally contrived to convey the point that this is a man who doesn’t mess around–the political version of Dirty Harry. This appeals to many of his supporters who want Trump to “take on the establishment.”

How to take on Trump the brand? In Serbia and in many other places where pro-democracy movements confront dictators, humor and ridicule are used to make fun of the leader. Popovic relates one prank he and his friends pulled in Belgrade one day in the 1990s. They found an old metal trash barrel, painted Milosevic’s face on it along with a sign that said “smash his face for just a dinar,” and placed it along with a wooden bat in the middle of a crowded square. After a few minutes, one passerby put a diner into a slot in the barrel, picked up the bat, and gave the barrel a loud whack. Once the ice was broken, many others followed suit, and something of a street party ensued with people laughing and taking turns letting the Milosevic barrel have it. Eventually the police showed up, but were uncertain about what to do. After talking about it for a while, they decided to “arrest” the barrel and hauled it away. The Otpor activists were waiting for this moment with cameras and the next day, photos appeared in major opposition papers, all to great effect. When a dictator relies on fear to maintain control, people laughing at him in public is a threat.

The point of this example is not to claim that somehow this single act pierced the aura of invincibility and fear surrounding Milosevic. Far from it. But acts like these can have a cumulative effect. In the case of Donald Trump, it happens to be the case that he makes ridicule easy because his behavior and that of his spokespersons are so preposterous and transparently dishonest. They are perfect foils for Steven Colbert, Andy Borowitz, Saturday Night Live and others.

These barbs may have effects.  They appear to sting the president and others in the White House, possibly helping to goad them into more outrageous and hasty statements and actions. This is similar to the dynamics of non-violent protests in authoritarian countries, which sometimes induce security forces to crack down in a way that only produces horror in society as a whole, further undermining the legitimacy  of the leader and security services.

The same thing happened during the 1960s civil rights struggles in the US south when police forces used excessive violence among protesters.

Do a significant number of Trump’s supporters actually watch SNL, Colbert, and similar programs that spoof the president? Perhaps not, but programs like these tend to have a presence in popular culture, meaning they tend to carry over into other media. Certainly they anger some Trump supporters and make them more determined to support the president. But, others are likely to be somewhat demoralized, especially when they see Trump’s missteps, which are increasingly hard for supporters, including republicans in Congress to explain away.

The bigger point here, though, is the general tactic. Humor and ridicule only work when they reach their intended audiences in terms those audiences understand. There are no formulas, certainly, and no playbook, although learning about what others are doing can spur creativity.

It also has to be said that people instinctively understand the power of ridicule and humor. All you have to do is attend a demonstration or march and read the huge number of creative, funny, and acerbic signs that people come up with.

We can’t march every day, of course, and that probably wouldn’t be a good idea, even if it were possible. But we can use humor and ridicule in our local communities and in local media to poke fun at the president and other officals. While it is vitally critical to be discussing the issues, especially given the Ryan-McConnell agenda in Congress and the dangers of Jeff Sessions at the no-longer aptly named Department of Justice, it can also be effective to pull out our symbolic baseball bat and take a few whacks at Donald Trump as a brand.

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