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Television From Trump to Zelensky in Ukraine: Why voters keep electing TV stars

Ukrainian president-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy reacts following the announcement of the first exit poll in a presidential election at his campaign headquarters in Kiev, Ukraine on April 21, 2019.

VALENTYN OGIRENKO/Reuters

It’s like Rick Mercer was elected Prime Minister. In Ukraine on the weekend, one Volodymyr Zelensky, an actor and comedian, was elected President by a landslide.

Zelensky, 41, was previously known countrywide for his role in a satiric Ukrainian TV series, playing a high-school teacher who suddenly becomes President after a video of him denouncing corruption goes viral and inspires the nation.

While acres of punditry and hand-wringing analysis have been devoted to the strange political vacuum in Ukraine that allowed Zelensky to emerge and triumph, not enough has been said about the curious role that television plays in shaping the story. As a TV critic, I can try to enlighten.

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It’s the ubiquity of TV that matters. Zelensky’s victory is a testament to the strength of television’s role in framing ideas, analysis and debate about political and social issues. After all, one reason Donald Trump is in the White House is the image of him as a tough, forthright business tycoon that The Apprentice created and then solidified, TV season after TV season. Television normalizes the narrative of disruption. It forges a storyline that makes the implausible seem plausible and it introduces outrageous outsiders into the mainstream.

This does not mean that voters are turned into credulous dupes by the medium of TV. All the medium does is help align simmering anger and resentment with a particular figure or movement that understands the power of TV to make the scandalous and scurrilous seem commonplace. Say the unsayable on TV often enough and it becomes everyday sayable.

Zelensky didn’t need to campaign much or promise much. The TV show already made the implausible seem plausible. It validated him and voters embraced that validation with relish.

Those who understand how TV validates get to shift the narrative. Those who don’t are left floundering to get their message across. Often, television intuitively favours the upstart, the disrupter or newcomer who personifies the outrageous twist in the story of a political campaign. And, sometimes the impact is less about the victorious disrupter than it’s about the poverty of the messaging by the losers.

“I’m not your opponent, I’m a verdict on you. I am the result of your mistakes,” Zelensky told his main opponent and sitting President Petro Poroshenko during an election debate that was held, at Zelensky’s insistence at the huge soccer stadium in Kiev. He was right. Disappointment with Poroshenko made the character Zelensky plays on TV seem like a real option and television had already, for two years, made that character popular and functioning as a release-valve of anger and cynicism about the status quo.

There is a temptation to see Zelensky as another crucible for populist disgust at entrenched, traditional political forces and link him to the satirist Beppe Grillo and his Five Star Movement in Italy. It’s not a valid comparison. What the Five Star Movement – now in power, in a coalition government with an assortment of far-right figures and parties – represents is more of an anarchic, burn-down-the-house rage. Grillo’s movement has long supported skepticism about vaccines, for instance. It’s anti-science and anti-everything.

Zelensky’s popularity and victory is more about the attractiveness of the figure he plays on TV – a sensible, decent schoolteacher who is accidentally but benignly catapulted into power. It might be comedy but it’s a hit comedy that struck a chord and television shaped it into a plausible alternative to current political reality in Ukraine. Accusations that he was the puppet of Ukrainian oligarch Igor Kolomoysky (who owns the TV channel airing Zelensky’s show) were largely ignored.

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A more valid comparison is with Marjan Sarec, the current Prime Minister of Slovenia. Sarec is a more serious political figure than Zelensky but his image was solidified when, as an actor and comedian, he played an irascible man-of-the-people figure on a satiric TV show. Television helped engineer his political persona as a plain-speaking curmudgeon from the sticks who had it up to here with the shenanigans in parliament.

My own experience with Ukraine, which now has a TV star as President, is limited but direct. I covered a Euro soccer tournament co-hosted by Poland and Ukraine. Anchored in Warsaw, I made numerous trips into Ukraine and what I remember is the petty corruption. Everything required a bribe. Taxi drivers demanded exorbitant sums for short trips. The promised Wi-Fi in a hotel only appeared after a generous tip was given to someone. In fact, you could wait hours in a hotel for a pre booked, prepaid room only to realize that everyone else was getting a room after slipping money to front-desk staff. To watch this done discreetly, with money folded into hotel notepaper handed to staff, or palmed in a handshake, was an education in how Ukraine functions.

Playing a fictional figure, Volodymyr Zelensky became famous and popular by raging against corruption, and now as a successful politician he’s done the same.

During the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Hillary Clinton observed of the Trump campaign, “Every day that goes by, this just becomes more and more of a reality-television show. It’s not a serious presidential campaign.” As if understanding the dynamics of TV was beneath her. Look what happened.

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