Zelensky Plunders the Populist Playbook

The key to Zelensky’s success was capturing the zeitgeist media narrative of #zrada or ‘betrayal’, the old elite making money from war. Whoever latched on to the mood of distrust and disgust best was likely to win the election. But Zelensky did it perfectly.

Some commentators have written about Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s new comedian president, as if he were the ultimate post-modern, shape-shifting, a micro-targeting palimpsest. He is indeed supremely post-modern, but has resolutely stayed in character; not just reflecting or exploiting the part of the ordinary hero-schoolteacher Vasyl Holoborodko from his TV series Servant of the People, but effectively campaigning and even governing as him. According to the Ukrainian philosopher Volodymyr Yermolenko, “this is the logic of TV tuned upside down. An actor plays a real person. Zelensky is a real person playing an actor”.1 This seems absurd but is far from unique. According to his cheerleaders, “Zelensky doesn’t copy anybody”;2 but he is in fact only the latest outsider-insurgent politician to plunder the populist playbook of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson; although he may be more radical than them all. Here is my definition of the rules of that playbook.

Rule Number One: Define Yourself

Don’t let others define you. A failed New York tycoon, a bumbling Etonian fond of quoting Latin, and a Ukrainian comedian would all have been excluded by gate-keepers in the old era of professionalised politics. But the idea of politics as a profession is precisely what has alienated voters in the social media age. Political entrepreneurs, who are not necessarily outsiders by any means, now play the cult of outsider authenticity to build support; and just as crucially to hold up a mirror to validate their audience’s own ‘authenticity’. It is commonplace to say that such politicians are blank canvases for voters to project onto. Micro-targeting is all the rage. But at the core of so many different messages is the use of the candidate’s own ‘authentic’ personality to send a message to voters that “it’s OK to be yourself”. “You, the ordinary voters, have the right to laugh”, or to express opinions that elites may disdain. “The elites hate you”, but what they call inappropriate or populist or racist is actually OK.3

Rule Number Two: Play a Part

Ironically, authenticity requires playing a part. Donald Trump was a reality TV star before he ‘became a politician’—without ever really becoming a politician. But even on The Apprentice, he was playing a part, writing his own myth of a successful businessman and deal-maker supreme. In the UK, new Prime Minister Boris Johnston is also playing a part. His real full name is Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. He is ‘Al’ to his family. ‘Boris Johnston’, a first name that is both posh and plebeian, a character somehow apparently liberated by the privilege to be a truth-teller, is also a construct.

Zelensky is playing the role of the president as much as being the actual president. His early moves are messages clearly designed to remind voters of the TV series.

So the election in Ukraine, not of a politician who used to be a comedian, but of a comedian who remains a comedian, is not unprecedented. Zelensky is playing the role of the president as much as being the actual president. His early moves are messages clearly designed to remind voters of the TV series. You can almost hear his advisers saying “we did this already in series one, episode two”. Zelensky’s travels are shot on social media like a mini-series. It’s not so important where he goes; it’s more important that he takes a selfie of him eating shawarma, popular street food at a gas station on the way.

Rule Number Three: Use a Loud, Repetitive Voice

Sell the voice, sell the brand, not the policies—if they are any. The loudest voice, the most extreme point of view, the simplest message is normally the one to dominate on social media. Zelensky pre-dominated: he debuted in the opinion polls in the lead with 22%, before he had really done anything; only 10% of his supporters were familiar with any of his policies.4 His pop-up party ‘Servant of the People’ started polling at 40%, even before it had announced its platform or its list of candidates (it eventually won 43.2%). Zelensky was lucky in that he had no similar opponents—rock star Svyatoslav Vakarchuk having decided not to run. Old style TV populists like Yuliya Tymoshenko and Oleh Lyashko looked decidedly old. Zelensky might not be so lucky in the future, but he has promised only to serve one term. But others may try and steal, or develop, his act.

It is a myth that post-modern social media had done away with meta-narratives. The opposite is also the case. Your disparate supporters need an overarching idea to latch onto, one that is both capacious and fuzzily-defined.

Like Trump, Zelensky’s voice was comic, but his humour can be mocking, sexist and cruel. He also broke with the traditions of the old political class by openly disrespecting Poroshenko. But most importantly, it is a myth that post-modern social media had done away with meta-narratives. The opposite is also the case. Your disparate supporters need an overarching idea to latch onto, one that is both capacious and fuzzily-defined. In Johnson’s case this was first Brexit, then Brexit betrayal, then hard Brexit. In Trump’s case this was leaks, ‘Crooked Hillary’, immigration and Washington ‘swamp’. The key to Zelensky’s success was capturing the zeitgeist media narrative of #zrada or ‘betrayal’, #torgivlya na krovi, the old elite making money from war and ordinary people’s sacrifices, while the masses were left with #zubozhinnya, ‘impoverishment’. This narrative has been building for years. Whoever latched on to the mood of distrust and disgust best was likely to win the election. But Zelensky did it perfectly.

