Babiš’s cap vs Zeman’s scarf
Czech prime minister Andrej Babiš‘s sporting a Trump-style baseball cap at the launch of his ANO movement’s Euro-election campaign, has attracted plenty of online derision.
Its ‘Strong Czechia’ (Silné Česko) slogan – intended to tell voters that billionaire populist and his MEPs will stick up for Czechia and its interests in the EU – is a kind of logical(ish) local equivalent of Make America Great Again.
It also conveniently plagiarises the eurosceptic opposition centre-right Civic Democrats’ 2017 policy paper promising a Strong Czechia in 21st Century Europe. (The movement’s main election slogan Protecting Czechia – Toughly and Uncompromisingly also echoes that used by Slovakia’s governing Smer in its failed 2016 election campaign.
Trump’s MGMA cap has been hailed as a political icon, signalling that despite the super-rich income bracket and background, he is culturally at one with regular folk. Some analysts have even suggested the way Trump wears it subtly connects with disenfranchised blue collar America.
But Babiš‘s cap – seemingly devised on the hoof by the Czech PM himself – doesn’t look a great piece of political marketing.
‘Strong Czechia’ lacks the compelling, cut-through mini-narratives of MGMA or ‘Take Back Control’. And it’s kind of vague what kind of strength Babiš has in mind, although earlier efforts at Trump rip-off ‘Making Czechia Great Again’ (Udělejme Česko znovu skvělé) back in 2017 was supposed restoring the world-class industrial pre-eminence achieved in interwar Czechoslovakia.
Moderates in ANO also, weakly, try to explain that it’s also about strong external borders for the EU.
Does the cap fit?
The straight rip-off of the Trump baseball cap, colour scheme and all, looks rather desperate and inauthentic. And the ‘Made in China’ label doesn’t quite chime with the idea of supercharging Czech domestic industry.
And, previously at least, Mr Babiš resisted the idea that he was the ‘Czech Trump’ insisting that he is actually a misunderstood vaguely centrist reformer. Now having met The Donald it turns out he was a Trump fan all along and he has an email and a cloned baseball cap to prove it.
It probably won’t make much of difference. Babiš’s ANO looks set to pull in around 30% of the vote with Civic Democrats and Pirates trailing a distant second and third and other parties still further back.
But as a populist political accessory, what has been christened the MCzGA cap really won’t do.
If you’re a populist worth your salt, you deck yourself out in something that signals your popular credentials, and resonates – as many of the savviest analysts know, populism is as much about symbols, style and political performance, as it is about programmes and rhetoric.
And here Babiš might learn a few lessons from his old compadre, Czech president Miloš Zeman.
In 2013 Zeman memorably bussed in several hundred supporters and members of his SPOZ party to Prague Castle to attend his first inauguration.
The Zemanites, boisterous and victorious, looking, and came across poorer, older, more provincial and more working-class voters who formed (in both 2013 and 2018) the backbone of Zeman’s support.
Many were, if you looked out, kitted out with Zeman campaign scarfs, which gave them the air of fans of some small provincial football club up in the capital for big match against some big metropolitan team.
A clever symbolic touch, striking just the right note of small town Czechness, evoking the social world of okresní přebor (district League, or Sunday League).
This tellingly, was also name and setting of a comedy drama revolving around the misadventures of SJ Slavoj Houslice club from the fictitious village of Houslice, one of the many depictions of small-town communities in Czech culture.
Smallness, not greatness seems to have to Zeman’s populist insurgency and its barely-remarked on political fashion accessory.