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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 [1], while newcomer John Oliver mostly avoided national politics [2], opting instead to poke fun at legislative and regulatory oddities.

Then came Donald Trump and, more specifically, Sarah Palin’s endorsement of him [3] 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 [4]. 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.

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Of course Palin’s speech [5] 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 [6] 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 [7], 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 [8] 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,” [9] 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.

34 Comments (Open | Close)

34 Comments To "How Donald Trump Killed Left-Wing Political Satire"

#1 Comment By W. Adderholdt On May 21, 2018 @ 11:31 pm

Thank you for pointing out ResistanceHole to me. It is a breath of fresh air compared to current political satire.

#2 Comment By M. Orban On May 22, 2018 @ 12:49 am

I think it is some sort of “founder effect”
My guess is that comedy writers tend to be younger and more educated… like college and stuff. So statistically they trend left. As a result when our President first descended on the escalator, the comedic body did not react well… made fun of him. Once that snowball got rolling it just crowded out anything else.
But be not disturbed, talk radio is yours, end to end.
See you at the midterms.

#3 Comment By JimDandy On May 22, 2018 @ 1:23 am

Wow, this is a helluva great column! He left out the fact that many Trump supporters made a very logical, measured decision when they voted for Trump–and much of what is dismissed as self-parodic behavior on the part of Trump supporters is actually justified, issue-based outrage–but he hasn’t even received his M.A. yet, so that’s forgivable.

#4 Comment By Richard W. Bray On May 22, 2018 @ 2:28 am

Liberals are so gosh darn proud of themselves for fixing America by electing Obama that they look at me like I killed their puppy when I tell them he deported 2.6 million people, dropped 100,000 bombs on nonwhite people, gave White House cuff links to a guy whose company was fined billions of dollars for malfeasance, and ridiculed Art History majors.

(No. Rachel would have told us if that were true.)

The tv comedians wanted to be Obama’s friend so bad that they couldn’t stop marveling at the way he dropped the microphone.

So there were no jokes about Chained CPI–when Obama used Frank Luntz word games to try to cut Social Security.

No jokes about Penny Pritzker–the Chicago billionaire that Obama appointed as Secretary of Commerce whose labor policies make Leona Helmsley look like Mister Rogers.

And no jokes about Obama’s dim-witted education secretary who inadvertently demonstrated that Disaster Capitalism really is a thing when he praised a hurricane that killed thousands of poor black and white people.

Instead, we got John Oliver punching left by making fun of John Kucinich, Trevor Noah getting all indignant about about people criticizing Obama for taking massive speaker fees after the white presidents got away with it, and Bill Maher telling thirty-seven varieties of the profoundly unfunny “something is missing because Chris Christie ate it” joke.

#5 Comment By Fayez Abedaziz On May 22, 2018 @ 3:05 am

Hello liberal and conservative citizens/voters.
A word or more about the word ‘left.’
Here you are…
what left?
From 1968 when I helped campaign for Eugene McCarthy, then Robert Kennedy, till now, I realized that,
as the years went by, that:
the so-called left is hardly seen in the U.S., and so, that word is thrown about easily.
For at least twenty years, I came to the realty that the liberals are…only social liberals! That’s it! They’re not fiscal or foreign policy liberals, as I and others were in the 60’s decade and on for some years.
While I know that ‘left’ doesn’t mean that one is a socialist, I laugh and shake my head when freak sites like Fox-so-called news refers to ‘liberals’ as ‘the left.’
Or the phony ‘news’ station CNN has talking heads talking nonsense about conservative or liberal this or that.
Grayson, you make a darn good point by pointing out SNL and Roseanne. This is what the so called ‘satire’ or political humor has sunk to?
Heck, y’all, this, today’s media, when it comes to jokin’ bout’ politics makes the old 60’s Laugh In show look like satire worthy of Cervantes (Don Quixote). And President Nixon even went on that show!
Can you dig what I’m sayin’? Cool

#6 Comment By Fayez Abedaziz On May 22, 2018 @ 3:07 am

Ah, I’m sorry about mis-typing the year- make that 1968 not 1868.
I’m a baby boomer, not that old, or I woulda mentioned old Pres Abe. Thank you

#7 Comment By JeffK On May 22, 2018 @ 8:01 am

A whole lot of truth here.

#8 Comment By Allen On May 22, 2018 @ 9:44 am

“How old are you, grandpa?” “I’m so old I remember when SNL was funny.”

Watch SNL if you like commercials. I can’t watch it anymore. It’s just too lazy. How many times can you recycle a Jeopardy skit?

