Populists use macho talk to show their disrespect to the elites and their closeness to the lower strata. Putin and Trump, though very different personalities, linguistically have much in common, says media expert Peter Pomerantsev.
Putin (John Goodman) and Trump (Alec Baldwin) in satirical tv show Saturday Night Live
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.’
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 aligning 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.
Read on at Granta