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Salon
Salon
22 Apr 2023
By Sophia Tesfaye Senior Politics Editor


NextImg:Sick of Trump? Try laughing at him

We are sick of Donald Trump. Totally and completely sick of hearing his voice, seeing his image, and watching his latest idiotic, sinister move. We are sick of his hold on the GOP, his incessant need for attention, and his bullying, bigoted swagger.

We are over him. Done. Ready to move on.

And yet, almost eight years after he descended a golden escalator and issued one of the most baffling presidential campaign announcements in the history of televised news, he's not gone. And no matter how sick we are of him at this point, he's not going away. At least not in the immediate future.

He may have gotten indicted and he may get indicted again soon, but that still hasn't shut him up or taken him off our feeds. We are stuck watching this guy, reading his inane social media messages, checking his polling numbers, and wondering what crazy thing he will do next. And it all makes us nauseated.  

But there is one antidote to the depression, anxiety, and frustration we feel in having to pay attention to this narcissistic, antidemocratic loser and that's comedy, especially satirical comedy.

There is no better way to expose what a total joke Trump is than using jokes. And by that, I don't mean he is just an innocuous goofball we should giggle at: I mean that he is both absurd and dangerous, stupid and stealthy, powerful and pathetic, and that political satire is particularly good at exposing this extreme and seemingly incompatible set of qualities.

In my new book, Trump Was a Joke: How Satire Made Sense of a President Who Didn't I analyze exactly how it came to be that satire has proven to be such an exceptional foil to Trump and Trumpism. One of my core arguments is that when politics gets absurd, satirical comedy is one of the few ways to not just expose absurdity, but also counteract it.

No doubt we all have Trump fatigue, but that isn't the same as Trump comedy fatigue. So, here are five reasons why we should keep laughing at him.

1.     Comedy makes the story about the joke.

As sick as you may be of Trump, you have to give the guy credit for one thing: He knows how to keep the spotlight on him.  Since well before he announced his 2016 campaign, Trump has had an uncanny ability to the cameras focused on him.  Whether trolling Barack Obama to produce his birth certificate, calling Mexicans rapists, or bragging about grabbing women by their p*##ys, he's the car crash we can't stop watching.

This is not just a story about a guy who knows how to manipulate the media; this is a story about a guy who profits from it. Thomas Patterson, Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard's Shorenstein Center, wrote back in December 2016 that from the moment that he announced, Trump "was the center of press attention." Patterson's research shows that the disproportionate coverage of Trump may well have led him to win the election, in part because the media allowed Trump to define his opponents.  Whether he was ranting about Hillary Clinton's emails or calling Marco Rubio short, Trump always had his hand in framing the story.

One of the most interesting aspects of Trump comedy that I analyze in my book is the way that it empowers nonprofessional comedians and everyday citizens to express themselves by mocking Trump.

Not so, though, with satirical comedy. Before, during, and after Trump was elected, the one source of media that was able to effectively and persuasively reframe the story of Trump was comedy and this has been true ever since the satirists at Spy Magazine called Trump a short-fingered vulgarian back in 1988.

Whether we think of Alec Baldwin impersonating Trump for Saturday Night Live or the massive Trump baby balloon that flew over London in 2018 or Sarah Cooper lip syncing an unhinged Trump, there are countless example of times that comedy has disrupted the Trump-controlled narrative.  

The best proof we have of the power of comedy to deflate Trump's massive media ego is the fact that he was obsessed with its power over him. He not only tweeted each and every time, Baldwin played him, he also tried to pressure Seth Meyers to publicly apologize to him after Meyers mocked him at the 2014 White House Correspondents' Association Dinner.  

Trump doesn't just whine about jokes that mock him; he also has a history of suing or threatening to sue comedians. Even better, we also know that when he was in office he asked advisors about what the Justice Department, the Federal Communications Commission, and the court system could do to punish comedians who made fun of him.

2.   Trump comedy isn't going anywhere.

Much has been made lately that the moment for televised Trump-focused comedy has ended. Part of the story relates to the relative success of the right-wing insult comedy of Fox News' "Gutfeld!" Folks watching Nielsen ratings have noted drops in the traditional late-night comedy line-up and started to speculate that the drop is due to audiences being tired of Trump-bashing jokes.

