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smoke and mirrors

smoke and mirrors

10 years of thank you for smoking, donald trump, and the joke of american democracy

On February 13, the day Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died, small-time comedian Jake Flores tweeted out: “i’m starting to think that this is the last season of America and the writers are just going nuts.” Almost immediately the tweet went viral, garnering nearly 30,000 retweets and 37,000 likes.

Clearly something about Flores’ tweet hit a chord with Americans who have watched the daily news cycle of the 2016 election and American politics with a mix of horror, anxiety, and fascination. And it’s hard not to believe that perhaps the country is in the midst of a sick joke. As alarming as it may be to watch Donald Trump boast about the size of his hands and then vow to “bomb the shit out of” ISIS, the spectacle makes for great TV. There is a reason that Republican debates have seen record ratings this year: The debates are as violent and animalistic as football, and by now Republican candidates are tackling Trump like it’s a fourth-quarter goal-line stand.

Already, this year’s GOP has gifted us ironic subplots too outlandish and too absurd for political entertainment, such as “House of Cards,” to imitate. During the Illinois caucus, Trump lost at least two delegates because some of his own voters refused to vote for the delegates that had Muslim-sounding names. Trump could fail to win the Republican nomination all because Trump voters give someone named “Raja Sadiq” 6,393 fewer votes than a white guy named “Doug Hartmann.” In 2016, you cannot make this stuff up.

Even before Trump, however, American politics has always been better digested after taking a deep breath. One barely has to stretch to remember the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert hosted in 2010 that drew 215,000 people to the National Mall. Though intended to be a response to the chalkboard hysteria of Glenn Beck, that event succeeded in doing little more than raising money for charity and raising the already sky-high profiles of Colbert and Stewart.

Six years later, the appetite for liberal satire of the weekly news cycle goes on unabated, if ineffective. James Poniewozik, the TV critic for The New York Times, noted in February that “[Trump’s] style has rendered him, weirdly, almost comedy-proof.” Although Colbert may be neutered at CBS, Trevor Noah, Larry Wilmore, and, particularly, John Oliver are the highest-profile comedians doing their best to slow down the Trump Train. Oliver’s recent segment destroying Trump and renaming him Donald Drumpf was shared at least a dozen times on my Facebook newsfeed.

Yet Trump marches on without a majority, but also without any shame. A sense of desperation has sunk in among many of my fellow liberals. Echoing this tone, Salon published an article in March with the headline: “Help us, Jon Stewart: You’re our only hope to defeat Donald Trump.” At a time when Trump resembles a cartoon villain, do we really just need the perfect takedown? Can liberal satire set us free?

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When “Thank You for Smoking” was released in 2006, it was inhaled by critics as a breath of fresh air. The story of a tobacco industry lobbyist named Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), “Thank You for Smoking” makes quick work of the power complex that includes cable news, Hollywood, and Congressional hearings. Naylor argues with his lobbyist friends from the alcohol and firearm industry, a group called the Merchants of Death, over whose project kills more Americans. In another scene, Naylor jets off to Hollywood to meet with a super-agent (played by Rob Lowe) to pitch the product placement of cigarettes in a new sci-fi movie. You can’t smoke in space? No matter, the agent says, we’ll add a simple fix, one line of dialogue: “Thank God we invented the… you know, whatever device.”

Director Jason Reitman hardly features any actual smoking in the film. Instead the clear message is that politics is all marketing but no substance. This theme is a tightrope that “Thank You For Smoking” is never quite able to effectively walk. Naylor comes across as an elusive handsome suit with some awareness that what he is selling is not cigarettes but personal freedom. Yet there is no reckoning for Naylor’s emptiness since the people who oppose him are similarly caricatures. They include a female journalist who sleeps around to get the story, nerdy policymakers, and an incompetent senator from Vermont, who is, of course, a hypocrite because he wants to harm the tobacco industry while participating in photo ops with good ’ole American tobacco growers.

