Reading Roberto Bolano's Nazi Literature in the Americas, a satirical encyclopedia of the lives of fictional poets and prose writers, I came across one faux biography I found especially amusing.
Under an entry labeled "Franz Zwickau, Caracas, 1946 - Caracas, 1971", we get the tale of a "son of German immigrants", once called "Venezuela's best schoolboy poet". Here is part of Bolano's "review" of a "badly written" volume titled The War Criminals' Son:
"A number of poems are noteworthy:
--'A Dialogue with Hermann Goering in Hell,' in which the poet, astride the black motorcycle of his early sonnets, arrives at an abandoned airfield, in a place known as Hell, near Maracaibo on the Venezuelan coast, and meets the shade of the Reichsmarschall, with whom he discusses various subjects: aviation, vertigo, destiny, uninhabited houses, courage, justice and death." (p. 90)
Why, I wondered, was this passage, in a book full of fascist camp, particularly funny to me? Of course, such a description is part of a long line of literary and media images of goofy Nazis, stretching from Chaplin's The Great Dictator, all the way to Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. If, as Susan Sontag first wrote, there's something kinky about fascists, there's something laughable about them too.
This is because as losers, their inflated claims about superiority seem, in retrospect, silly and pompous. And who looks more boorish than the pudgy Goering? In his day, he must have been a terror -- but to us, he seems a clown.
You could even say that satiric portrayals of such figures have created a modern archetype: the puffed-up, anti-intellectual authoritarian who invites our derision as soon as he (or now she) appears in the news. By now, in fact, this sort of portrayal is so common that figures who embody it have become almost endearing (because of their very familiarity, if nothing else).
But I wonder sometimes if we fail to fully grasp the dangers of modern authoritarianism, precisely because it seems difficult to take our own political buffoons completely seriously...
The Postmodern Political Clown
Back in 2009, the philosopher Zizek began commenting on the parade of puffed-up leaders who now inhabited the world stage. Blustery figures such as Berlusconi of Italy, Ahmadinejad of Iran, and Putin of Russia, he noted, shared certain personality traits.
All were rather clownish, tending to make flubs, off-color remarks and generally outrageous verbal mistakes in public. They were also given to emotional outbursts, sometimes containing threats.
And though he never compares them to Nazis, I couldn't help seeing one rhetorical connection: what makes these figures seem silly is similar to what makes our media images of fascists funny: their almost self-conscious, ironic courting of pomposity, braggadocio and a sort of knowing ignorance- -- as if each were acting the fool for our entertainment.
Further, as Zizek pointed out, it's not only humor that makes these figures popular:
"The wager behind Berlusconi's vulgarities is that the people will identify with him as embodying the mythic image of the average Italian ... Even his grandiose enactment of the role of the noble politician, il cavaliere, is more like an operatic poor man's dream greatness. Yet we shouldn't be fooled: behind the clownish mask there is a state power that functions with ruthless efficiency. Perhaps by laughing at Berlusconi we are already playing his game."
Those Lovable Mavericks and Populists
Recent U.S. politics has been nearly overpopulated with these sorts of figures -- from the Perots of the 90s to contemporary innovations such as the Palladinos and Mama Grizzlies. They too invite laughter mixed with identification through the screwed up, but "earnest" ways they talk (not to mention their "authentic" emotional outbursts and tweets).
But you have to wonder, in light of all this, if the many parodies these figures inspire might not be helping to normalize their politics -- by integrating them into a "lively and diverse American Scene." Such joking around might even imply that it would be fun (and harmless) to live under their entertaining rhetoric full-time. They appear on Saturday Night Live after all!
And there's another factor that makes them appealing. The political theorist Gramsci described (back in the 1930s, under Mussolini) something he called Caesarism. Gramsci theorized that when large segments of the public perceived conventional politics to be "gridlocked", people longed for an authoritarian figure from outside the system to intervene.
No doubt this is part of the appeal of our own "mavericks." The more they signal through word, deed and emotional display that they are not part of "regular" politics (despite their corporate backing), the more they they are not only loved -- but seen as a possible solution.