SO if you’re going to prank Donald Trump by chucking swastika-covered golfballs at him, as he opens one of his tremendous courses, you should do it at Trump Turnberry.
According to the comedian Simon Brodkin, whose stage name is Lee Nelson and who perpetrated said stunt last June, he was slumped in custody when a Scottish sergeant noted: “You’re that guy”.
“In that moment I realised I had an ally,” recalled Brodkin this week. “They loosened the cuffs so the blood went back to my fingers and asked if I wanted some Lucozade. Big love for the Scottish police.”
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In next week’s Channel Four documentary Britain’s Greatest Hoaxer, Brodkin also relates that the Scottish police refused to let Trump’s secret service people interview him. Instead they sped him to the nearest airport and told him to “get the hell out of the country”.
As the furore rises around Trump’s potential state visit, the question of how modern dissent and protest is most effectively expressed comes to the fore. On this occasion, should it be a dignified boycott by political leaders (as all the Scottish political leaders did last June), and a protest action mutually agreed between activists and police? Or is Brodkin’s kind of hoax the best way to get an oppositional message under the plates of the Great Narcissist?
Watching the enthusiastic Brodkin’s preparations for his hoax – involving disguise, costume (a Trump Turnberry sweatshirt), bags hidden under hotel beds and the ludicrously easy detection of the Sunbed God’s itinerary – you imagine this kind of prank will never be achievable again.
The scene where his goons are scrabbling around the grass, filling red Trump caps with Nazi-balls, is inordinately pleasing. But no doubt the full apparatus – human and technological – of American and British national security will be sweeping and detecting every clump of cells that gets anywhere near the man-baby.
The happy days of 2012 – when Trump’s gossamer hair was spun high by a statically-charged balloon, skilfully wielded by the eco-activist Stan Blackley outside the Scottish Parliament – are no doubt over.
But watching Brodkin’s escapades (which, let’s be honest, also serve to enhance his comedy brand and ensure sell-out tours), you can understand why political stunts and pranks keep happening.
In 2016, the comedian successfully renamed the luxury yacht of Sir Phillip Green, the reviled despoiler of British Home Stores, as the “BHS Destroyer”. The sheer ingenuity and adventure involved – adroitly steering your dinghy into place, using suction clamps to attach a large canvas to the side of the boat – is both attractive and engaging.
For Generations Y and Z, who look at standard forms of political representation and find them utterly compromised and wanting, the stunt or prank is both active and productive. Particularly if you can ensure there’s enough media cameras available to catch the action.
Brodkin seems pretty successful at this. When he threw fake money at former Fifa head Sepp Blatter in 2015, during a major televised press conference, the clip dominated the news schedules of the day. Whether Brodkin knows it or not, this echoes one of the most famous pranks of the hippie era – when Abbie Hoffman, founder of the Youth International Party (or “Yippies”), seized the visitors gallery in Wall Street on August 24, 1967 and threw hundreds of dollar bills at the scowling (and scrabbling) traders below.
Outcome? “In the minds of millions of teenagers, the stock market had just crashed,” said Hoffman hopefully. In reality, it meant bulletproof glass erected round the visitors’ gallery three weeks later.
A post-Holyrood Scotland doesn’t seem seized by pranksterism against its major politicians and main institutions. (Though I do remember in the 90s being directed to walk out, in full Rectorial robes and before all the cameras, as a Tory education minister walked in, by a certain young law student called Nicola Sturgeon). Perhaps when it does starts to happen, we’ll know the SNP really have become the establishment.
Yet if your political situation is so dire that it demands non-violent resistance of some kind, it’s best that it involves humour, fun or embarrassment. The great theorist of this is the Serbian Srjdja Popovic, whose Otpor! movement toppled Slobodan Milosevic in 2000 and who now advises protest movements throughout the world.
What’s interesting is that Popovic is less concerned with heroic political hoaxes, and more with acts that are much smaller, more do-able and everyday. Tactics which prove that “we are the many and they are the few” but which don’t result in you getting “killed or roughed up too badly” are best.
In Pinochet’s Chile, taxis used to deliberately drive at half-speed. In Iran, ringtones are used that have a vaguely subversive air. Popovic and his crew used to place barrels in the street with the hated dictator Milosevic’s face painted on them, along with a stick that passers-by could use to beat it with. How do you arrest a beaten barrel?
Popovic calls this “laughtivism”. Humour reduces fear and grows confidence, he writes in his 2015 book Blueprint for Revolution. “It also adds the necessary cool factor, which helps movements attract new members. Finally, humour can incite clumsy reactions from your opponents – the high and mighty can’t take a joke”.
He writes of Syrian protestors who secreted loudspeakers in noxious bins in Aleppo. As they blared out their anti-regime messages, the police were made to look ridiculous, digging through the crap to find them. Yet there’s the rub: how is laughtivism any kind of response to a Russian bombardment that reduces your city to rubble? Popovic is very clear-eyed about when, and how, to respond to the crushing force of a state. For example, he thinks the original Syrian resistance went to its arsenals too soon.
His problem with movements like Occupy! is that they used “high-risk, divisive tactics of concentration: getting everyone in one place, fighting with the police, and pissing off the people – like shopkeepers – you need to win over.” A successful campaign uses “low-risk, inclusive tactics of dispersal … it’s about doing something neat, and living to tell everyone”.
There is maybe some guidance here for Scottish activists gearing themselves up for another possible indyref2. At the very least, we can say that the indy movement is characterised by a lot of laughtivism.
I’m giggling just to remember the eejit in his rickshaw, blaring the Darth Vader “Imperial Masters” theme tune at visiting Unionist MPs in 2014. Not to forget the “Jim Murphy, Saviour of the Union” video, photoshopping various ScotLab horrors into 18th century portraiture. And even in the recent Trump protests, global interest was piqued by the sheer exuberance of Scottish placards. What is a “bawbag” – or, indeed, a “roaster”? As the study on the demographics of independence by Dr Craig Dalzell showed recently, there is no one single message – or party – that will be able to harness the diversity of opinion around Scottish independence. Under a general principle of the right to self-governance, different audiences will have to be allowed their different routes and reasons towards Yes.
If so, then the raw and relentlessly cheeky humour that constitutes much indy campaigning must have its place and not be suppressed for fear of alienating those fractions of the population currently swithering between the two options.
The grotesquerie of the current Brexit elites provides many opportunities for ridicule. It would be a poor campaign that didn’t bubble and sizzle with as much daily laughter as possible, against the likes of Johnson, May, Fallon, Farage … and for that matter, Trump. Do we need to ruffle the improbable bouffant of President Trump when he alights on Scottish soil again? I doubt anyone will get anywhere near him. But all power to the laughtivists.
Britain’s Greatest Hoaxer is on Channel Four, Tuesday, 10pm. Srjdja Popovic’s Blueprint for Revolution is on Scribe (£9.99)