From the beginning of my research into the life of the notorious Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin, I noticed the frequency with which contemporary commentators (especially but not only British ones) described him as a “buffoon.” So I was interested when, sometime around 2015, the same word became increasingly applied, by opponents and the media alike, to two political figures who were just becoming internationally known—a British ex-journalist and mayor of London turned right-wing anti-Europe MP (Boris Johnson), and a former US game show host with the ridiculous ambition of becoming President (Donald Trump). We know what happened next. It all made me think about the meaning of this strange word, what it implies, and why it is applied to a specific type of politician. Could “buffoonery” perhaps even be a useful political strategy for such people?
“Buffoon” does not in fact mean an idiotic or foolish person. Its roots lie in a Latin word, later found in French and Italian forms, which suggests “puffing” or a puff of wind. The Oxford English Dictionary speculates that this might imply something light and frivolous, or else refer to the puffed-out cheeks of a gurning jester. Dr. Johnson’s dictionary defined a buffoon as “a man whose profession is to make sport by low jests and antick postures.” A more recent definition, from Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary, says a buffoon is: “One who sets himself to amuse by jests, grimaces, etc; a low, vulgar or indecent jester, one without self-respect.” Buffoons, then, are not stupid fools, they are acting the fool in order to amuse people, perhaps as part of their job.
So how does this apply to politicians—what is political buffoonery? For Amin, it included making absurd grandiose statements and sending insulting personal messages to world leaders. In the case of the UK, for instance, he set up a “Save Britain Fund” to send Ugandan financial assistance to his country’s former overlords, while declaring in several telegrams to the Queen his support for Scottish, Welsh, and Irish national liberation struggles and denouncing British neo-colonialism. He repeatedly declared his intention to visit the country, each time sending the Foreign Office and military authorities into frenzied and detailed planning to keep him out. When Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Conservative Party, he told her he was “deeply impressed by [her] appearance,” which he described as “charming” and “fresh.”
His erratic behavior was by no means restricted to the UK; he repeatedly taunted other international leaders, including fellow Africans, particularly his neighbor, Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere, whom he challenged to a boxing match (and who overthrew Amin the following year). Today, many of his communications would be described as trolling, and his long, stream-of-consciousness telegrams show how much he would have enjoyed today’s social media. Amin also loved practical jokes, such as adding vast amounts of hot chili pepper to a guest’s meal. His unpredictability confused and distracted his enemies, unable to tell when he was joking and when serious. Some thought he was insane, perhaps due to syphilis, but, as Machiavelli wrote, “it is a very wise thing to simulate craziness, at the right time.”
What, then, are the advantages of political buffoonery? Off-hand, considering Amin’s career, I can think of at least five:
- It leads opponents to underestimate the ability and intelligence of the buffoon.
- It provides deniability— “it was only a joke.”
- It appeals to core supporters (many Africans loved Amin’s teasing of the former colonial masters).
- It serves as a distraction from the more serious, perhaps frightening or incompetent, actions of the leader, what we now call the “dead cat” tactic.
- It leads to ambiguity (was it a joke or not?), producing confusion and uncertainty about how to respond.
Behind all this is clearly what Freud recognized as the aggressive nature of joking. I suggest that buffoonery is, at root, a quintessentially masculine characteristic. In my experience, very few women are ever called buffoons. The jokes of a buffoon carry the stale reek of an all-male atmosphere—the barrack room in Amin’s case, perhaps the golfers’ locker room or boys’ boarding school classroom for others. The Tanzanian polymath Ali Mazrui, who knew Amin well, wrote at length about what he termed Amin’s “political masculinity,” and an open, even boastful sexual promiscuity is another part of the package. However, the appeal of the political buffoon seems to be very culturally specific; non-Africans could not understand Amin’s appeal to the ordinary people of the continent, any more than non-Americans could ever grasp why so many of his voters loved President Trump, or non-English people what on earth causes the Brits to admire Boris Johnson.
One factor puzzles me a bit. I feel the word has something to do with body shape. Thin men are accused of being buffoons almost as infrequently as women. President Biden has been quoted as calling Boris Johnson the “physical and emotional clone of Donald Trump.” Why “physical”? The sheer size of Johnson, Trump, and indeed Idi Amin surely must have something to do with why they are all called buffoons, but it is hard to see exactly what. Perhaps it recalls the swollen cheeks of the puffing jester which gave the word its original meaning. It is probably, however, yet another aspect of aggression. The combination of physical bulk and unpredictable behavior is a scary one, and political buffoons are always bullies.
(Originally published in Yale University Press Blog.)
Mark Leopold is lecturer in social anthropology at the University of Sussex. His research in Idi Amin’s home area led to the book Inside West Nile, chosen as an “outstanding academic title of 2005” by the American Library Association.