BY Patrick Langley in Opinion | 10 FEB 17
Featured in
Issue 185

Gallows Humour

The importance of satire in an era of Trump

BY Patrick Langley in Opinion | 10 FEB 17

On 23 September 2016, three days before the first of three televised debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the British satirist Armando Iannucci gave an interview to CNN. He looked exhausted. The creator of The Thick of It (2005), In the Loop (2009) and Veep (2012) – three of the most biting and incisive political satires of recent times – shrugged in weary frustration. ‘When the politicians are providing us with the fiction,’ he said, ‘there’s no place for people like me.’ The following month, the veteran American satirist P. J. O’Rourke confessed to a similar mood of redundancy. ‘The election has been completely self-satirizing,’ he told a BBC interviewer. ‘Not only am I outraged by [the election], I’m unemployed.’

Trump’s presidential campaign didn’t kill the satire industry, but it did pose a series of unprecedented challenges to observers of the political scene. First off, Trump is not a politician; he is a clown. A boorish, rambling loudmouth, with a bull-in-a-china-shop talent for controversy, Trump doesn’t need any help in making a mockery of himself. During one televised debate in the Republican primaries, he held up his (allegedly) tiny hands to the audience: ‘Look at those hands. Are they small hands?’ This jaw-droppingly puerile moment was less political theatre than a full-blown vaudeville skit. It was, in other words, typical Trump.

Some journalists argued that Trump’s buffoonery was strategic. In February 2016, James Poniewozik observed in The New York Times that Trump’s speeches operated ‘in the mode and rhythms of a stand-up’, taking its cues from rabble-rousing Las Vegas showmanship and reality TV excess. Trump riffed. He goaded. He scoffed. He branded his opponents with schoolyard epithets: Lyin’ Ted, Little Marco, Low-Energy Jeb. Matt Groening, who created The Simpsons, said of the election: ‘Just quoting from it would be like a clown show.’ Alec Baldwin’s impersonations of Trump on Saturday Night Live (SNL), aided by Kate McKinnon’s astoundingly good Clinton, are technically brilliant and precisely observed. Yet, they are tame in comparison to the horrifying spectacle of the real thing: Trump’s delusional arrogance, his bellicose racism, his grandiose gaffes. No amount of mockery can humble a shameless man, but Trump is, at least, clearly angered by Baldwin’s impersonation. On Twitter, Trump rants that SNL’s portrayal of him ‘stinks’.

Satire thrives on exaggeration. It heightens and distorts its object in order to expose its true nature, offering a funfair mirror in which our leaders’ faults and failings are magnified and scrutinized. Yet Trump’s vulgarity and unfitness for office are glaringly self-evident: he ran the biggest, gaudiest media circus in town. Compounding the brashness of his oratorical style – part court jester, part drunken uncle with an axe to grind – is his cartoonish appearance. That rippling chin, which makes him look like Jabba the Hutt squeezed into an off-the-rack Macy’s suit. That Cheetos-dusted complexion. That gold-plated candyfloss comb over. Finding funny ways to describe Trump has become a national pastime. To mark Trump’s 70th birthday last June, Jezebel anthologized 70 descriptions of him, which ranged from the pungent (‘seagull dipped in tikka masala’) to the ludicrous (‘a carnivorous plant watered with irradiated bat urine’). The Washington Post ran a piece titled ‘The 100 Greatest Descriptions of Donald Trump’s Hair Ever Written’. This surfeit of caricatures points to an underlying crisis of language: is Trump beyond description? Could it be that ridiculing him only serves to bolster his power, entrenching a belief, widely held by his supporters, that the media are a smug, conspiratorial elite?

Another challenge posed by Trump’s campaign was that it had already been satirized. In ‘Bart to the Future’, an episode of The Simpsons from 2000, the mention of ‘President Trump’ was played for preposterous laughs. In Mike Judge’s 2006 film Idiocracy, a man emerges from 500 years of suspended animation to learn that a publicity-obsessed ex-wrestler is president. (Trump has appeared in several pay-per-view events for World Wrestling Entertainment, including 2013’s ‘Battle of the Billionaires’.) There was more than a hint of Dr Strangelove (1964) in the prospect, noted by terrified voters and political pundits alike, that an impulsive megalomaniac could soon have the nuclear codes. A number of journalists observed the similarities between Trump’s ascendancy and that of Senator Berzelius ‘Buzz’ Windrip, the demagogue who wins the presidency in Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 satirical novel It Can’t Happen Here. In Philip K. Dick’s book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), a fascist television star called Buster Friendly attains massive popularity with his ‘guffaws and off-the-cuff jibes’. These absurd scenarios and outlandish cautionary tales, once safely consigned to the realm of fiction, are lurching into a new, credulity-straining reality.