Rule Number Four: Stay Off Other Media

Your image is your property. Mainstream media will challenge your self-definition and your ‘authenticity’ if you allow them too. Nobody likes a counter-narrative in social media, because it is supposed to be social. So stay away. Johnson gave only one press conference during his leadership campaign. Trump was not exactly silent during the 2016 election; he leveraged extraordinary coverage in the mainstream media. But then he excluded big parts of it from increasingly rare White House Press Conferences and interviews to anyone other than Fox.

Zelensky only did two campaign interviews that were not for his home channel 1+1. He met journalists after his victory, but in private, urging them to go easy on the candidate ‘of the people’. When he has meetings or travels the country, the presentation is stage-managed on video or vlog.

Rule Number Five: Use Your Own Media

‘Boris Johnson’, the media personality, has been in the making since he appeared on TV comedy shows in the late 1990s. Now he mainly relies on the Daily Telegraph as his own mini-Fox, the UK’s leading right-wing broadsheet turned Boris Johnson fan-sheet. He has been too lazy for regular social media use: but as PM has clearly been pushed by adviser Dominic Cummings to prioritise messaging through Facebook (615,000 followers), and Twitter (871,000). Johnson is doing ‘The People’s PMQs’ (Prime Minister’s Questions) on Facebook, rather than having to face it in parliament. But Trump is the obvious master here: @realDonaldTrump had 63.1 million followers as of August 2019. It’s worth listing what Trump uses Twitter for—the list is quite long. (Significantly, Trump fought but lost a court case to try and keep critics away from his Twitter account). Twitter is for distraction. For reverse-framing. To overcome the dissonance moderate Republicans should feel about his policies. And @realDonaldTrump has real power to harass opponents. Arguably most importantly, however, it is a cue for Fox. ‘The White House and Fox interact so seamlessly that it can be hard to determine, during a particular news cycle, which one is following the other’s lead’.5

For Zelensky, commentators are divided as to whether his social media or his traditional TV campaign were more important in getting him elected; so we will settle for saying that what matters is that they feed off each other, like Twitter and Fox for Trump. Once Zelensky announced his candidacy on New Year’s Eve, the Ukrainian channel 1+1 was basically ZeTV. There were constant runs of his show ‘Servant of the People’, repeats of his old shows, reality TV reporting about him, and a rather strange documentary about Ronald Reagan, ‘the great communicator’, narrated by Zelensky. The total output of his production company Kvartal 95 was on air for a total of 203 hours and 35 minutes during the campaign, which was 14% of 1+1’s total screen time.6 And 1+1 is the most trusted channel in Ukraine, with a 22% rating to its nearest rival’s 8%.7

1+1 also showed ‘ZePrezydent’ every night after the evening news during the campaign, which was also his vlog on YouTube, with 716,000 subscribers. Ze!Life had 433,000. The most viral video, with background music and skilful editing of Zelensky publically haranguing public officials8 in the regions, had 2.5 million views. YouTube, however, was second in importance to Zelensky’s preferred medium Instagram, a natural home for his mini-clips and punchy jokes. His following grew to over four million during the campaign, rising to eight million by August 2019. His Facebook account clocked in at a lowly 976,000 followers, Twitter at 111,000.

It helps to cement the alliance between ‘authentic’ candidates and their ‘authentic’ followers to get online armies to sing the praises of both—the candidate as an endorsement of the supporter, as much as vice-versa.

Rule Number Six: Enlist Cheerleaders

It helps to cement the alliance between ‘authentic’ candidates and their ‘authentic’ followers to get online armies to sing the praises of both—the candidate as an endorsement of the supporter, as much as vice-versa. The ‘ZeTeam’ included ZeBots, leaving his green heart symbol everywhere, and 600,000 ZeDigital volunteers, trained at seminars and webinars to use the ZeBook and its accompanying style guide, the ZeLogobuk. At the key stadium debate, Zelensky channelled ‘ordinary’ questions from ‘ordinary’ Ukrainians, but they actually came from this heavily-managed source, and from similarly curated online discussions.

Rule Number Seven: (Only Then) Fake it. Bring in the Bots, etc

Bots can create a launch effect for marginal candidates. But normally, the amplification of your brand is only the final task. The brand comes first. For Trump, ‘61% are bots, spam, inactive or propaganda’.9 Bots propelled his rise through the primary process and during the debates with Hillary Clinton, but mainstreaming also requires a popular brand and a complicit main-stream media.

Critics argued that Zelensky’s meteoric rise in Ukrainian politics had to be explained by the use of bots and aggregator technologies—both of which are now common enough in Ukrainian politics. (And in US politics too). But Zelensky has been in comedy for over a decade: Kvartal 95 was founded in 2003. He had an almost universal name and face recognition. His initial boosters were not bots but the new breed of social media comedy channels in Ukraine, many of which are imported or copied from Russia:’ politainment’ like Novinach, Perepichka and BadComedian.

