How Donald Trump Killed Left-Wing Political Satire
American political satire died on January 24, 2016.
It had sickened a little during the previous decade, but still looked as though it might be on the mend. Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” may have gotten complacent during the Bush years, but during the Obama administration it was able to mock the Nobel Peace Prize recipient for going full “America f*ck yeah” on ISIS, while newcomer John Oliver mostly avoided national politics, opting instead to poke fun at legislative and regulatory oddities.
Then came Donald Trump and, more specifically, Sarah Palin’s endorsement of him on January 19, 2016. That Saturday, Tina Fey made her celebrated return to “Saturday Night Live” to parody the former Alaska governor by…um…repeating her speech almost word for word. The comedienne who bore much of the responsibility for turning Palin into the albatross of the McCain campaign seemed to have run out of material. Reality had outrun satire, and satire was left with nothing to do but look on in bemused disbelief.
Of course Palin’s speech was, by intention, utterly bonkers, but that only made things worse. With her endorsement, Palin was merely putting her own spin on the brilliant political style Donald Trump debuted with his very first campaign speech. I’m certainly not thrilled about it, but Trump’s most innovative contribution to American politics was without a doubt his realization that Republicans will never be respected no matter what they do. If the liberal media can paint a moderate blue-state governor like Mitt Romney as a right-wing extremist, then Trump figured he might as well embrace the label. Sure enough, it threw the left into paroxysms of rage, but it also energized the right like never before.
Tina Fey’s spoof showed that, for liberals, the Republican Party had become a parody of itself. Palin’s speech showed that she and Trump were just fine with that. A feedback loop was formed. Liberals mocked Trump supporters. Trump supporters came to accept and then to revel in that mockery. Trump supporters repeated and intensified the behavior that drew the most derision. Liberals responded with the only weapon they had—more mockery, which served only to further embolden the Trump supporters.
After a few cycles of this, satire requires no effort at all. Why would liberal comedians put in the work to write insightful jokes or mock their own side when they have such low hanging fruit as “covfefe” at their fingertips? We deserve better satire, and if we want to stop the feedback loop, we need it as soon as possible.
Thankfully, over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed some signs that the lazy, point-and-laugh satire of the Age of Trump may finally be approaching self-awareness.
On May 8, the notoriously left-wing Vice ran an opinion piece by Harry Cheadle with the headline “‘SNL’ Cold Opens Are Unfunny, Elitist Pieces of Liberal Propaganda.” The piece went on to lambast these political segments for consisting almost entirely of “obvious applause lines” meant to reassure the “anti-Trump crowd” that all of their “knee-jerk impulses and prejudices are correct.” This is not satire. This is preaching to the choir, or, as Cheadle puts it, “spoon-feeding the audience their own spit-up.” Satire is under no obligation to mock all sides equally, and it certainly can and should take aim at particular targets. But it cannot be allowed merely to soothe its viewers into complacency. Most anti-Trump comedy exists only to remind liberals that everybody who matters already agrees with them and that anyone who doesn’t agree is crazy. Cheadle recognizes this as precisely the kind of “smarmy bullshit that makes conservatives angry enough at the Hollywood elite to vote Trump just to stick it to them.” This level of smugness, which bears just as much responsibility for Trump’s rise as Trump himself, is ripe for satire.
Clearly, Cheadle wasn’t the only one to come to this conclusion. Just one day after his piece was published, Trump’s worst nightmare exploded onto the web with all the internet-breaking panache of Kim Kardashian’s ass. This new banner to which the enemies of the orange devil could flock was ResistanceHole, a new spin-off of ClickHole and The Onion designed to follow up on the success of last year’s PatriotHole, which spoofed shady pro-Trump news sites and managed to be funny while doing it.
The political content I’ve seen from The Onion and its subsidiaries has been overwhelmingly liberal, leading me to assume that its staff leans in that direction. ResistanceHole offers something entirely new in contemporary satire. Instead of liberals mocking conservatives, we now see, for perhaps the first time, liberals mocking liberals mocking conservatives.
A quick scan of ResistanceHole headlines shows that this is no mere gesture at balance, but a genuine attempt to make smug Trump critics cringe. From the desperate straw-grasping at any excuse for impeachment (“Game Over, Trump: An Ancient Order Of Franciscan Monks Has Released A 13th-Century Tapestry Depicting Donald Trump Colluding With Russian Officials”), to the lazy clicktivism (“Mr. Drumpf, Your Newest Nightmare Is A Website Called ResistanceHole”), to the protests-cum-social-outings (“Joining The Resistance: This Woman Marched With The Florida Teens Because She Thought She Was At Mardi Gras”), this is a website willing to admit that Democrats have become just as absurd as the Republicans they mock. The feedback loop isn’t good for anyone. It turns Republicans into trolls and Democrats into snobs.
Perhaps my favorite ResistanceHole article is a takedown of this liberal tendency to unreflectively condemn everything Trump does. After the Israeli army killed 60 Palestinians last week, ResistanceHole accused the GOP of “taking credit for Obama’s hard work,” criticizing Trump for “acting like he’s the first and only president to unwaveringly enable Israeli’s murderous apartheid tactics” when in fact Obama “laid the foundation for ignoring the slaughter of innocent Palestinian men, women, and children.” Regardless of how you feel about Israel, this is clearly a step in the right direction.
The comedian John Mulaney, in his recently released Netflix stand-up “Kid Gorgeous,” makes a similar observation. After a self-deprecating joke about how “very brave” his political comedy is, he launches into an extended metaphor comparing Trump in the Oval Office to a horse loose in a hospital. This was good for a few laughs, but was mostly standard anti-Trump fare. Then came the moment that made me want to cheer. Mulaney leads into the joke by imagining a conversation with a horse-supporting friend who wants to know why Mulaney didn’t care when the guy who used to run the hospital did many of the same things the horse is doing now. Mulaney responds: “First of all get out of here with your facts… When people say ‘How come you were never mad at the last guy?’ I say, ‘Because I wasn’t paying attention!’”
In a routine full of “brave” anti-Trump jokes, Mulaney had the true bravery to take a potshot at the liberal smugness that mistakes lazy anti-Trump satire for courage and #Resistance.
For better or for worse, liberals enjoy cultural hegemony. But if they continue to abuse it with their uncritical self-righteousness, Trump and his followers will only grow more belligerent. We’ll be left with two nations: one that watches “SNL” and one that watches “Roseanne.” Only good satire can save us, and it might just be making a comeback.
Grayson Quay is a freelance writer and M.A. student at Georgetown University.