The jokes of “Thank You for Smoking” may feel stale now, but in 2006, we must not have been nearly as cynical. Roger Ebert’s very positive review included this tautological passage: “What I admired above all in ‘Thank You for Smoking’ was its style. I enjoyed the satire; I laughed a lot because it’s a very funny movie.” And there is a legitimately amusing plot line in the film that involves Naylor being kidnapped and tortured by anti-smoking terrorists. They slap a fatal number of nicotine patches on him, but he fortuitously has built a resistance to them through his lifetime addiction to nicotine. Like Trump’s Illinois caucus fiasco, the humor is the ironic justice of the universe. On life support, Naylor is told by an apologetic doctor that he will live but have to give up smoking. Sad!

Naylor and his fellow lobbyists may be cancers on the political system, but they didn’t start the fire. Naylor’s 12-year-old son asks for help for a writing assignment answering the question: “Why is American government the best government in the world?” Naylor’s reply in this scene is a rare moment of honesty from his character. “American government: probably not better than most,” he says. “[But] we do have a very entertaining government.”  Nayler may be the entertainer, the clown, but it is we, the audience, who have bought tickets to the show.

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Perhaps the problem with the comedians targeting Trump, as well as with satire like “Thank You for Smoking,” is that they are aiming at the wrong target. Naylor and Trump are both salesmen of lies, but only Trump is selling himself as the product. Like Vladimir Putin or a king, Trump is a man larger than life. His supporters are loyal to no cause, but to the man himself. Attacking Trump for being vulgar, short-fingered, buffoonish, or hyper-masculine is like kidnapping Naylor and forgetting about the tobacco companies.  It is a myopic response to a much bigger problem.

In some sense, attacking Trump’s policy ideas is even easier than attacking Trump the politician. John Oliver did a fine job on his show “Last Week Tonight” of dismantling the myth that Trump could build a wall and make Mexico pay for it. This wall will never, ever be built. This 18 minutes of stupidity-destroying wit is catharsis for the liberal viewer, an adaptation of the old Colbert joke that “facts have a well-known liberal bias.” Perhaps these segments can stave off a form of political despair, but I’m not sure they teach us anything. If you watch John Oliver, I think you probably already know that Trump’s wall (and entire policy agenda) is full of shit.

Former Daily Show Correspondent Samantha Bee took a different approach recently that bears more fruit: focusing not on the man himself, but his supporters. On the March 15 episode of her new show, “Full Frontal,” Samantha Bee sat down with a focus group of Trump supporters. This focus group, made up of young, diverse college-degree holders, may not be representative of all of Trump’s supporters, but it was enlightening.

Trump supporters aren’t stupid. In fact, many of them are “intelligent and thoughtful,” Bee realizes. Yet they support banning Muslims while bemoaning that white supremacist support for Trump yields unfair “guilt by association.” “Is there anything we can agree on?” Bee wonders. Right on cue, one man declares that “the whole presidential campaign is a reality show…and that is why [Trump] is winning.”

We can (and will) laugh at the absurdity of Trump’s supporters, but Bee’s segment does a public service. Isolated at Brown, a Trump supporter is hard to find. Should we not try to better understand our fellow citizens without condescension? Bee humanizes at no cost to the humor of her show. But more importantly, she echoes that cynicism in American politics runs both ways. Unlike in “Thank You for Smoking,” where Naylor’s lobbying is met with hatred and death threats, Trump’s theatrics are rendered real by an audience that believes all politicians are as fake and lying as the senator in Reitman’s film. These Trump supporters constantly harp on their distrust of “typical politicians.” Perhaps they have finally found someone who is in on the joke.

Good satire on the 2016 campaign must shine a light back on the American public. In different ways, we are all participants in and viewers of the rise of Trump. The alarming nature of 2016 is not that a demagogue like Trump may exist but that he could find a way to win a majority of the country’s voters. If anything deserves to be satirized, it is process itself. No country forces the United States to hold presidential campaigns that last for three years. No country is forcing the absurdity of caucuses, delegate counts, the Electoral College, and the two-party system on us. If our country ought to lose its mind, it should be because enough Americans pushed the wrong button at the ballot box.

Of all the jokes in the 2016 election season, the largest is American democracy. Of the 220 million eligible voters, fewer than 8 million have voted for Trump. That’s just 3.6 percent! The best satire will be truly democratic, mocking how we watch and fail to stop a system that focuses on entertainment at the expense of participation. Satire with real power must not just be extended rants destroying Trump. Trump, and the con men of “Thank You for Smoking,” are fake. We need our satirists remind us to point and laugh at the audience, not just the performers.