All of late night is a wasteland. Kimmel has become a televangelist for the left. Colbert is just mean. I liked him better when he was pretending to be somebody else. Meyers? Nobody cares. Fallon is getting increasingly desperate. No wonder everyone watches Netflix instead.

#9 Comment By collin On May 22, 2018 @ 10:53 am

If the left has late night comedians, the right has outrage cable new and talk radio. How lazy and self-satified was the endless tirades that OBAMA and Clintons were criminals? (Of course Republicans did achieve victory 2016 from some of this.) And unfortunately, late comedians benefit from this same reality that they can have place on late night shows with their versions of anti-Trump.

Also, the disorganization of the Trump administration is almost too weird to parody.

#10 Comment By George Hoffman On May 22, 2018 @ 12:05 pm

Grayson, you’ll probably been a civilian all your life. But having served as a medical corpsman in Vietnam, it’s just how war is inherently evil by its nature. The snipers in the IDF just remind me of the snipers in Vietnam. And how you cannot change the nature of war though the nature of war will change you. But I have lived in a nation of civilians since I returned from my tour of duty. I have concluded they are pretty mich clueless about how brutal war can be for the soldiers forced to prosecute the war. It really just dehumanizes soldiers. Now although having stated this obvious fact of war, at least obvious to me, I in no way am endorsing nor excusing committing war crimes. I once was reading an article p in the NYT about an IDF soldiers who call the indiscriminate bombing of Gaza as “mowing the lawn.” And the first thought in my mind was “Oh, grunt talk.” There was a 10,000 pound bomb, nicknamed “the daisy cutter” used in Vietnam to clear the triple canopy jungle for an LZ (a Landing Zone). I thought about it when I read an article about a 20,000 pound bomb nicknamed the MOAB ( The Mother of All Bombs). So we’ve gone from “cutting the daises” in Vietnam to “mowing the lawn” in Gaza. I would estimate one or two percent of the wounded grunts on the ward were of course, I had no idea what a psychopaths was. Whether they came to Vietnam as psychopaths or they got so turned around by the brutality of the war seems moot. That’s what I thought about reading about the IDF snipers. And the moviegoers in America made Clint Easteood’s “American Sniper” the biggest hit of the year. And one must remember males in Israel are still forced to serve in the military as we still had a draft in the Vietnam War. They have no real choice in the matter since Israel has been in an endless era of war since its founding. Israelis don’t have the luxury of Americans who can support or oppose war today then go about their daily business of life and let the volunteer army do the dirty work. Richard Nixon got rid of the draft and replaced it with a lottery that evolved into our volunteer army. Essentially, it’s a mercenary army. If there really is such a thing as karma, I want to come back as a civilian. Ignorance is bliss.

#11 Comment By MarkedMan On May 22, 2018 @ 12:39 pm

So basically “it’s not funny when people mock the modern Republican”. This despite the significant ratings bump that Kimmel and Colbert got when turning anti-Trump. But unfortunately for you snowflakes your lot is such a target rich environment. Modern Republicans (as opposed to the pre-Southern Strategy Republicans) remind me of the robotic hosts in the series “Westworld” who, when shown something that doesn’t fit into the fantasy theme park world they inhabit, literally are unable to see it and can only monotonously drone “It doesn’t look like anything to me.”

Let’s face facts. The center and left in this country are attracted by comedians who tell painful truths in a sarcastic way. The modern Republican is attracted by media “journalists” who tell lie after lie in increasingly nasty and vindictive ways. There are critiques to be made about both. But they are not the same critique.

#12 Comment By swb On May 22, 2018 @ 1:05 pm

And yet the state of conservative satire is non-existent. Every attempt by the conservative crew to start up a right wing political humor show fails miserably (the 1/2 hour news hour as an example), even with Fox viewers. Weird. It is almost as if conservatives are only driven by rage while progressives have a sense of humor. The only criticism the author really has is that some progressive comedians find so much material within the Trump world that they don’t spend enough extra time to come up with more creative jokes. I would have to agree, Trump is an obvious joke.

#13 Comment By Chris Mallory On May 22, 2018 @ 1:11 pm

“How many times can you recycle a Jeopardy skit?”
The Tom Hanks as a Trump voter on “Black Jeopardy” was pretty funny and fairly even handed.

The last time I saw a funny clip of SNL, it was the “Clinton voters on election night” skit.

#14 Comment By Matt W On May 22, 2018 @ 1:15 pm

You’ve obviously not seen John Oliver being interviewed. In Oliver’s opinion “bad comedy” is easy; you just transcribe whatever Trump said.

#15 Comment By William Foster On May 22, 2018 @ 1:54 pm

Tom Lehrer had a point when he said, “Political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.”

