In the waning days of 2016, liberal late-night hosts took to meeting with their counterparts in the conservative entertainment complex. “The Daily Show’s” Trevor Noah argued with The Blaze’s Tomi Lahren about the nature of race in America; “Full Frontal’s” Samantha Bee interviewed right-wing radio host Glenn Beck for a summit on “nonpartisan decency.” The power of these segments, supposedly, was the reconciliation of unlikely opposites. But how opposite have these two groups really been? The post-truth condition, in which Trumpism has flourished, has its roots in left-wing satire.
2016 was the year when the line between parody and reality blurred to the point of vanishing. Fake news spread through social media as swiftly as it did thoroughly. By the end of October, a PPP poll found that 40% of Donald Trump supporters in Florida thought Hillary Clinton was “an actual demon” — who could make up anything crazier than that? Post-fact life is funny but not ha-ha funny. Everything has become a joke and so nothing is anymore.
But satire swallowed the news first. The point of origin was probably Jon Stewart’s legendary appearance on “Crossfire” in 2004, in which he claimed that the high-volume political debate program was existentially evil rather than in error: “It’s not so much that it’s bad, as it’s hurting America.” When the hosts brought up Stewart’s softball questioning of political figures, he used satire as an alibi. “My point is this,” Stewart said. “If your idea of confronting me is that I don’t ask hard-hitting enough news questions, we’re in bad shape, fellows.”
Stewart put himself in an ideal position—he was moral arbiter who could determine what was hurting America while he took absolutely no responsibility himself. He knew better than the journalists but he was not subject to their rules. He was just an entertainer.
But he wasn’t. While “Crossfire” soon died, “The Daily Show” went on to become as regular a source for news as USA Today. In 2009, a Time magazine poll declared Stewart the most trusted news anchor on the air. “The Daily Show,” and those who emerged from it, indulged a contempt for real media institutions while effectively competing with them. In 2010, Stewart led the Rally to Restore Sanity in Washington — an overtly political act.
The comedy-politics confusion isn’t unique to the United States. Beppe Grillo began as a political satirist and now leads the Five Star Movement in Italy. In 2013, the Five Star Movement, which sits with the United Kingdom Independence Party in the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy group in the European Parliament, was the second most popular party in the Italian Chamber of Deputies. Real power brings with it the problems satirists love to mock, though: In December, the Five Star Movement had to disown Virginia Raggi, the mayor of Rome, when one of her advisors was arrested for alleged corruption.
In one sense, of course, political satire is the opposite of fake news. Satirists rip away the pretenses of journalism to reveal what they believe to be true. Fake news sites use the pretenses of journalism to spread what they know to be false.
Despite intentions, however, the effect is the same. Political satirists, and their audiences, have turned the news itself into a joke. No matter what the content of their politics, they have contributed to the post-factual state of American political discourse. It doesn’t matter what Sam Bee or John Oliver say; it matters that their comedy is the source for political information.
Satire, like fake news, creates a sense of community through rejection. It delights in tearing down institutions but is useless at constructing them. Jonathan Swift said that satire was a mirror in which viewers discovered everybody’s face but their own; its pleasure is the pleasure of othering. The act is inherently tribal as well as political, and social media exacerbates the tribalism.
Left-wing friends eagerly post John Oliver’s latest screed with THIS in all caps, hoping for mutual virtue-signaling. Right-wing friends post pizzagate fantasies to prove how deep their anger runs. The content is more or less irrelevant—at least beyond which side is the object of derision. In a recent survey by Pew Research, 14% of respondents admitted that they intentionally shared fake news. The left and the right in America are in a contest of competitive virality: comic bits vs. fake news.
In 2016, the power of outraged mockery has been vastly greater than the power of informed debate. But the immediate crisis of American political satire in the Trump era is more basic. It’s simple, really: Trump benefits from being satirized.
The greatest modern expression of American satire, Spy magazine, mocked Trump for its entire run. (Spy teased Trump for having small hands long before Marco Rubio did.) Their contempt only aided his manic self-promotion. The same is unquestionably true for the current Trump parodies on “Saturday Night Live.” In the New York Times, Alec Baldwin acknowledged that his performances of Trump run the risk of humanizing him. If only that were nothing more than a risk.
Parodying Trump is at best a distraction from his real politics; at worst it converts the whole of politics into a gag. The process has nothing to do with the performers or the writers or their choices. Trump built his candidacy on performing as a comic heel—that has been his pop culture persona for decades. It is simply not possible to parody effectively a man who is a conscious self-parody, and who has become president of the United States on the basis of that performance.
Where does this state of affairs put comedians now? On one side are the engaged comics, like Bee and Oliver, who are becoming increasingly indistinguishable from straight political commentators, shouting their arguments with an occasional comic aside. Ironically, they look and feel increasingly like a liberal version of “Crossfire.” On the other side are the comedians of retreat, Jimmy Fallon chuckling over lip-syncing celebrities and carpool karaoke with James Corden.
Trump wins either way. He wins if he’s a punch line and he wins if he’s ignored. That’s what you get when you elect a walking, talking joke.
Stephen Marche is a novelist and columnist.
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