Nothing like a dame: Trump tops 2021’s cast of clowns and baddies

This year’s political pantomime served up a rich cast of characters, with The Donald providing the laughs and Xi Jinping as the baddest baddie of them all (oh yes he is!)

Would Donald Trump make a good pantomime dame? His orange face, crazy talk, weird hair and baggy, saggy outfits are a natural fit for Mother Goose or Widow Twankey. Choleric, chaotic, always changeable, Trump might find cross-dressing a challenge. Then again, maybe not.

The future role of America’s “very stable genius” is but one of many dramatic questions marking the end of a grim year when politics frequently descended into dark farce. World leaders too often served up political pantomime, not serious, sensible statecraft. You had to laugh, or else you’d cry.

Pantomimes – theatrical entertainments based on folk stories and fairytales that feature clownish caricatures, old songs and corny gags, slapstick comedy, saucy innuendo and a degree of gender switching – have their roots in Italian commedia dell’arte. They offer light relief, distraction and a chance to poke fun at the powerful.

Characters such as Harlequin, Scaramouche, Pierrot and Pantaloon were transmogrified on the 19th- century English and American stage into dashing heroes and soppy heroines, despicable villains, incorrigible scallywags, feeble fops and hilarious fools. All are lampooned and ridiculed, often with satirical intent.

Modern pantos remain highly popular – and Boxing Day is traditionally the moment when the curtain goes up. Some UK performances have been cancelled or postponed again this year because of Covid worries. But as players and directors always insist, the show must go on.

So after all the crises, catastrophes, and avoidable and unavoidable grief that world leaders put everyone through in the past 12 months, it’s only fair to indulge in a bit of virtual seasonal tomfoolery and raillery at their expense. Please give a big hand for the cast of Political Panto 2021!

The Dame: Physical characteristics aside, Trump’s claim to be dame is boosted by his unmatched ability to bluster, boast and brag. He can also be extremely, unintentionally amusing. Only last week, the “once and future king” claimed the pandemic was a Chinese plot to foil his rightful bid to rule the world.

US presidents often overthrow foreign governments. Trump was the first to try to overthrow his own, thereby redefining the banana republic concept. He jokes he won the 2020 election – and keeps a straight face. He even thinks Vlad “the Impaler” Putin is cool. Besides, Trump would look cute in a dress. Gee, what a dame!

The Clown: Many contenders vie for the role of comic lead. Top acts include Éric Zemmour, the far-right presidential candidate of Algerian parentage, who says immigrants are destroying France, and Armin Laschet, the German conservative who thought floods were a laughing matter – until he was drowned out.

Channelling Dick Whittington, fallen idol Daniel Ortega voted himself lord mayor of Nicaragua – again! Iran’s turbaned mullah-in-chief, Ebrahim Raisi, who successfully hides his funny side, insisted he really doesn’t want nuclear bombs. Yo, Netanyahu! Just kidding!

Turkish straight man Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would jail Cinders, Goldilocks and the Pantomime Horse and Cow if he thought they supported the Kurds.

Yet after multiple standup auditions in posh boys’ drinking clubs at Eton, Oxford and Westminster, this year’s comic crown goes to Downing Street’s Buttons: knockabout gagster Boris Johnson, Britain’s pretend prime minister. BoJo partied on regardless as a locked-down nation died of laughter (or just died). As fools, humbugs and charlatans go, there’s no beating Boris!

The Fairy Godmother: This wondrous panto sprite dispenses universal goodwill, starlight and transcendental happiness without resorting to class A drugs. In Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, her magical powers protect her protege from a horrid fate, ensuring she lives happily ever after. Sic.

This godparent gig was performed for 16 years by Good Fairy Angela Merkel, known to Germans as “Mutti” (Mummy), firmly guiding a sleepy, slipshod EU. Merkel made the role her own. Now she’s hanging up her wand. Boo! Bad Fairies Liz Truss and Ursula von der Leyen are less glamorous understudies.

The Principal Boy: This goody-goody character, traditionally played by a woman in tights and thigh-length boots, could suit Joe Biden, who’s so nice it hurts – although he might trip on his heels. Gabriel Boric, the young socialist voted in as Chile’s president last week, may go far – except the same was said of Salvador Allende.

Yet with his charisma, sexy sideburns and strategic vision (as stated in his CV), Emmanuel Macron, the pocket-sized French president also known as Manu, Jupiter and “choupinet” (poppet or sweetie), is a boyish shoo-in. Macron vows to save Europe. Carol singers gratefully chorus: “O come, O come, Emmanuel!”

The Baddie: Villains were 10 a penny in 2021, and it’s hard to say who was worst. Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko staged a vicious parody of Babes in the Wood using helpless refugees. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, like the mean-spirited Grinch who stole Christmas, tried to cancel democracy.

In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, the climate-change-denying Wicked Witch of the West, could not see the wood for chopped-down trees. Like Aladdin, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, rubbed his lamp – and dreamed of rubbing out opponents. Myanmar’s genocidal general, Min Aung Hlaing, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte made the Three Ugly Sisters look positively attractive. In Russia, Putin – when not threatening to invade Ukraine – played Robin Hood backwards, stealing from the poor to make oligarchs rich.

But it’s China’s leader, Xi Jinping, who gets the nod as the baddiest baddie of them all. Whether it was horror in Xinjiang, hooliganism in Hong Kong, threats to bash Taiwan, dodgy debt deals in Africa, or cyberspying around the world, Xi seemed to be everywhere, like some wicked beanstalk giant or goggle-eyed, fire-breathing dragon.

Where’s St George when you really need him? As 2022’s political pantomime season opens, watch out for Xi. He’s behind you! Oh yes he is!


Simon Tisdall

The GuardianTramp

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