‘I would like to take this opportunity to endorse the candidacy of Mr. Peanut for mayor of Vancouver. Mr. Peanut is running on the art platform, and art is the creation of illusion. Since the inexorable logic of reality has created nothing but insolvable problems, it is now time for illusion to take over. And there can only be one illogical candidate-Mr. Peanut.’
So declared author William S. Burroughs of The Naked Lunch notoriety in the 1974 Toronto mayoral election in which Mr Peanut was a candidate. Mr Peanut was the persona assumed by Berlin artist Vincent Trasov based on the Planters Peanuts anthropomorphic figure. Donning the suit as Mr Peanut complete with top-hat and cane, he ran for mayor on the art platform; P for Performance, E for Elegance, A for Art, N for Nonsense, U for Uniqueness and T for Talent. It was a hard fought campaign, helped along by its very own campaign manager, John Mitchell. In the end, Mr Peanut won 3.4% of the vote. Not bad for a joke candidate.
In the age of Donald Trump, joke candidates are everywhere. Possessing an enduring power in popular imagination, their presence in electoral contests stretches across history and nation state. Subverting the banality and formality which is seen to accompany the electoral process, joke candidates mock their fellow contestants as well as the wider political system and even the public itself. Sometimes joke campaigns are suffused by a strong tide of righteous populism; sometimes they represent a niche interest otherwise overlooked by the routine hum of the political machine. Apparently challenging the artifice of democracy, joke candidates are lauded for injecting humour into politics. Their significance lies, it is assumed, in revealing how fragile politicians’ pretensions to authority, dignity and rigour really are. The gaping cracks in the foundations of political legitimacy are considered their chambers of incubation.
Yet this would be to misunderstand the joke candidate, for they actually more often serve to preserve the status quo; they are indeed the expression of conservatism par excellence. They don’t subvert society’s hegemonic codes, they entrench them. From the identity imposed on animal joke candidates by their human owners, to the nature and outlook of the human variety, joke candidates are striking by how closely they conform to, rather than deviate from well established politico-social narratives.
This is reflected in the candidacy (or el candigato) of Morris the cat in the eastern Mexican city of Xalapa in 2014. In common with all joke candidates, his candidacy was humorous, unexpected and touched upon latent grievances in the local populace. His campaign slogan “Tired of Voting for Rats? Vote for a Cat” arose out of local frustrations with the pervasive corruption in Mexican politics, with politicians referred to colloquially as ‘rats’. His owner, office worker Sergio Chamorro quipped “He sleeps almost all day and does nothing, and that fits the profile of a politician,”. His campaign video was slick and the imagery greatly resembled the blue and red iconography from US President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. Although he was not allowed to be officially placed on the ballot, Morris secured more ‘likes’ on his Facebook page than three out of the four main mayoral candidates in the running and his campaign team claimed he won 12,000 votes in the election, which would have placed him a respectable fourth.
Morris however, is one in a long line of Mexican joke candidates. Or perhaps he is the only serious one, I forget which. The dictatorial regime of Porfirio Diaz in the late 19th century saw incorrigible eccentric Nicolás Zúñiga y Miranda repeatedly stand as a presidential candidate. That old anarchist adage, ‘whoever you vote for the government gets in’ was literally never truer than in the Porfiratio. Elections during this period (1876-1919) were especially farcical; Diaz controlled the Mexican political system for almost three decades through brutality, caciquismo (rule through bosses) and pervasive corruption. At the apex of this ‘government of old sick men’, as the historian Alan Knight described it, Diaz ensured the political system remained tightly shut against his political opponents. In elections, Zúñiga y Miranda typically received a small number of votes but would subsequently claim that the election was fraudulent and declare himself to be president. Considered an outrageous eccentric, he was hugely popular as a society figure and was invited to the parties of Mexico City’s upper class. The Diaz regime considered him mad rather than dangerous. His tenacious presidential efforts continued even after the coup led by the liberal well-to-do Northern land owner Francisco I Madero in 1910 sparked decades of revolutionary turmoil across Mexico. What followed was years of vicious fighting, political upheaval and of course many more presidential candidates, joke and otherwise.
