Chaplin, Grillo and the spectre of centrist populism

In 1940 Charlie Chaplin wrote and starred in The Great Dictator, a feature-length satire directed at the awful absurdities of fascism. Chaplin plays both sides of a mistaken-identity plot, in which an un-named Jewish barber takes the place of the Hitler parody Adenoid Hynkel, ruler of Tomania. At the end of the film, the barber delivers a speech to the masses in which he denounces fascism and calls for the people to fight for a liberal, humanist conception of society.

This speech has been identified as the moment when Chaplin steps out of character, leaves the clowning behind and speaks directly to the audience. Chaplin explicitly saw the film as propaganda, believing he ought to use his exalted position in Hollywood to help persuade people of the case for confronting European fascism. Here is the moment, so the conventional view goes, when Chaplin sheds all irony and implores his vast audience to stand up and fight.

The speech recently went viral. Framed as ‘The Greatest Speech Ever Made’, one version on Youtube has over 11 million hits; there are at least 30 other versions, many with over a million views. Aside from the flotsam of God-baiting and racism endemic to Youtube comment threads, the most common response is to confess to goosebumps and teary eyes. “This is beautiful. Everyone should have to listen to it once in their life. So powerful and intense.” And: “I wish I could erase my memory of watching this video for the first time so I could feel the raw emotion over and over again.” Chaplin’s original propagandist intent has clearly found a contemporary audience: “This speech speaks so loudly to the world we are in now and the times we are facing ahead of us.” These commentators appear to agree with the critical literature that Chaplin is speaking from the heart; that the speech is irony-free.

I’m not so sure. For one thing, I don’t believe Chaplin’s comic genius would have allowed him ever to play it entirely straight. For another, listen to the speech. He begins with humility (“I’m sorry. I don’t want to be an emperor, that’s not my business”) and tolerance (“Jew, Gentile, black man, white”). He preaches human fellowship despite ethnic or social differences, and love over hate. But as the rhetoric crescendos, so his vision is undercut. Some people are fundamentally different. The greedy, evil fascists lie to us. They are of a different moral order. By the end of the speech, he is rabble-rousing: “Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness. Soldiers, in the name of democracy, let us all unite!” He ends, and the crowd – which had, after all, been waiting to hear a speech from Adenoid Hynkel – erupts in a frenzy of adulation.

There are some troubling resonances (intended or not, but given Chaplin’s control we should assume the former) between the populism of Hynkel/Hitler and the populism of the Chaplin character. Both frame the people as a homogenous entity, and both define this entity by what it is not (for Hitler, it is not Jews and other undesirables; for Chaplin, it is not fascists and – by extension, other ‘greedy’ or ‘evil’ people). Both are masters of rhetoric, tapping into raw emotions (see those Youtube comments) to incite mass devotion. And both have an unnerving faith in science and technology to deliver progress. As Chaplin raises his arm and shrieks ‘Unite!’, these resonances come to the surface. Perhaps we, as members of his audience, are moved. But perhaps we should be just a little bit concerned by that fact. One Youtuber’s comment sums up my misgivings: “I sometimes dream there would be a way to simultaneously send this video to ALL electronic devices all over the world. Computer screens, tv screens, cell phone screens, car tv screens, building screens, mall screens…I wish there was a way to send this to every single electronic device all over the world. And loop it for 24 hours.“ That’s a neat description of how a liberal dream can turn into a totalitarian nightmare.

It was another astonishing performance by a very different type of comedian that brought all this to mind. The parallels with Italian comedian and politician Beppe Grillo are clear: both are orators firing up the masses to believe that they (the people, howsoever defined) are united in their essence and threatened by some clearly defined enemy. Both play the politics of common sense: one might ask of Grillo, who would be for corruption? Or of Chaplin, who would be against human dignity? Both espouse a mixture of liberal and soft-left policies: Chaplin contrasts himself with Hynkel/Hitler through his tolerance for diversity, his love of freedom and his vision of progress towards greater happiness for all; Grillo’s supporters are predominantly pro-immigration and pro-business, and his policy platform mixes liberal anti-corruption pledges with leftish positions on ecology, welfare and citizen participation.

The queasiness triggered by the Chaplin speech repeats on me with Grillo. Perhaps there’s just too much shouting and fist-waving for my English sensibilities. But it’s the politics that really makes me shudder. Grillo’s vision has enormous surface appeal, just as Chaplin’s does – but that is what’s so disconcerting. There is a vast constituency – across Europe – of people who dislike or detest ‘politics’. Many of these people do not place themselves on the traditional left-right scale of political ideology, instead identifying themselves either as apolitical, non-political, or at a stretch centrist or liberal. By doing so, they seek (consciously or subconsciously) to elide some of the dissonances and contradictions of their politics. Grillo provides a false route to political engagement. He allows people to think they are doing politics when all they’re really doing is agreeing that corruption is bad (and the internet good). Who knows what else they’re agreeing to by voting for Grillo’s party?

It’s the simplifications of populism that create jeopardy. Faced with a binary distinction between the good people and the bad elite, the choice is natural. When presented with common-sense, centrist political positions that also appeal to the emotions, who can say no? Mix in a little oratory, and people find themselves throwing their support behind political forces that remain almost entirely unknown. How would a Grillo government handle relations with the EU? How would it approach the Italian public debt? No one really knows, least of all Grillo himself.

Centrist or liberal populism allows young, middle-class Europeans to play at politics by pretending that political differences don’t exist. If people start telling you there are simple, self-evident and correct answers to political problems, be on your guard. When I first watched that Chaplin video, I too got goosebumps. When a persuasive speaker is saying things with which few could disagree, and saying them with passion, it can be inspiring. But in politics nothing is ever that simple, and anyone who says it is should be treated with the utmost suspicion.

William Brett is a Councillor in the Victoria ward of the Labour Party and the Head of Campaigns for @electoralreform.