Ian Buruma is professor of democracy, human rights and journalism at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.
Donald Trump, the real estate tycoon and reality show host, is unlikely to be the next president of the United States. The Donald, as he is known, is loud, crude, ignorant about most things and looks absurd in his puffed-up, blond comb-over hairdo. Even ardent Republicans have dismissed him as a "rodeo clown," and his campaign as a "circus." The Huffington Post is covering Mr. Trump's campaign as entertainment news.
Yet, for the moment, Mr. Trump is leaving all his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination in the dust. Even in U.S. politics, which can be very strange, this is extraordinary. What explains his popularity? Are all his supporters "crazies," as Republican Senator John McCain, perhaps unwisely, called them?
Mr. Trump's critics argue that he is playing to the basest instincts of disaffected voters, who hate foreigners (especially Mexicans), distrust bankers (or anyone with a higher education, for that matter) and still can't get over the election of a president whose father was black. Mr. Trump, in comedian Jon Stewart's words, is "America's id," or at least the id of a large number of mostly white, mostly older, mostly small-town Americans.
Now, all this may be so. But Mr. Trump is part of a wider phenomenon throughout the democratic world. Disaffected voters can be found everywhere, whether in the United States, Europe or India. But not only are they turning away from mainstream political parties and following populists who promise to clean out the corrupt elites from the centres of power; they also share a taste for political entertainers – clowns, if you like.
Beppe Grillo, a real professional comedian, now leads the second-largest political party in Italy. His aim is to overturn that country's political establishment and upset the European Union by taking Italy out of the euro.
In a sense, of course, Italians already voted three times for a clownish figure as prime minister. Silvio Berlusconi, another real estate billionaire, who began his career as a crooner on a cruise ship, was even more outrageous than Mr. Trump, as well as a master of the mass media – literally so, as he owned most of it in his country. As is true of Mr. Trump, many people, especially men, liked Mr. Berlusconi, not despite his outrageous statements and behaviour, but because of them.
A television comic named Victor Trujillo, but better known as Brozo the Creepy Clown, became the most influential political commentator in Mexico.
And in the Netherlands, not normally a country known for clownish politicians, the surge of populism was first led by Pim Fortuyn, a flamboyantly gay man who staged provocative, and always richly entertaining, public appearances. Again, his talent for shocking statements was an asset, not a hindrance. After Mr. Fortuyn's violent death in 2002, Geert Wilders, a former punk rocker with a pile of dyed platinum hair, shone brightest in the Dutch populist firmament.
Apart from peculiar hairstyles (the balding Mr. Berlusconi has his head painted), the new populists have several things in common. Whether billionaires or not, they share a prickly hostility to so-called elites, from whom they feel socially excluded. Mr. Wilders and Mr. Trump, among others of their ilk, also play on popular anti-immigrant sentiment. Mr. Trump called Mexican immigrants in the United States "rapists and drug runners," while Mr. Wilders wants to ban the Koran and stop Muslims from moving to his country. But this, too, is part of the same resentment against elites, who are blamed for allowing foreigners to arrive in the first place.
In Europe, antipathy to immigrants, or to Islam, can quickly switch to hostility toward the European Union, which is seen as yet another bastion of entrenched elites. This is what Mr. Wilders and Mr. Grillo have in common.
But I think there is a more basic reason why political clowns are doing so well: Many people are fed up with the professional political class.
In the past, politicians of the left often came from the trade unions, while conservatives were rich businessmen or landowners. Social classes had their own interests, which were represented by parties divided by clear ideological differences.
Increasingly, however, people see no difference between politicians from one party or another. They are lumped together under such rubrics as "Washington," "Brussels" or "Wall Street."
This perception is exaggerated, especially in the United States, which really would be a different place under a Republican president, especially with a Republican majority in both houses of Congress.
But it is certainly true in many places that ideological differences have largely collapsed. Social democrats govern in coalition governments with laissez-faire conservatives. Neo-liberalism reigns. More and more, politics looks like a rigged system whereby members of the same political class compete for jobs, rather than for the victory of ideas, or on behalf of larger collective interests.
Trumpism, then, or Grilloism, is a revolt against the professional politicians. Mr. Trump is not only trying to run against a Democrat for the presidency; he is also running against his own party's establishment. His supporters are disgusted with the compromises made in Washington between leading Republicans and Democrats. To them, bipartisan co-operation is not necessary to the governance of a large and diverse country; it is a form of corruption. That is why they voted five years ago for Tea Party politicians, who preferred a government shutdown to a negotiated deal with Democrats. And that is why they are cheering for a showy loudmouth like Mr. Trump.
But, without compromise, a democracy becomes ungovernable. The United States is in grave danger of this now. Even though Mr. Trump will not become the next president, the populist damage has already been done.