Is Political Satire Worth It Anymore?
It’s 2017, and we take our timelines like we take our coffee: dark, bitter, and likely to keep us up all night tossing and turning. The front page of every newspaper, every day, reads like a fear-mongering Hillary Clinton campaign ad: “Imagine a world in which the least qualified, most morally bankrupt presidential candidate in U.S. history somehow won the election and started systematically destroying the democracy-protecting institutions we thought to be unimpeachable. So don’t forget to vote on November 8th, or else this future could come true.”
Well, here we are.
One meager respite that we have from this demoralizing, dangerous chaos is Saturday Night Live. The late-night sketch show is currently enjoying its highest ratings in 22 years, according to Variety—no small feat given how most people’s relationship with the show has morphed into more of a Sunday-morning-viral-links-bulletin than a 1990s-gather-around-the-TV-on-a-Saturday-night vibe.
Donald Trump’s obsession with SNL has been well documented since he tweets about it nearly every week. Even though, according to him, the show is “really bad television” with a “terrible” cast on a “failing” network, he’s bizarrely glued to his TV every Saturday night, anxiously watching Alec Baldwin’s lip-pouting, hand-splaying impression. In one recent outburst, he became enraged at Melissa McCarthy’s viral popularity on February 4th as White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, not because a popular TV show was portraying a member of his administration as an unhinged madman, but because Spicer was played by a woman.
There’s never been a president more visibly, personally, tantalizingly affected by public mockery. So then why does political satire feel, to me, more pointless than ever?
During the campaign season, it seemed like SNL, John Oliver, Samantha Bee, and, to a lesser extent, Trevor Noah and Stephen Colbert, were the voices of sanity, the recipients of the “yes, thank you!” that we all long to bestow on smart, funny people who get pissed at all the same things we do but are more capable of articulating their thoughts. We hoped that their weekly “epic takedowns” and “eviscerations” would finally end the looming threat of Trump. We figured that the electorate could only be shown how flat-out wrong one side is before switching allegiances to the light. We wanted humor, outrage, and Kate McKinnon to help voters to understand what we knew to be true: that a Trump presidency presented a nearly unprecedented threat to the fabric of our country.
But then the unthinkable happened, and we’re still reeling, and we’re still frightened, and we’re still rethinking the effectiveness of the tactics we thought were going to protect us from this worst-case scenario.
Satire, no matter how biting, did not work. Facts, no matter how damning, did not work. Blame James Comey, Vladimir Putin, and the Electoral College all you want (as you well should), but as it stands now, Donald Trump is our president and no amount of celebrity cameos or cries of “Drumpf!” did anything to stop it.
This is due, in part, to the fears on which Trump’s campaign preyed—a campaign built on paranoia and xenophobia, on populism and anti-elitism. Of course his supporters wouldn’t watch shows filled with Hollywood snobs like SNL or Last Week Tonight; of course they wouldn’t want their views challenged or proven wrong. Not in a world in which facts are malleable if they don’t fit the leader’s narrative, in which the president of the United States claims, as he did on February 6th, that “any negative polls are fake news.” When it comes to reconciling photographs of the meager inauguration crowd with the White House’s claims that it was the best-attended inauguration in history, the question remains: Whose facts are real? Cognitive dissonance of this sort is poison in the age of Trump, and 63 million Americans aren’t about to drink it.
There’s another factor at play here, too. The phrase “truth is stranger than fiction” is cliché at this point, but I can honestly say that if House of Cards just showed footage from this presidency’s infancy, I’d be complaining that it jumped the shark. It’s tough to satirize what’s already a satire. In fact, Trump’s campaign ran every play in the “fictional demagogue rises to power on a wave of jingoism” book, one that’s been well read by everyone from Aristophanes to Charlie Chaplin. This assumption of power has been a pastiche in and of itself, and somehow we weren’t able to alert 30 states that we’ve seen this play out before, both in fiction and real life. Making fun of him now strikes me as redundant—he made fun of himself for over a year and won anyway.
Even if you do try, it’s deceptively hard to make fun of him effectively. Political satire in the past month has had to walk an impossibly thin line. Mock Trump’s sillier aspects (his thin skin, his tiny hands, his dumb hair, etc.), and you pluck low-hanging fruit in ways that were done to death by the 1980s. But satirize the more sinister aspects of his regime (his terrifying Cabinet appointments, his willful destruction of the decorum required of the American presidency, literally any of his actual policies) and you risk trivializing the rise of fascism. I’ve been unable to laugh at recent SNL episodes, no matter how funny they are, because of the real-world consequences of the actions of the idiots and white supremacists the satires are lampooning.
I don’t mean to diminish the sociopolitical importance of satire. I believe it is vital in the right contexts, and I believe we need people who will fill this role and use humor as their voice of reason. I always have. I’ve worshiped SNL ever since 2008, when I credited much of Obama’s victory to the show’s truth telling. “Look at how silly Tina Fey makes Sarah Palin look!” I thought. “People must get that!” Besides, making Trump feel bad is a net positive in the world of 2017. Every time he gets upset, an angel donates to Planned Parenthood.
But right now? I’m disillusioned with political satire. I’m sick of takedowns. I’m sick of eviscerations. A few minutes ago, my roommate turned to me and told me that people on Twitter have spent the evening calling out all the comma splices in Trump’s horrifying tweets. I’m sick of that, too. It might feel good, and sure, you should get your kicks where you can, but it’s not doing jack. When the content of those tweets is putting people at risk, poking holes in grammar is embarrassingly petty.
Fascism is unaffected by being proven wrong. This much we know. Maybe I’m becoming radicalized over here, growing militant in the face of dark times ahead. But I’m realizing that we have to do more than spit, snark, and giggle at the stupidity of those with whom we disagree. We have to do more to fight this, with our time and our money and our work. Someone lace up my gloves; I’m ready to punch a Nazi.