But never mind. Let’s all pay rapt attention to a grad student with nothing better to do than brood over late-night teevee and satirical websites. And speaking of satirical websites, here’s a rapier-wit headline from ResistanceHole, Mr. Quay’s new favorite:

“Take That, Drumpf Lovers! A Research Team At MIT Has Just Conclusively Proved That Trump = Voldemort”

That’s a real knee-slapper, Grayson. I’ll bet the guys in the dorm back at Grove City College are busting a gut over that zinger.

#16 Comment By One Guy On May 22, 2018 @ 2:07 pm

The author seems to think that SNL is the only Left-Wing satire. It’s not. Of course SNL isn’t funny, hasn’t been for decades. That proves…what?

#17 Comment By JimDandy On May 22, 2018 @ 2:28 pm

What a cornucopia of corn, George Hoffman. You know what rhymes with “Loquacious”? A: “Fallacious.” There is absolutely no comparison between infantry life during the Viet Nam war (or the Iraq war, for that matter) and the dehumanizing, genocidal savagery of Israel towards the starved inmates of the world’s largest open air prison. Nice try. But since you like to play apologist for apartheid, here’s your next challenge–defend this “grunt talk”:

“That drawing is really disturbing: an armed Palestinian pregnant women caught in the crosshairs of a rifle, with both Hebrew and English caption meaning “One shot, two kills”. A T-shirt for infantry snipers bears the inscription “Better use Durex” next to a picture of a dead Palestinian baby, with his weeping mother and a teddy bear beside him. The Lavi battalion produced a shirt featuring a drawing of a soldier next to a young woman with bruises and the slogan “Bet you got raped!” Just few examples of the T-shirt designs made for Israeli soldiers by Adiv, a small T-shirt shop in South Tel-Aviv. Children, dead babies, destroyed mosques, are few other drawings printed on those shameful pieces of clothes.”

#18 Comment By Joseph On May 22, 2018 @ 2:47 pm

LOL. Trump “killed” political satire only because it’s exceedingly difficult to satirize something that’s already so ridiculous/surreal.

#19 Comment By cdugga On May 22, 2018 @ 3:04 pm

There does seem to be a carrot face movement on the right. Like, look, I’m a carrot face too. I think it would be great if all right wing tv personality supporters of the don proclaimed their support by mocking what is being mocked. Just put on an extra coat of orange before going on camera. If you do not think that is already happening, perhaps you are not paying attention, or, I am paying way too much attention. But, the idea that the left will cringe when their mockery is mocked, seems off. The ability to laugh at oneself, has to correlate with an ability to learn and progress forward. Time to move on, t’aint funny no more, nobody is buying what they have for free already. Our own jokes are funnier. Flattery, or, anybody can put on the clown face? Astounding. Astonished. They have moved up in the ranks, but I still think they will never pass, clearly. Clearly, I have lost my train of thought. What other deep subject can I troll at TAC today? The deep ones seem to make up less and less of the content. I believe that is for good reason. So, I am not astounded.

#20 Comment By K. On May 22, 2018 @ 3:32 pm

Good article.
Actually, though; I’d say the left is satirical, just Juvenalian, not Horatian, in other words—it tends to contemptuous, abrasive, scornful outrageousness, inexorably mocking and poking at the target it regards as an outright evil. Of course, the image they portray of Trump is distorted; exaggerating and contorting those features, they see as relevant and leaving out the rest. Similarly, the image presented is an absurd one; held up in the leftist mirror that distorts any reality it chooses to reflect. Where I think they’ve been failing of late; is in missing the basic formula of recognizing the familiar in the absurd and the absurd in the familiar; without which, of course, satire becomes completely and utterly—humorless. Perhaps the left needs a dose of its own language; a turn of phrase from Juvenile misunderstandings their currently mired in to the understanding of true Juvenalian wit.

#21 Comment By Tim Weston On May 22, 2018 @ 3:44 pm

So this guy was assigned the conservative boilerplate “I don’t find that funny” article this week. Rough duty.

#22 Comment By Johann On May 22, 2018 @ 6:15 pm

“And yet the state of conservative satire is non-existent.”

The Greg Gutfeld show on Fox is kinda funny, not always satire, but sometimes.

#23 Comment By Donald On May 22, 2018 @ 6:49 pm

As a lefty I agree with much of this. A great many liberals simply don’t care about issues unless there is a Republican who can be cast as the villain. However, I don’t think conservatives as a whole are better. The people at TAC are better, but you guys are not at all representative of what the Republican Party stands for.

#24 Comment By VikingLS On May 22, 2018 @ 7:10 pm

“But never mind. Let’s all pay rapt attention to a grad student with nothing better to do than brood over late-night teevee and satirical websites.”