The ratings are real, but they are only part of the story. Actually, a pretty small part.

Writing last year for Forbes, Mark Joyella noted that "Gutfeld!" was out-pacing other late-night comedy shows with 2.94 viewers as compared, for example, to "The Late Show with Stephen Colbertat 2.1 million. What these ratings watchers miss, however, is the fact that those of us who watch satirical comedy rarely watch it when it airs on TV. In fact, most TV watchers are over 65, which tracks well with the Fox News demographic. Not only are cable TV watchers older, there are less and less of them, with cable TV watchers declining 20 percent from 2015 to 2021.

Even more, ratings don't capture the various other ways that viewers watch clips of comedy. "Gutfeld!" does pretty badly on YouTube, regularly getting less than 500,000 views, as compared to both Stephen Colbert and John Oliver, who each have over 9 million subscribers to their respective YouTube channels. 

Here's the other thing: We don't just make fun of Trump on TV.  In fact, one of the most interesting aspects of Trump comedy that I analyze in my book is the way that it empowers nonprofessional comedians and everyday citizens to express themselves by mocking Trump. From social media sites to protests signs, there is virtually no act or utterance by Trump that isn't countered by a heaping dose of citizen-led satirical sass.

3.   Satire is highly effective at revealing the irony in an ironic situation.

One of the core truths of satire is that the more absurd things get, the more satirical comedy there will be.  This is true across time and place.  But the most important lesson in this is why this happens everywhere, all the time.

Because the Trump persona was such a complex mess of frightening, stupid, callous, calculating and inept, it was extremely difficult for the straight news media to handle those various personas. But satire was able to hit at them all together, all the time.

Satire is uniquely suited to combat abuses or power, political folly, deceit, and deception and that is because when the world is absurd, it takes absurd forms of communication to make it easy to see. So, when a politician says he is going to make the country great, but actually makes it worse, it takes satire to expose that in a way that is easy to recognize and possible to counteract.

Because satire is playful, clever, and uses irony creatively it is the perfect foil for deceptive political rhetoric.

This is always true, but under Trump it became truer than ever, in part, because the Trump persona was such a complex mess of frightening, stupid, callous, calculating and inept. It was extremely difficult for the straight news media to handle those various personas, but satire was able to hit at them all together, all the time.

We have literally been laughing at this guy for decades. And, as I point out in my book, whether we laugh at a Trump cartoon by Gary Trudeau or a Jimmy Kimmel tweet or a satirical essay by John Oliver, satire always gives us insight into the ironies of the Trump persona we just don't get anywhere else.

4.   Satire is never just a distraction.

Comedy is great for dealing with stress, but satirical comedy does more. Satirical comedy is designed to fire up the mind in ways that allow its audience to foster, develop, and deploy critical thinking skills. Satire consumers are smarter, better at nuanced thinking and open to complexity.

Satire, also, makes us better at politics. Research shows that satire helps audiences feel more confident about their political beliefs and that this translates into higher rates of political action. Satire consumers also have better memory recall for political information.

From voting to donating to petitioning to protesting, satire lovers get involved in politics and they do so while laughing at their opponents. It is a highly powerful model and one that has been especially useful as a counterforce to the MAGA crowd. 

5. It is good for us to laugh at him.

Satire wasn't just powerful at reframing the Trump narrative and keeping us politically engaged, it also feels good and helps us feel less isolated.  My research shows how Trump satire helped to build a community of "it getters," who both had a laugh at the absurdity of Trump but also felt connected and engaged. We can see this at work in the way that political movements like Indivisible incorporated satire and laughtivism into their grassroots movement.

Michael Moore has also talked about how Trumpism led us to build an "army of comedy" to not just get under his skin but help us feel empowered.  Research proves Moore's point, documenting how humor increases the likelihood that audiences will share political information with others.

Trump satire played a major role in helping fight off depression, despair, and disillusionment after the 2016 election. Because satire excites the mind while targeting a social problem, it helps its audience feel pleasure at getting the joke and laughing at something that deserves mockery. 

And if there is one thing we have needed during the Trump era it is to feel good even when he is making us sick.  He may be making us sick, but we can still enjoy laughing at him.