Buffoonery is clownishness. The word comes from buffare, Italian for puffing out one’s cheeks, as comics have done since antiquity. Political buffoonery involves gross rhetoric and slapstick histrionics. Up until now, the American body politic has had reasonably effective antibodies to resist the swaggering demagoguery of political buffoons.
Other nations have been less fortunate. Plutarch describes the 5th-century B.C. Athenian politician Cleon as a buffoon who yelled, slapped his thigh, and pranced about while speaking. Plutarch disapproved. Cleon encouraged contempt for serious public discourse, the historian noted, and that harmed the state.
Mussolini’s strutting, chest-jutting, and self-identification with predatory-animal symbols of the Roman Empire — eagle, lion, and wolf — earned him special infamy as a fascist buffoon. His over-inflated pride led to Italy’s grim fall.
One of his democratically elected successors, Silvio Berlusconi, had his own slapstick appeal to the masses. Known for obscene gestures in public and his trademark thumbs-up signals, Berlusconi was forgiven, or else celebrated, for his self-aggrandizement. He described himself as “the best political leader in Europe and in the world.” “There is no one on the world stage,” he added, “who can compete with me.” When Berlusconi’s wife accused him of paying an underage prostitute for favors in 2009, the prime minister admitted that he was “not a saint.” At the launch of his 2006 campaign for prime minister, calling himself “the Jesus Christ of politics,” he explained, “I put up with everyone, I sacrifice myself for everyone.”
Berlusconi’s grossness went beyond hyperbole. He was also crude in the manner of schoolboys. Hoping to lure foreign business to Italy he said, in a 2003 talk at the New York Stock Exchange, that “another reason to invest in Italy is that we have beautiful secretaries . . . superb girls.”
Political buffoons succeed for much the same reason that comics thrive. They’re entertaining. But there’s an important difference. Comics poke fun at social conventions, public figures, and sometimes themselves. When leading political figures are buffoons, however, they undermine important state institutions. Performers like Cleon effectively tell a credulous public that braggadocio, outlandishness, and mockery are more important in a leader than seriousness, deliberation, and knowledge.
When politicians like Cleon succeed, it’s a sign of decay. The decadence of bad leaders is part and parcel of the decadence of their followers. Shakespeare describes this concisely in Timon of Athens: “He that loves to be flattered is worthy o’ th’ flatterer.”
America isn’t immune, but its vulnerability has been mainly at the state level. When running for governor of Louisiana in 1983, Edwin Edwards announced, “The only way I can lose this election is if I’m caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy.” Eight years later, after spending one term out of office, Edwards ran in the Democratic primary against David Duke, a notorious white supremacist. Edwards remarked, “The only thing we have in common is we’re both wizards under the sheets.” Embracing the buffoonery, Edwards’s supporters handed out bumper stickers that read: “Vote for the Crook: It’s Important,” a reference to their man’s earlier trial on charges of bribery. His clownishness metastasized into fraud and racketeering, for which he was convicted in 2000. Edwards went on to star in an A&E reality show about him and his wife.
By word, gesture, and deed, Edwards built a political career on the disparagement of conventional morality and taste. The voters approved. He became the sixth-longest-serving governor of a U.S. state. Louisiana’s low ranking in such measures as median household income (44th), per capita income (39th), and education (43rd — all according to Forbes magazine) suggest that the state’s interests are not well served by support for buffoonery.
Another example at the state level is Jesse Ventura, who wrestled professionally and acted in films before serving as governor of Minnesota from 1999 to 2003 — followed by a stint as a TV host. Ventura’s public persona was like those of other professional wrestlers: a caricature of combativeness involving exaggerated brashness. Ventura volunteered, for example, to waterboard Dick Cheney on CNN’s Larry King show in 2009.
Ventura’s demagogic buffoonery doesn’t measure up to Edwin Edwards’s standards, but the idea is similar: Existing political institutions and the men and women in them are all trash that should be tossed out. Ventura put it sharply in a 2012 CNN interview, in which he endorsed Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson as the choice for “people who really want to rebel.”
The American political system has its problems, and it’s not hard to whip up frustration about constitutional procedures designed to make the wheels of government turn slowly. But if there’s an alternative that’s better, what is it? And if there’s not a better alternative, what’s the good in buffoonish politicians who mock it?