One definition of satire is that it marries comedy to moral purpose. For centuries, satirists have mobilized laughter in opposition to authoritarianism. In ancient Athens, Aristophanes wrote plays that pilloried the war-mongering populist Cleon, highlighting his violent abuses of power. In 1832, the French caricaturist Honoré Daumier was jailed for depicting King Louis Philippe I as a Rabelaisian giant who swallowed money from the poor and shat out peerages to the grovelling bourgeoisie. In his play The Provoked Wife (1697), John Vanbrugh argued that satire’s aim was the revelation of human frailty: ‘To hold to every man a faithful Glass, / And show him of what Species he’s an Ass.’ For Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels (1726) and A Modest Proposal (1729), the satirist’s job was ‘to cure the vices of mankind’. In Minima Moralia (1951), Theodor Adorno described ‘the decay of morals’ as satire’s ‘inexhaustible theme’. The thread that links these definitions is a faith in the essential goodness or progressiveness of satire: the idea that – even at their most childish, scatological and offensive – satirists are trying to improve society. Antony Jay, who co-wrote the satirical British sitcoms Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister (1980–88), argued that satire heightens viewers’ political awareness. For Jay, the crucial difference between satire and conventional comedy is that it ‘focuses a collective antagonism on political or social issues’, even while it plays those issues for laughs.

Now that Trump is president, laughter does not seem so appropriate a response as perhaps it once did: fury harnessed to collective resolve is more apt. One might be reminded here, in a queasy case of déjà vu, of the former UK Independence Party leader and pro-Trump sycophant Nigel Farage, smugly gloating to the European Parliament after his side won Britain’s EU referendum in June 2016. ‘When I came here 17 years ago,’ he crowed, ‘and said I wanted to lead a campaign to get Britain to leave the European Union, you all laughed at me. Well you’re not laughing now.’ This isn’t entirely true. People still laugh at Farage, but in a different, darker register: you could call it gallows humour.

How will satire change in the Age of Trump? One silver lining to the pestilent cloud of the 2016 election is that, for millions of Americans, and young people in particular, late-night satirical talk shows are a primary news source. Here, at least, satire is alive and well. Samantha Bee’s weekly show, Full Frontal, provided some of the most trenchant criticisms of the Trump campaign. In his final episode of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver made a plea for his audience to join progressive organizations, and actively combat populism and nativism. Late-night hosts and satirical comedians can administer electric shocks disguised as belly laughs. They tell jokes, but they also fact-check, investigate and interrogate. Crucially, they turn that focus on the media itself, drawing viewers’ attention to misleading coverage – even when it implicates their own industry.

Satirists can also refresh our understanding of history. In a spine-tingling segment on The Daily Show in October, Trevor Noah, who was born in South Africa, called Trump ‘the perfect African president’. Noah juxtaposed clips of Trump bragging about his wealth and god-given intellect with ones of Idi Amin making almost identical claims. It was laughter in the dark, to be sure. But it illuminated Trump in a fresh way, placing him in an unexpected context that brought home the shocking scale of the new president’s assault on democratic institutions. History was repeating itself, Noah suggested. If Amin was tragedy, then Trump was farce. 

Trump has waxed authoritarian about his plans to limit the scope and power of the media. He shows no qualms about attacking individual journalists; his misogynist crusade against Fox News’ Megyn Kelly was one particularly ugly example. In February 2016, he announced his chilling intention to ‘open up’ libel laws so that he ‘can sue [news organizations] and make lots of money’. While still president-elect, Trump took a step towards making good on that promise: he gathered journalists and editors from The New York Times in order to harangue and intimidate them, as if they were contestants on The Apprentice. Whether satire is an effective weapon in combating this assault is up for debate. Unlike other journalists, however, satirists are immune – for now, at least – to accusations of libel. For this reason, if no other, we should take their jokes very seriously indeed.

Main image: Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump and Kate McKinnon as Hillary Clinton in Saturday Night Live, 2016. Courtesy: Getty Images/NBC, New York; director: Don Roy King

Patrick Langley is a writer and critic based in London, UK. He is a contributing editor of The White Review.