Although it might seem unlikely, Israeli voters are no strangers to Beppe Grillo, the Italian comedian-turned-politician who pulled off a huge upset by winning more than a quarter of the votes in the Italian elections held earlier this week. That’s because Israelis voted for Grillo last month—only then his name was Yair Lapid.
At first glance, the Italian wildman and the suave journalist appear to have little in common. Grillo, the child of middle-class parents, was shut out of Italian television for years, as the politicians he had accused of corruption didn’t much care for allowing him on the networks they controlled. Lapid, on the other hand, was for more than a decade one of Israel’s most popular TV personalities and is the son of a former minister and the close friend of many of the country’s political Brahmins. Grillo has shaggy curls and a beard; he shouts a lot. Lapid’s perfect thicket of hair is slicked back with gel, and he speaks in that sincere way people who work in front of cameras spend a lifetime fine-tuning.
But strip both politicians of their stylistic differences, and you have a new kind of menace: no-confidence men, voted in at times of economic crises by electorates that have grown bitterly disenchanted with politics. Both men portray themselves as mavericks, but they’re something far less glamorous: unschooled, impractical, and running the risk of plunging their countries into deeper uncertainty.
In true Italian fashion, Grillo’s case is the more operatic. The chief priority of his organization, the Five Star Movement, is cleaning up notoriously corrupt Italian politics, in part by demanding that no politician convicted in a court of law be allowed to represent the people. But Grillo himself was found guilty of negligent homicide in 1980: He lost control of his car, slid into a ravine, and killed three of his passengers, a couple and their young son. This seems to matter very little to Grillo or his supporters.
An avowed ecologist, Grillo sold his yacht and his Ferrari only after the Italian media pointed out the enormous carbon footprints both vehicles produced. He’s also an avid detractor of institutional politics, having gone as far as holding his movement’s primaries entirely on the Internet and insisting that none of its elected representatives have any prior experience in governing. How such neophytes might rescue Italy from its current tribulations—the country’s young, to mention just one dismal bit of statistics, are currently experiencing a staggering unemployment rate of 36.5 percent—remains unstated; there’s nothing in the Five Star platform that even remotely resembles a coherent economic plan.
Lapid’s style is more muted, but his inherent contradictions are just as evident. He ran on a promise to force the ultra-Orthodox to join either the army or the work force, without ever really saying how he expected to address the immense challenges associated with such a move, such as how to prepare young men who had spent their life studying nothing but Torah to work in an increasingly modernized and technology-dependent economy, or how to reconcile their beliefs with the realities of military service, such as the presence of female instructors and colleagues. He promised to clean up Israel’s corrupt political system without once explaining why he had spent more than a few of his popular columns in Yediot Aharonot, Israel’s highest-circulation daily, defending his friend Ehud Olmert, an emblem, if there ever was one, of that very same system. He vowed to ameliorate the strife of the middle class but made little of the fact that the leading tenet of his economic plan calls on the government to assume the onus of vetting any small business seeking loans. This, of course, is currently the responsibility of the private banks giving out loans; Lapid—formerly the chief celebrity paid endorser of Bank Ha’Poalim, Israel’s largest bank—is eager to use state money to minimize risk for his former employers and pass it on to tax payers.
At the very least, such considerable incoherencies should be enough to raise substantive doubts concerning both men’s ability to serve as electoral powerbrokers, a position Lapid and Grillo both currently enjoy. But the Israeli talking-head and the Italian insult-comic were both blessed with a platform previously unavailable to populists of their ilk. Grillo communicates with his voters exclusively through his massively popular blog, while Lapid has made groundbreaking use of Facebook, with more than 150,000 followers actively and enthusiastically sharing his posts. Online, free of the usual rhythms that govern the tango between politicians and the press, the two men have been free to speak their mind uninterruptedly and unencumbered by the usual scrutiny that comes with submitting to traditional interviews.
Their messages matched their medium of choice: Throughout their campaigns, Grillo and Lapid often sounded like the Internet itself, all fury and sound and style and little by way of rational argumentation. And, like memes, their calls to put an end to the old political order spread virally.
But slogans and gimmicks—Lapid playing Beatles songs on his guitar in front of adoring audiences, Grillo inventing a national holiday dedicated to telling politicians, with not a bit of decorum, what they might go ahead and do to themselves—are one thing. Deficits are another. Israel’s currently stands at nearly $10 billion, equivalent to 4.2 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, double the number originally allotted for by the state’s budget. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz have sworn up and down that taxes would not be raised nor deep spending cuts enacted. It’s hard to imagine how either measure is avoidable en route to recovery. In Italy, too, any attempt at seriously discussing the looming economic catastrophe was nipped in the bud—Mario Monti, the economist who had served as prime minister since 2011 and whose austerity measures provided at least something of a reprieve to the moribund economy, finished a distant fourth in this week’s election.
More than a month after the elections, Israel still hasn’t a Cabinet in place, with Hail Mary stunts replacing serious stabs at coalition-building. Italy doesn’t look like it would fare much better, with no party apparently in a position to assemble a government. Such chaos is the result of many intricate processes, but it is also, in no small part, the work of Grillo and Lapid and of the multitudes of Italians and Israelis who voted them into office. And it’s not about to be resolved soon, at least not until both nations calm down, grow up, and realize that the business of government is about bottom lines, not punch lines or hairlines.
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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.