The Idiocy Effect

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by Neil Godfrey

At stake here are differing rationalities of trust, and different ways of signalling to voters that the leader is ‘one of them’ (Manin, 1997, p. 130).

King Lear and the Fool in the Storm by William Dyce (Wikimedia) — Shakespearean irony has been trumped off-stage.

Even Margaret Thatcher was not an oddity in this respect: she famously claimed to run the nation’s finances as a housewife would, with the home in Thatcher’s analogy constituting its moral heart. Jeremy Corbyn is presented as ordinary, well-meaning, quite simple and good, and even – arguably – Boris Johnson’s buffoonery makes him, in effect, an example of what we could call the idiocy of power in democratic societies. Theodor Adorno wrote famously of Adolf Hitler that he combined the qualities of King Kong with those of a suburban barber – the absurd little man condensed into a super-hero (Adorno, 1991, p. [127] – link is to PDF). Of course, idiocy works in different ways: Jeremy Corbyn is appreciated by his supporters as a simple man, a man of principle, and so not like an ordinary politician of the establishment. Corbyn’s style has a kind of anti-charismatic quality that gives him, paradoxically, an odd kind of charisma for his following. Whether he is actually ordinary or not is another matter. Nevertheless, idiocy effects are, we suggest, quite real.

Populist trust can be generated by idiocy in that such a personal style is both an individualizing yet also a hard-to-fake device for signalling trust on the lines of ‘if I am this absurd (or, if Trump, this out of line), I must be genuine’.

The ancient Greek notion of idiocy distinguished it from the rationality of the citizen; in this sense, the idiot is not a fool but a genuine, ordinary person – perhaps one who sees through the tired conventions of politics.

Molyneux, Maxine, and Thomas Osborne. 2017. “Populism: A Deflationary View.” Economy and Society 46 (1): 1–19. https://doi.org/10.1080/03085147.2017.1308059. pp. 5-6