Some here might laud Zúñiga y Miranda as a fearless and idiosyncratic dissenter against a tyrannical regime whose international claim to democracy hung like a sinew on the pretence of open elections. They would argue that by standing in spite of guaranteed defeat, Zúñiga y Miranda was a figure of hope and amusement to the wearied middle classes marginalised from political life through the institutional violence of the Diaz regime. Yet here the joke candidate again emerges, in reality, as the distraction from true democracy and not the embodiment of it. Zúñiga y Miranda presented no threat to Diaz or the political elites and nor did he intend to, using the presidential elections as vehicle at best, for his own self-aggrandisement. Of course, this may not distinguish him too sharply from any other presidential candidate from any time or any election, ever. But where at least most candidates rely on some basis of wider support be it elitist or populist in nature, Zúñiga y Miranda was divorced from the nascent movements of political opposition in Mexico. Outside Mexico City in the countryside and wild northern frontiers, the murmurs of discontent with Porfirio Diaz had been rumbling louder. Even when the revolution finally exploded, blood seeping into the Mexican landscape as destruction and armed warfare prevailed, Zúñiga y Miranda, dressed as a pastiche of an English aristocrat catered to nothing but the laughs of a moneyed but disenfranchised urban elite. He stood for no cause, no ideology and no movement at a time when political movements were everywhere reshaping Mexico. He may not have been a part of the status quo but he certainly did not fundamentally reject it any further than the point where it curtailed his ambitions for power and fame. He may have exposed how fragile the illusion of democracy that Mexico offered was, but his ability to do so emerged from his position of economic privilege and political disinterest.
This takes us back to where this began, with Mr Peanut, a man dressed as a peanut but a joke candidate more political than many. Despite never uttering a word during his campaign and communicating only through campaign manager John Mitchell, Mr Peanut’s campaign resonated in 1974 Vancouver for many reasons. He appealed to Vancouver’s 1970s counterculture and had the enthusiastic support of its thriving artistic community. He drew attention to the dearth of public funding for artistic endeavour in the city. His slogan was ‘Elect a Nut for Mayor’ and at election husts he would address the audience by tap dancing with his backup performers the Peanettes. In an interview with the Vancouver Sun in 2012, Vincent Trasov disclosed, “Mr. Peanut was an empty shell. People could pour their ideas into the empty shell. I was just a vehicle for other people’s imagination.” For Trasov, Mr Peanut was more than a piece of solo performance art, ultimately becoming a collaborative project incorporating journalists, pundits and politicians into the spectacle itself. “When it came to the mayoralty campaign, it was the media that was creative. They put their ideas into Mr. Peanut for me. They had to treat me seriously because I paid my deposit.”
Trasov undoubtedly saw the interconnections between art and politics in the age of mechanical reproduction. In 1969 he had co-founded the Image Bank, a system of postal correspondence between participating artists for the exchange of information and ideas. The project aimed to promote collaboration between artists to foster creative consciousness, and hence overcome what he saw as the alienation specific to advanced capitalism. Yet there are aspects of Mr Peanut’s mayoral campaign which remain peculiarly reactionary. The ringing endorsement from William S Burroughs, a wealthy, debauched and deeply misogynistic wife-killer is one such example. The other would be the fact that in essence, there is not really anything strikingly different about Mr Peanut once that plastic peanut shell is peeled off. For what links Morris the Cat, Nicolás Zúñiga y Miranda and Mr Peanut? All are imbued with male names and male characteristics for one thing. Both Zúñiga y Miranda and Vicent Trasov were wealthy, well-connected and from a white racial elite. Calling for change in politics and society, they differ little in ethnicity, sex or class from those already ensconced in the seat of power. For Mr Peanut, this all the more incongruent given the explosion in identity politics that swept the post-war Western world, with racial and sexual politics at the forefront of anti-establishment struggles in Canada, America and Britain in the 1970s. In early 20th century Mexico too, the single most important development of the Mexican Revolution was the elevation of indigenous groups in the political and cultural milieu, embodied in the political movement indigenismo and symbolised in the murals of Diego Rivera. These joke candidates not only resemble the leaders of the political status quo while pretending to mock them, but they are usually indifferent to wider political figures who do offer a programme based on radical difference.
Ultimately the trouble with the joke candidate is that they can afford to laugh at politics. To use the electoral system as a canvas for humour can only arise out of a disconnection from the struggles that politics serves as an arena for. That is not to say elections are sacrosanct or that they represent the sole avenue for political contestation, or indeed that we should not laugh at our political system. Huge numbers of people already reject elections on political and anti-political grounds. But more often than not, to enter an election as a joke candidate requires a degree of ironic contempt for the electorate and for other candidates. Joke candidates provide the illusion of subversion while offering little but reaction. To paraphrase: the people are left looking from joke candidate to politician, and from politician to joke candidate, and from joke candidate to politician again; but already it is impossible to say which is which.