Politics and Comedy

Ten Reasons Trump Resists Satire

David A. Westbrook

The Trump administration would seem to be the perfect target for satire, and the man is certainly easy to mock. But Trump — and this Trumpian moment — are strangely resistant to satire seriously considered, as distinct from mere mockery. Even Trevor Noah has admitted as much. In these feverish days before the election, I have become rather obsessed by this question, have literally been awakened by it. I think and hope that Biden will win and the problem will become less pressing — but many of the underlying reasons seem worth thinking about, regardless of who wins, for what they say about both the nature of comedy and the character of this country at the present juncture. This text lies somewhere between an essay and “notes to clear my head so I can get back to work.”

Why is Trump hard to satirize? Comedy is subtle, and we should not expect a simple, single explanation. For starters, See Ben Greenman, Is Satire Possible in the Age of Trump? (reviewing Doten’s Trump Sky Alpha, a book exploring the same question); Dan Brooks, How President Trump Ruined Political Comedy. Greenman and Brooks (both liberals) thoughtfully present a host of reasons (including 1–5 below) that satire isn’t working, artistically or psychologically speaking, as well as one might expect. Neither thinks that satire is likely to be effective as a form of politics, another question that deserves thought, but that I’m not pursuing here. Efforts at satire certainly don’t seem to have weakened Trump much, but then again, we’ve seen very little real satire. So again, why not? Roughly in order of difficulty, here are ten reasons Trump resists satire:

1) Trump often says or does things that sound like what a satirist might say — the comedian is left trying to “catch up.” A sort of arms race ensues, as the comedian is forced to get ahead of the current insanity. But Trump is not only outrageous, he is President, and the comedian cannot get ahead.

2) The sheer volume of comment and engagement, the digital noise, makes it hard for serious comedy to get distance. Everybody has an opinion, expressed often, and laughter needs things to move at their pace, establishing rhythm or even quiet to disrupt. Social media and the 24 hour news cycle do not do “pace” or “quiet.” So efforts at comedy gets louder, blunter, and the elegance that is an essential attribute of good satire (“pointed”) is lost.

3) The polarization of contemporary politics makes it hard for many people to tolerate levity about what they hold dear. People don’t stand for irony or sarcasm, because it articulates the other side, even if only to make fun of it. Satire requires its audience to imagine themselves as the objects of satire, briefly to entertain the position of the target, to be the audience watching “Springtime for Hitler” (this satire was too cutting to be sustained for more than a few moments). For many people, imagining themselves as Trump feels like blasphemy.

A red herring: people will say that satire does not work because the times are too dire, but this reflects a lack of historical perspective. Satire has flourished under far worse material conditions than those currently endured by the vast majority of people in position to read an essay on Medium.

4) Political satire should not only laugh at leaders, it should hold a mirror up to the society that made them leaders. At the present moment, pretty much everything is understood as the fault of the other side, i.e., most contemporary political humor isn’t reflexive (think Swift or “Dr. Strangelove”) and therefore isn’t satire. (Baron Cohen and Colbert fail in this regard — Trump is an idiot, elected by rubes, they repeat, endlessly. Not satire.)

5) In recent US political history, Brooks argues, an ironic stance was characteristic of the left, which mocked the sincerity of the Bush era. Such irony gave rise to The Daily Show. To put it gently, there is little irony on the contemporary left. Instead, the right, preeminently Trump, has adopted an ironic stance. I was only kidding, he often says, which the audience is free to believe, or not. But it is hard to mock. (Satire is easier, these days, from the right.)

One might go further and say the right has mastered the art of the not serious, what the philosopher Harry Frankfurt calls, seriously, “bullshit.” Bullshit statements are not intended as lies, but instead are made without regard for their truth value, to see how they play. But it is almost impossible to make fun of something that was not serious in the first place, the equivalent of pointing out that the dinosaurs in “Jurassic Park” are not real, that this is a fictional movie, with special effects. True, but not funny.

One might go further still, and say that Jurassic Park and Trump’s statements are not true or false, but popular or not. Trump continuously screen tests himself. If it sells, what more need be said? If you don’t like it, you’re probably a loser, like something over half the nation. That is, satire requires its target to play things straight, so that the target can be shown to be wrong. But “wrong” makes sense vis-a-vis “truth,” not sales or popularity or even being a loser. More on this below.

6) Humor, it is often said, should “punch up.” This idea, of unclear provenance, has gotten a lot of attention in recent years. Punching up is probably too restrictive a standard to address humor writ large, but that political satire punches up is true by definition. See Mathew Farthing: Punching Down (putting the up/down standard in the context of a far more nuanced theory of security and violation at the heart of laughter). At first glance, making fun of Trump would seem to be “punching up” — the man is President. But Trump is also, at least rhetorically, a populist. By adopting a working-class idiom, Trump puts satirists in the awkward position of punching down, and the left wing in the position of making fun of labor, the traditional object of its affection. Indeed, in some rather old-fashioned views “the left” is defined by labor. Jokes, then, need to be about politics in some sort of way acceptable to their audience, indeed reaffirming their beliefs, without being overtly offensive to those who believe differently, not that they are likely to be present. The result is often “clapter,” clapping as sign of political solidarity, not the involuntary response of genuine laughter. Not risky and not funny.