Nevertheless, his online supporters, organised in a ‘Mobile Online Group’, were also accessed of ‘aggressively whitewashing Zelensky and denigrating Poroshenko’.10 One investigation by Vox Ukraine in the summer of 2019 showed that Zelensky had one of the highest number of bot-comments on his personal pages (58,350 comments out of 255,157, or 23%). Although the pro-Russian politicians Vadym Rabinovych (45%) and Yevhen Murayev (39%) had a much higher share. That said, ‘only 24% of bot-written comments about Volodymyr Zelensky were positive’—indicating that many ‘hate bots’ might be run by his opponents or out of Russia.11

Ukrainian elections were fought on TV. 2019 was the first year when social media had a massive impact. But Ukraine has not (yet) leapfrogged into a situation where only social media matters.

Rule Number Eight: Govern by Campaigning

Carry on with the show. It did not take long for Trump to go back to rallies rather than the tedious business of actual governance. Every move in Johnson’s first week in office was performance politics in advance of the expected early election. In Ukraine, Kvartal 95 are back on the road. Zelensky may join them. But he is also looking at new forms of enlisting ‘popular participation’ against an immobile state. He is trawling Europe for ideas: referenda, like in the UK (maybe not a good idea); online policy approval, as with Five Star Movement in Italy; leading a national conversation like in France. He has concentrated on early symbolic moves, like shifting the presidential administration downtown. But he remains happiest with TV shows. His party candidates were presented on a 1+1 show Pravo na vladu (‘Right to power’), although the audience was there to cheer not to choose. A new breed of these types of shows is likely.

Conclusion

Not everyone is equally good at all of the above. Trump’s constant rallying obviously distracts from actual governing. Johnson’s shtick may have worked during the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign, but by 2019 his negative ratings were high. The Daily Telegraph is not as big a media player as Fox, or indeed the BBC.

We do not know yet whether it will help or hinder President Zelensky to also be President Holoborodko. Traditionally, Ukrainian elections were fought on TV. 2019 was the first year when social media had a massive impact. But Ukraine has not (yet) leapfrogged into a situation where only social media matters. Mediated reality is now a multi-screen reality. Zelensky’s plans for economic, business and judicial reform are all complicated by his relationship with the leading oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, which is complicated by his control of 1+1. Zelensky has promised to keep Kolomoisky at arm’s length, but could he do without 1+1? Zelensky has also promised to serve only one term, but all Ukrainian presidents have lost popularity over their first term. Can Zelensky avoid this trap? And can he use his social media savvy to push real reform rather than just distract?


  1. Interview with Volodymyr Yermolenko, 26 June 2019.
  2. Interview with Viktor Andrusiv, Executive Director of the Ukrainian Institute of the Future, 25 June 2019.
  3. Interview with Yermolenko. See also Yermolenko, ‘Zelenskiy’s Populism 2.0: What it Means for Ukraine’, New Eastern Europe , 24 April 2019; neweasterneurope.eu/2019/04/24/zelenskiys-populism-2-0-what-it-means-for-ukraine/
  4. Interview with leading Ukrainian sociologist Iryna Bekeshkina, Kyiv, 9 April 2019
  5. Jane Meyer, ‘The Making of the Fox News White House’, The New Yorker, 4 March 2019; www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/03/11/the-making-of-the-fox-news-white-house/amp
  6. ‘Monitoring: 1+1 prysvyatyv 14% efiru pozytyvu pro Zelens’oho, Teksty, 18 April 2019; texty.org.ua/pg/news/textynewseditor/read/93103/Monitoryng_11_prysvatyv_14_usogo_jefiru_pozytyvu
  7. Yevgeniya Blyznyuk, ‘Mediinoe ekho: kaie media pomogli Zelenskomu stat’ prezydentom’, Liga.net, 11 May 2019; www.liga.net/politics/articles/mir-multiekrana-kak-media-pomogli-zelenskomu-stat-prezidentom
  8. ЗеПрезидент is at www.youtube.com/channel/UCp2zBKrqP0ZQF6RN4RJtF2Q
  9. Rand Fishkin, ‘We Analyzed Every Twitter Account Following Donald Trump: 61% Are Bots, Spam, Inactive, or Propaganda’, SparkToro, 9 October 2018; sparktoro.com/blog/we-analyzed-every-twitter-account-following-donald-trump-61-are-bots-spam-inactive-or-propaganda/
  10. Yuri Zoria, ‘How Zelensky “Hacked Ukraine’s Elections’, Euromaidan Press, 26 April 2019; euromaidanpress.com/2019/04/26/how-zelensky-hacked-ukraines- elections-op-ed/
  11. Maryna Ott and Volodymyr Lozovyi, ‘Erase This If You Can. What Ukrainian Bots Are Doing on Ukrainian Politicians’ Pages’, Vox Ukraine, 7 August 2019; voxukraine.org/en/erase-this-if-you-can-what-ukrainian-bots-are-doing-on-ukrainian-politicians-pages/

Andrew Wilson

Andrew Wilson is a senior policy fellow at ECFR, a permanent Reader in Ukrainian Studies at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES), University College London. He is also an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of International Affairs. His recent books include Belarus: The Last European Dictatorship (2011) and Ukraine’s Orange Revolution (2005).

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