Salvu Mallia vs the malignant Muscat force appears to be what the PN is about

Salvu Mallia is not a politician. He is a showman that’s been weaponized by politicians, and the volatile chemical mixture that makes up his rhetoric is as fascinating as it is dangerous, Teodor Reljic writes

What I find intriguing is the way veteran showman Salvu Mallia reconfigured the definition of politics in Malta
What I find intriguing is the way veteran showman Salvu Mallia reconfigured the definition of politics in Malta

Funny thing, isn’t it, politics? It means many different things to many different people. It actually contains multitudes within it. Just the word itself can trigger varying emotions and associations. Some people may view politics as a glorified administrative exercise; others view it as a blood-and-thunder battle for power and dominance during which clear battle lines must be drawn. 

And others still may profess cynicism and perhaps even indifference towards the political process. They may claim they don’t believe in politics (before the pesky Marxist friend they didn’t know they had sidles up to their ear to remind them that’s all very well, but politics believes in you).

But it’s only when a particularly aberrant episode or protagonist enters the political sphere that we are truly reminded of the multiple possibilities lying dormant in the political game. When something, or somebody ruptures through the routine talk of policy and the ping-pong of rhetoric between political opponents to present something beyond the pale. 

It’s in this kind of rupture that we hear talk of politicians who are ‘anti-establishment’ (cue: Donald Trump) simply by virtue of not adhering to certain codes of civility (to say nothing of making questionable, if not incendiary claims about everything else). 

And this rip through political time and space can also produce the likes of Salvu Mallia. 

My colleagues – most notably Raphael Vassallo and James Debono – have already written thoroughly and eloquently about the Nationalist Party’s new ‘star candidate’, contextualizing the painter-turned-TV-presenter-turned-politician’s presence with the PN, particularly in light of his attention-grabbing interview in The Sunday Times, where Mallia confessed to being in direct opposition to his newly-adopted political home of choice – which he settled upon after doing quite a bit of “shopping around”, he says – such as on the ever-thorny issue of abortion and the only marginally less thorny matter of euthanasia. 

What interests me more though, is less that Mallia appears to be discordant with the rest of the PN, or that his political platform appears to be based entirely on discrediting Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, instead of proposing any concrete policies. What I find intriguing is the way this veteran showman reconfigured the definition of politics in Malta. 

At least temporarily – that is, at least until Mallia’s outbursts outstay their welcome on the news cycle – he has succeeded in moving us out of the usual back-and-forth among ‘tribal’ political factions.

And he’s moved it into more cataclysmic, even Biblical, territory. “Joseph Muscat is an evil man. He and his two other cronies [Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi] are evil. They are not politicians. I would classify them as criminals because this was a planned takeover using all the weaknesses of democracy and the stupidity of the people, including mine and of Labour’s own supporters.”

So Mallia said during the Times of Malta interview, right after confessing that he voted for Labour in the last election but then felt “cheated” by them. He salted the fresh wound further by adding that understandably contentious comparison between Muscat and Adolf Hitler, and also claimed that the “last election was a conspiracy,” because “even before [Labour] took power, they were planning how to plunder the Maltese economy”.

It brings to mind images of a secret invading force, working sneakily to take up key positions of power with cunning and ruthless efficiency. It’s a scenario that matches the premise of something like John Carpenter’s cult film They Live (1988), in which our down-and-out protagonists discover that wearing a special pair of sunglasses enables them to see that the world is secretly dominated by bacon-skinned aliens, while also showing them how apparently innocuous advertising billboards are beaming subliminal messages that read ‘OBEY’ and ‘CONSUME’. 

As in Carpenter’s They Live, Mallia wants to squash the political landscape to match what he portrays as simplified view of the ‘real’ world. And like Ancient Rome's Emperor Nero, Mallia is an artist and performer convinced  that “only shallow people” don’t judge by appearances
As in Carpenter’s They Live, Mallia wants to squash the political landscape to match what he portrays as simplified view of the ‘real’ world. And like Ancient Rome's Emperor Nero, Mallia is an artist and performer convinced that “only shallow people” don’t judge by appearances

Thing is, Carpenter’s movie was meant to be a deliberately simplified satire of Reagan-era America and its wholehearted embrace of the free market and extolling of consumerism. They Live may invite us to draw parallels with the real world, but nowhere does Carpenter try to claim that what he has filmed is exactly the way things are.

By contrast, Mallia wants to squash the political landscape to match just such a simplified view of the ‘real’ world. (He doesn’t actually compare Muscat and his coterie to a horde of invading aliens, but his vision of archetypal evil among the Labour higher-ups may accommodate such an assumption all too easily).

What Mallia’s ‘good versus evil’ dynamic does is wipe away any trace of complication, ambiguity and – let’s face it – all the ‘difficult’ stuff of politics, with a soundbite-friendly call to arms that we all can understand. After all, we’ve been ingesting it through Hollywood blockbusters and the like all this time.

The same could be said of Mallia’s declaration that his “guideline is one flag, the Maltese flag,” and that he has only one leader – “my conscience”. Much like Joseph Muscat’s own aggressively inclusive ‘Taghna Lkoll’ electoral campaign in 2013 tried to short-circuit the knee-jerk divisions that characterise the Maltese political system in the popular consciousness, Mallia’s slogan-friendly stance takes a universal approach that’s tough to argue with. 

Of course, in an ideal world, every politician should place ‘the Maltese flag’ above all else – we can take this to mean the common good over petty political squabbles and self-interests – and for more or less the same reasons, one’s conscience should serve as the ultimate benchmark for any political action (though tell it to former PN leader Lawrence Gonzi…).

Mallia wants to present himself as just that kind of ‘perfect’ candidate. He’s put on the They Live sunglasses so we don’t have to, and he’s willing to guide us into the light. Ironically, his liberal use of bad language throughout the STOM interview only serves to mark him as the kind of ‘different’ candidate with a claim on ‘authenticity’ that his more strait-laced candidates may not be able to boast of – to say nothing of his unapologetic support for the previously untouchable topics of abortion and euthanasia. 

Because Mallia’s overly simplified view of the political game also allows for a fresh wellspring of emotion into the mix. Calling someone the embodiment of evil not only flattens them into the shape of cartoon villains. It allows your dislike of them to flow freely, and even solidify into bona fide hatred. 

It’s funny that in the sphere of Maltese political commentary, the tendency is to take to task those who make ‘personal’ attacks, as has been the case with most of the – largely justified – outrage generated by some of the worst blogosphere offences committed by the likes of Daphne Caruana Galizia and Glenn Bedingfield. But what Mallia is doing here is exactly the opposite: depersonalizing Joseph Muscat into an archetype of pure, unfiltered evil – all the better for those apprehensive about his political programme to attack with naked abandon. 

Speaking about the latter days of the Julio-Claudian dynasty of Ancient Rome, historian Tom Holland described how the notorious Emperor Nero consolidated his power base precisely because he understood the power of showmanship. According to Holland, Nero, an artist and performer just like Mallia, was convinced “that it was only shallow people who did not judge by appearances”.

“Spectacle, illusion, drama: these were the dimensions of rule that truly mattered. Attentive though Nero might be to the grind of business, his true obsession was with a project that he felt to be altogether worthier of his time and talents: to fashion reality anew”.  

Fashioning a new political reality – one that pitches Muscat as an unquestionable malignant force to be squashed against all odds – appears to be precisely what the PN-backed Mallia is now all about.