On the morning of the 21st of December, 1989, Romanian General Secretary Nicolae Ceaușescu was in a foul mood. The Berlin Wall had fallen, and Mikhail Gorbachev and George H.W. Bush had recently announced the end of the Cold War, making the end of Ceaușescu’s rule inevitable, though he couldn’t see this yet. Worse, his security leaders had just failed to violently put down protests in the city of Timisoara, a fact that enraged his wife Elena.
“You should have fired on them, and had they fallen, you should have taken them and shoved them into a cellar,” she said. “Weren’t you told that?”
Long one of the world’s most vicious dictators, Ceaușescu’s most recent plan for winning over the heartland was forcing half the country’s villagers to destroy their own homes — with pick-axes and hammers, if they couldn’t afford a bulldozer — and packing them into project apartments in new “agro-industrial towns,” for a “better future.” Despite this, and his long history of murder, terror, and spying, Ceaușescu to the end did not grasp that his unpopularity had an organic character. He was convinced ethnically Hungarian “terrorists” were behind the latest trouble.
After reaching the balcony of Bucharest’s Central Committee building to give a speech that December day, he’s genuinely surprised when the crowd turns on him. When he tells them to be quiet, he’s befuddled by their refusal, saying, “What, you can’t hear?” Elena jumps in and yells, “Silence!”, to which Ceaușescu, hilariously, replies, “Shut up!” The crowd listens to neither of them.
Paul Kenyon’s Children of the Night describes the morbid black comedy that ensued. The Ceaușescus and a motley gang of undead apparatchiks that included the “morbidly obese Prime Minister, Emil Bobu” later tried to load into a single helicopter — Bobu “waddled, walrus-like, to the rear” Kenyon writes — but there were too many of them, and the copter barely got off the ground. “Where to?” asked the pilot, and nobody knew, because there was no plan, since none of them had ever considered the possibility of this happening.
The sky was full of stuff, including other helicopters, which were dropping leaflets on the crowd giving what Kenyon described as a Marie Antoinette-like order to ignore “imperialist conspiracies” and return home “to a Christmas feast.” Four days later, a firing squad put the Ceaușescus against a wall and gave them their final, solid lead Christmas presents.
Ceaușescu’s balcony will forever be a symbol of elite cluelessness. Even in the face of the gravest danger, a certain kind of ruler will never be able to see the last salvo coming, if doing so requires any self-examination. The neoliberal political establishment in most of the Western world, the subject of repeat populist revolts of rising intensity in recent years, seems to suffer from the same disability.
There may be no real-world comparison between a blood-soaked monster like Ceaușescu and a bumbling ball-scratcher like Joe Biden, or an honorarium-gobbling technocrat like Hillary Clinton, or a Handsome Dan investment banker like Emmanuel Macron, or an effete pseudo-intellectual like Justin Trudeau. Still, the ongoing inability of these leaders to see the math of populist uprisings absolutely recalls that infamous scene in Bucharest. From Brexit to the election of Donald Trump to, now, the descent of thousands of Canadian truckers upon the capital city of Ottawa to confront Trudeau, a consistent theme has been the refusal to admit — not even to us, but to themselves — the numerical truth of what they’re dealing with.