How Donald Trump Has Made Political Satire Weaker
When Donald Trump announced he was running for President a year ago (it feels like it’s been a decade at this point), the world of late-night political satire was filled with excitement. Jon Stewart was so thrilled at the possibilities of mocking a Trump campaign that he seemed disappointed that it was happening just as he was leaving the fold. Sure enough, Trump delivered, giving his would-be critics plenty of fastballs right across the plate. In the speech where he declared his candidacy, Trump famously bragged “I’m really, really rich,” and more seriously, he claimed that Mexican immigrants were rapists. This is just one of multiple speeches where Trump has said outrageous things, which the likes of Larry Wilmore, John Oliver, and Samantha Bee have gone in on. There’s just one problem: has making fun of Donald Trump become a bit too easy?
One of the smartest things that has been said about Trump’s campaign came from Jordan Klepper of The Daily Show, when he joked that Trump, if elected, would be our first “openly asshole” President. There’s a lot of truth to this; plenty of people have run for President with an unfortunate set of beliefs and ideas, and several of them have been elected, but while those people either sincerely believed what their platforms were based on, or at least wrapped their awfulness in a shroud of respectability, Trump has no time for that. He’ll say exactly what he’s thinking on a given day, even if it’s the opposite of what he said yesterday, and if what he wants to say contains some form of racism or fear-mongering, he’ll put it right out there, leaving the delicate metaphors for the Marco Rubios of the world.
At first, that makes mocking Trump seem like a breeze. You don’t have to spend too much time on it, you can basically just play the clip and then say some variation of “can you believe this guy?” But after a year of Trump, that act is wearing thin. Political satirists don’t have much to say about Trump other than “he’s a jerk,” and since most of us — even some of the people who plan to vote for him — already know that, there’s only so much to be gleaned from the late-night takedowns of him.
Put it this way: a key part of political satire is finding the insidiousness wrapped between the pretty words and platitudes put out there by politicians. That was essentially the point of Jon Stewart’s “Bullshit” speech from his final episode; that all of us — professional satirists or otherwise — should look for the crap hidden in bills like the Clear Skies Initiative. In the past, that was a big part of Presidential campaigns. Stewart himself expertly noted how John McCain’s reputation as a “maverick” had been deeply damaged by his support for religious right people like Jerry Falwell (whom he had criticized in the past), as well as his disastrous selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate. Four years ago, Mitt Romney was the opposite of Trump in terms of rhetoric, refusing to say anything controversial, and hiding behind his robot personality as much as he could. That meant there was an actual challenge to taking down Mitt Romney, and when he was caught on tape remarking about the 47% of lower-class Americans who receive tax refunds, it was a big deal, because it was The Real Romney. Hearing him speak with open contempt for the poor let us know what he really thought, after an entire campaign of trying to avoid it. With Trump it wouldn’t matter; he’s said things far worse when he knew the camera was on, and he’s shrugged it off.
At this point, it can’t help but feel like the world political satire has the same problem as the Clinton campaign: how do you make people continue to feel shocked by the presence of Donald Trump? After a year of this, we’ve gotten used to it, even if we still aren’t thrilled, and the attempts to continue to say “umm…you know this guy is a massive tool, right” just aren’t having the same impact. Of course, this isn’t to say there haven’t been any good pieces mocking Trump. For all the criticism Trevor Noah received, he actually had one of the best Trump takedowns when he compared him to an African dictator. This was enjoyable because it offered a new perspective on what a Trump presidency might actually be like, rather than just focusing on how outrageous the most recent thing Trump said was. Likewise, Samantha Bee’s segment on Trump supporters was enlightening because it reminded her liberal audience that while it’s easy to write off anyone who would consider voting for him as an ignorant racist redneck, he actually has support from all walks of life (that’s what makes him scary). It tends to be that when people move past the silly voice and outlandish statements and get to the meat of the Trump movement that things start to get interesting.
Unfortunately, many shows — including ones that are usually hilarious — rely on the old schtick, with increasingly diminishing returns. Stephen Colbert and Larry Wilmore both have a Trump character appearing regularly on their shows, and in each case, there’s not really much to it. Their fake Trump says crazy things that you could easily picture of the real Trump saying. It might be good for a mild laugh, but it’s not exactly the most insightful satire in the world. Trump is extremely opulent, and often says racist or sexist things. We know that already. Yes, it’s frightening that someone like that could become President, but there’s only so many ways you can keep making these points, and as a result, anti-Trump satire has become frustratingly stale. I’ll still argue that as a whole, the political late night hosts that have thrived in Jon Stewart’s wake are doing a fine job most of the time, but when it comes to Trump, they’ve hit a wall.
What Trump has taken away from satirists is the power of exaggeration. The classic trick of taking the things a politician says and ratcheting them up to show their ridiculousness. Trump is already there, so there’s not much you can do. How do you exaggerate Trump? Have your Trump character actually say the racial slurs that he sometimes appears to be on the edge of saying himself? That probably wouldn’t go over well these days, for understandable reasons. So, what we’re likely in for until November is the same bits we’ve heard before, in which “Trump is bad” is beaten into our heads over and over. There are plenty of more important reasons to not want a Trump presidency, but here’s another one worth considering: if he wins, we’re in for four more years of satirists struggling to say anything new about him. Perhaps this could inspire a new slogan from his opponent — Hillary 2016: Make Political Satire Great Again.