While comedy is the art of pushing boundaries which necessarily means provoking thought and causing offence, the South African born American based comedian Trevor Noah is not the traditional boundary pushing comedian in the tradition of George Carlin or Lenny Bruce. Instead, Noah is known for “politically correct humour” that is often more concerned with poking fun at non-liberal politicians than it is about pushing the envelope in terms of expanding the art of comedy.
In this sense it is ironic that Noah scored an own goal when a comic routine designed to deride Trump that he probably never expected Pakistanis to see in large numbers, actually had the opposite effect. Instead of provoking Trump supporters, the piece which referred to Imran Khan and Donald Trump as geopolitical “twins” was largely unnoticed by most American supporters of President Trump while millions of Pakistanis who tomorrow will formally watch Imran Khan be sworn in as Pakistan’s first contemporary Prime Minister from outside of a legacy party remain incensed at Noah’s simplistic and false representations of Imran Khan.
The premise of Noah’s comic routine was that because both Donald Trump and Imran Khan were widely known celebrities with comfortable lifestyles prior to entering politics and then decided to consecrate a populist political wave, they are some how mirror images of one another. The differences however are strident. While Donald Trump did not formally enter politics until he declared his candidacy in the 2016 election, Imran Khan has been leading his PTI party since 1996. In building a political party and movement from the ground up, Imran Khan gained experience as an opposition leader in a country that underwent a military coup by Pervez Musharraf in 1999 only to then see democratic institutions restored after the PTI supported Lawyer’s Movement forced Musharraf to step down in 2008.
While PTI boycotted the 2008 general elections as a matter of principle, in 2013 Imran Khan’s PTI scored a major regional victory in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. In bringing good government to a part of Pakistan that many felt had become permanently “ungovernable”, PTI demonstrated that its approach to direct engagement with ordinary people and its aim at draining the social swamps which attract the young and vulnerable into the arms of dangerous extremists was successful. PTI became Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s success story because of Imran Khan’s position that fighting the sources of extremism must go hand in hand with a traditional approach to counter-terrorism. By stressing welfare and development as important tools with which to build societal cohesion, PTI’s message began to resonate throughout the nation as a whole, especially at a time when the legacy parties became ever more exposed for committing corrupt actions against the interests of the people.
While PTI is a populist party, by no means are all populist parties the same. Some look to form a centrist populist consensus while others tilt towards extremes. Just because Imran Khan and Donald Trump both took on an old political elite and won at the ballot box, this does not mean that in terms of policy or personality they have anything in common. Because of the increased hostility that the US has expressed towards Pakistan under the Presidency of Donald Trump, any worldly comedian or commentator ought to realise how supremely insulting the comparison would be. While Imran Khan has stressed that he seeks respectful relations with Washington, he has also criticised Donald Trump’s administration for publicly calling Pakistan a state which harbours terrorism when in reality, it was participation in the American “war on terror” that exposed Pakistanis to vicious attacks by cross-border terrorist groups due to the post-2001 US led destabilisation of an Afghanistan that in the early 21st century was still recovering from decades of war and vast political change.
In comparing Iman Khan to Donald Trump, Noah was subtly implying (whether he intended it or otherwise) that somehow the new Prime Minister is less than sincere about defending Pakistan’s interests on a neutral geopolitical path that he has promised to deliver. While jokes needn’t be informed by history and while artistic licence often helps to make jokes funnier, for a comedian who tries so hard not to offend anyone (except American conservatives), the sword of Damocles clearly hung above the clowns head and was ultimately severed by his own sense of ignorance as to the fact that in the age of the internet Pakistanis would not only see his attempt at comedy but would react in a deeply negative manner to having their incoming political leader so disparaged.
Ultimately, Imran Khan will be judged by his record as Prime Minister. In this sense, Noah has joined many Pakistani commentators who blindly support either the PML-N or PPP opposition and in so far as this is the case, have condemned Imran and PTI before the first day of the new government in power. History, rather than petty journalists or ill-informed clowns will be the penultimate judge of Pakistan’s new Prime Minister. Everything else is a weapon of mass distraction.