7) Farthing goes on to argue that the moral turn in US comedy is a result of a changing sense of security. In the palmy days of the Obama administration, audiences could tolerate an “edgy” joke, say Louis C.K. joking about rape. Today, people feel less secure, and so it is easier for a joke to go “too far.” Maybe, in some circumstances.

8) If we understand much of the American left to be in the grips of another great awakening (this would be another essay), then we should not be surprised at the lack of humor. Politico-religious movements tend to be rather humorless, even iconoclastic, particularly in their early stages. If the insurgents succeed in becoming the establishment, the new rulers may lighten up and allow joking, maybe even infidel statues, stained glass and the like. If they fail, erstwhile revolutionaries may be unable to prevent joking at their expense (but see “punching down). In the early days, however, discipline is required, and laughing at authority is destabilizing — hence the New Model Army tone that is so prevalent in the citadels of the left.

9) Finding targets. In Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift got around the punching down difficulty discussed in #6 by simply inventing places with inhabitants who could serve his comedic ends. You can’t punch down at fictional characters (or, if you can, you have done a great job inventing characters so real that they arouse the moral solicitude of your audience). Sacha Baron Cohen has tried something similar in the Borat franchise, using Kazakhstan to make fun of Trumpistan. Even in the internet age, Kazakhstan is on the edge of most people’s knowledge. But it is a real place, a developing country filled with real people. Many of them are poor. Most are Muslim. Problem? Cohen has found himself saying he didn’t mean the “real” Kazakhstan. Can one imagine the movie being made about Pakistan? See Peter Franklin: “So Which Stans Are You Allowed to Joke About?”

10) Contra #5 (which also seems to be true!), Trump is serious, serious as a heart attack as the saying once was, but in a way that eludes satire. The paradigmatic satire exposes leadership for what it really is. Leadership presents a high-minded front, says virtuous things, but satire gets real, shows up our leaders, reveals their baser motivations. For example, Daumier’s classic drawings on “Lawyers and Justice” are indeed about lawyers, including judges, but justice is nowhere to be seen, whatever the lawyers say. Put differently, satire is always a version of the smart ass kid yelling that the emperor has no clothes. To use Freudian language, satire reveals the ego that the leader’s superego struggles to control and, even more, to hide from others. Satire is literally impolite.

But Trump is all ego — the unhinged “I” of his Twitter stream. There is little discernible superego, little regard for any sort of propriety. Menstruation, losers serve in the armed forces, white supremacists, bleach — it’s hard to imagine a line of decorum that Trump hasn’t crossed. Untrammeled ego owes no fidelity to truth (“but what about the science?” you might ask, demonstrating that you don’t get it), not even fidelity to its prior self. What I said or wanted or did yesterday has little bearing on what I say, want, or do today. By the same token, there is no shame, nothing to reveal. Trump is virtually naked, all the time. The emperor has something to show you, baby.

There is an authenticity here: the authenticity romantically and routinely celebrated in artists (and even intellectuals with whom we agree), two hundred years on, often with terms like “transgressive.” (But we didn’t mean that!) This is the authenticity that people mean when they talk about Trump being “down to earth,” tolerating “no more bullshit,” or similar, even when he is demonstrably lying, in the ordinary sense of the word “lie.” More deeply, however, Trump’s ego, insofar as it is perfectly self-contained, cannot lie. It wants what it wants, now. Indeed it does. And in an irksome modernity, there is something terribly attractive about such liberty, especially if you are in a class that doesn’t enjoy much freedom, which is of course deplorable.

This puts lefty liberals, many of whom persist in thinking of themselves as young and hip (if intellectuals, as the heirs of ’68, see recent movie about Chicago Seven), in a bad place. Folks who would prefer to see themselves fighting for justice and the like find themselves defending mores, petite bourgeois manners, like letting other people speak in debates, or even mourning the loss of the Republican Party (never thought I’d say that). Worse, declared progressives, e.g., the NYT, find themselves defending US military engagements in the Middle East, South Asia, and across Africa. In short, the erstwhile left has become the party of the establishment in exile. The tables are turned, and left liberal satire has nowhere to go — what is needed, desperately, is stability, unity, community. It’s a time for almost anything BUT satire.

* * *

Perhaps nobody in history has dominated daily discourse for so many people like “Trump” has during this pandemic. Before so much of life was lived on screen, before the world became so mediated, I doubt even a Mao or Hitler could achieve the Donald’s ubiquity in our minds. The coronavirus has, of course, simply increased our screen time, the minutes adding to hours to days spent contemplating whatever “Trump” means to us. Believers in progress, of whatever partisan affiliation, might want to consider that for a moment: our devices may be expensive, but our consciousness has been colonized and impoverished. The Presidential election is about Trump, pretty much full stop. How does the man the polls say will lose get to dominate? (The fact that Trump defines the discourse highlights the existential issues for liberalism, a bit shallow at the best of times, but that would be yet another essay.) I wonder how often I read or hear the word “Trump” — the single meme may have displaced “sex,” with all its possibilities, and even if I’m no longer 18, that’s impressive.

I write on Halloween, 2020, with the coronavirus raging. Still. The presidential election, formally and perhaps in fact, is in three days. We may hope that at least our political fever subsides, and the nation goes on to mock Biden’s stuttering speech, gently.

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