Yes, let’s pay attention to the grad student. He wrote a perfectly good article, and popular culture is worth writing about.

Let’s not engage in the genetic fallacy.

#25 Comment By EarlyBird On May 22, 2018 @ 7:36 pm

It is a miracle that SNL has been on the air as long as it has. When was it last funny? Forget about left or right: it’s just awful. It’s like they don’t even try to be funny any more. It’s not witty, clever, funny, even insightful. It’s not even trying. It’s just a way for young writers and comedians to try to launch their career in movies. It’s horrid.

#26 Comment By Jim On May 22, 2018 @ 7:46 pm

To be fair to the Onion, it has been sharing links from ResistanceHole and others.

#27 Comment By LouisM On May 22, 2018 @ 10:22 pm

Political Satire is confronting the politically incorrect using laughter much like old nursery rhymes and other stories were entertaining both for their merit as a story but also for their cloaked double meaning as a political satire.

For decades though political satire has been evermore increasingly one sided and doesn’t expose any political incorrectness or insightful truth infact it has the intent to reinforce it.

Political Satire is as long dead as the humanities and liberal arts are in colleges. IF THERE IS ANYTHING AMUSING THAT EACH OF US SHOULD SMIRK WITH HIDDEN GLEE THEN ITS THAT LEFTISTS DONT KNOW THEY KILLED COMEDY, THEY KILLED POLITICAL SATIRE, THEY KILLED THE HUMANITIES AND LIBERAL ARTS, THEY KILLED THE NUCLEAR FAMILY AND MARRIAGE AND THE SOCIAL DYNAMIC BETWEEN THE MALE/FEMALE SEX. THE LEFT IS THE ANTITHESIS OF THE MIDAS TOUCH. INSTEAD OF TURNING EVERYTHING TO GOLD THE LEFT TURNS EVERYTHING TO LEAD.

This is an interesting example of the left from a systemic point of view. The saying goes that you take a marginally functioning complex system and it is extremely difficult to implement complex improvements making it better BUT it is extremely easy to implement any type of improvement that will make it worse if not non-functional (crash). As we saw from Obama…who will search out leftists from the best universities and will muck it up in failure, collusion and corruption because none of the smartest people with platinum credentials live in the real world…they simply dream their lofty dreams and then delegate them to technocrats to try to force fit theory into reality.

#28 Comment By Ray Woodcock On May 22, 2018 @ 11:16 pm

I looked at ResistanceHole. It doesn’t do much for me. But then, the Onion doesn’t usually either. Once in a while, they’re brilliant, and maybe RH will be too.

But the basic point seems right. Trump has been brilliant in whatever it is he’s doing. Approval rating rising, despite (or because of) the lunacy. You’ve heard the famous question — why are hemorrhoids not called assteroids? — and that is precisely the question that comes to mind as I contemplate the incoming Trump space rock. Or at least it is reminiscent of the question, Will he destroy us all, or will it all just turn out like the fizz settling on a beer? For which he does inspire one.

#29 Comment By Dave On May 23, 2018 @ 6:59 am

This is one of the best articles I’ve read in a long time. Well written, original take. Well done. TAC still the most underrated mag out there.

#30 Comment By JeffK On May 23, 2018 @ 9:06 am

My wife and I watched the 2018 season ending SNL show last night via On Demand. Given this article, I thought it would be a dud. Actually, it was quite funny.

#31 Comment By cj On May 23, 2018 @ 10:12 am

I suspect that were these same comedians to aim at democratic party politicians that Mr. Quay would think it a renaissance in comedy. But then again hypocrisy on the right is nothing new. Look at all the religious cretins giving t-rump a pass despite his patently egregious actions.

Plus there are much bigger issues. Is Mr. Quay aware of who is president and what he’s been doing? We’re in perilous times and Mr. Quay picks on comedians?

Keep watching Fox News Mr. Quay. Their political slant will most mirror your narrow and bigoted perspective and not get you into a lather.

#32 Comment By WorkingClass On May 23, 2018 @ 10:31 am

We deplorables know that it is not satire but hate and that it is not directed at Trump but at us. It’s the opposite of funny.

#33 Comment By Jeeves On May 23, 2018 @ 1:06 pm

First, Tina Fey can do no wrong. And I’m fine with that.

Second, thanks for ResistanceHole.

Third, Sarah Palin devolved into the un-Kardashian, and as a source of humor is officially a DryHole.

#34 Comment By mathaus On August 13, 2018 @ 11:28 pm

Americans are weird and not afraid of things that would make a normal person embarrassed to get off the street.

this is the only rational response in a irrational age.