Donald Trump will be president. Despite a 16-month attempt, from the day he announced his candidacy until the day he won the election, by Seth Meyers, Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah, Larry Wilmore, SNL, John Oliver, and others to undermine, ridicule, and expose him, Donald Trump will be President of the United States of America.
For the past two months, fans of satire and political comedy who, along with their favorite late night hosts, scoffed at Trump’s candidacy, mocked his ideas, and reproached him for every misstep, have been left wondering what happened. Why didn’t satire stop Donald Trump? Why didn’t mockery convince voters he was a fraud? Why didn’t exposure of his folly show voters how dangerous of a president he would be?
Disregarding the fact that many voters just didn’t like Hillary Clinton and focusing specifically on why comedy couldn’t shape voter perception of Trump like it has other politicians, the answer is basically twofold: Trump is nearly impossible to satirize, and, now more than ever, political satire appeals to those already inclined to consume it.
Trump is too explicit to satirize, too ridiculous to parody
Political satire is most effective when it reveals the irony inherent in a subject and directs us to think differently about an issue or see it in a new light. In 2003, Jon Stewart cut past the media’s fear mongering to expose sordid truths behind the Bush Administration’s purpose in Iraq. More recently, John Oliver has proven himself very adept at digging to the depths of unfamiliar but troublesome issues. There is little digging that could reveal anything worse about Donald Trump than what was already coming out of his own mouth.
The purpose of satire is often to personify foolishness in such an extreme way that it becomes ridiculous. But Donald Trump is already openly foolish, openly brash, openly ignorant. Alec Baldwin’s Trump impression on SNL was pretty solid, but he didn’t latch onto anything that made Trump look more ridiculous than he was. During the 2000 election, Will Ferrell’s “strategery” and Darrell Hammond’s “lockbox” pointed out aspects of Bush and Gore’s characters not obvious to many voters, then played them to the extreme to drive home Bush’s denseness and Gore’s dullness.
Baldwin could only repeat what Trump was already doing. After a debate in October, W. Kamau Bell, host of CNN’s “United Shades of America,” tweeted, “I feel like every time [Donald Trump] says, ‘Wrong.’ he’s doing an impersonation of Alec Baldwin’s impersonation of him.” Which is actually as much a critique of Trump as it is of Baldwin’s impression.” If Trump had only shouted “wrong” one time in a debate, and Baldwin had said it a dozen times in a sketch, he would have exposed the ludicrousness of a single moment. But Trump said “Wrong” multiple times in a single debate, so Baldwin’s mimicry didn’t make Trump seem any more absurd than we already saw him to be.
Liberal-minded satire appeals to liberal-minded voters
Not only did mockery fail to personify anything other than Trump’s already absurd public self, those watching to see if it could were those already hoping it would. The 2016 election was one of the most polarizing in history. Thanks to social media, voters kept to their echo chambers and scoffed at all opposition. Just as fans of The Daily Show feel completely out of touch with Fox News consumers, conservative news fans are just as turned off by left-leaning political comedy. And the “us vs. them” mentality became vicious in 2016 as Democrats accused Trump supporters of being racist, misogynistic, xenophobic idiots.
The Blaze’s Tomi Lahren grew to fame this year as her rants against Black Lives Matter and Colin Kaepernick went viral. In November, Lahren appeared on The Daily Show and Trevor Noah grilled her on race issues and told her “For somebody who is not racist, you have to spend a lot of time saying, ‘I’m not racist.'” The crowd booed her mercilessly throughout the interview. In her next Blaze video, Larhen voiced her resentment that Noah “likened me to a racist uncle before I stepped onto the stage.” There are many on the right who share her views and have no interest in letting satirists tell them they’re wrong.
Satire is limited by its purpose and audience and doesn’t play well in the heartland. Shows like Full Frontal with Samantha Bee are tailor-made to appeal to big city liberals with an intellectual sensibility. Bee’s indignant dissent against opponents of Planned Parenthood and LGBT rights attacked the beliefs of small town religious folks afraid of the “liberal agenda.” Although the primary purpose of satire is to “punch up” at those in power, there is an elitism inherent in satire that also looks down on anyone who disagrees.
Satire is an art for intellectuals by intellectuals, and there was a great disparity in education between Trump voters and Clinton supporters. As a result, satire against Trump was mainly consumed by those already inclined to dislike him. The audience laughing and clapping at Seth Meyers’ “Closer Look” at Trump University or Trump’s charity fraud was an audience already prone to scoff at Trump’s faults.
Comedy is not activism
Apart from the predisposition of its typical audience, modern political satire is also limited by its purpose and the very fact that it is satire. Comedy is not activism. As influential as Jon Stewart was, he always maintained that he was “just” a comedian, not a pundit. He made powerful points, but he bore no responsibility to make changes. He mined issues for irony and presented them with wit. As much as he was trying to make a point, he made no claim to the power of upheaval. He didn’t stop the Iraq War; he didn’t stop Bush in 2004. He raised awareness of the Administration’s deception, but deception won out because Bush voters weren’t watching Comedy Central, and those who were let Stewart’s critique fall on deaf ears.
Stewart’s greatest power, though, was in holding the media accountable. As the media (not just Fox News) spread fear after 9/11 and bolstered jingoistic support for the War on Terror, The Daily Show cut through the narrative to raise questions on how these issues should be reported.
In 2016, no satirist was consistently keeping the media accountable. Two months after Trump announced his candidacy, Stewart retired. Trevor Noah’s Daily Show moved away from critiquing Fox News, and he and the other late night hosts focused on critiquing Trump himself. As a result, media coverage of Trump ran rampant and “fake news,” which took on a whole new meaning, took over social media unfiltered. That isn’t to say that Stewart would have taken a different route. But as we’ve seen, Trump’s public self was absurd. The media reported on that absurdity. Late night hosts critiqued that absurdity.
There was no stopping Trump by critiquing him. The only possible way to stop Trump would have been to silence him. Of course, some would say late night hosts gave him too much attention, but they were merely responding to the zeitgeist. If the media was reporting it, John Oliver had to undermine it. But he didn’t undermine the media, so the cycle continued. Would it have helped if he had? Probably not. Trump was beyond the grasp of satirical dissent.
Satire has always “failed” to effect change
The history of satire is littered with “failure” to evoke social change. Stewart did not stop Bush in 2004, the Smothers Brothers did not stop the Vietnam War, Chaplin’s The Great Dictator did not curtail Hitler’s advances, Alexander Pope had no effect on policies under King George II or III, Jonathan Swift did little to change British views toward Ireland. I could keep going back to Juvenal and Horace and the Roman Empire, but the message is clear: satire tends to raise awareness, but fails to effect change. And it doesn’t claim to do so.
Satirists are not politicians. They choose instead to sneer from the back of the room. Their purpose is to mock and expose folly, but often that mockery only leads to laughter, and in the case of modern political comedians, that is their purpose. They don’t use comedy to change politics, they mine politics for comedy.
Thus was the case in 2016. Donald Trump was too ridiculous, too explicit, too absurd. It was all a satirist could do to represent him as he was. Comedians didn’t stand a chance of making him out to be something worse than everyone knew him to be. And if they did, they were preaching to the choir. Now that Trump has won the presidency, the next four years will give satirists a chance to undercut everything his administration does. It will surely be a time of great subversion. Whether it will have any effect remains to be seen.