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Where political satire went wrong in Donald Trump's America

Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani:  the President cannot be indicted while in office, even if he commits murder. Photo/Getty Images

Anything goes in American comedy, no matter how hurtful, outrageous or downright dishonest. 

Donald Trump’s America is a paradox: a target-rich environment for humorists but one in which it’s increasingly hard to distinguish reality from outlandish satire. This week, for instance, Trump’s legal spokesman Rudy Giuliani, a former gung-ho prosecutor, insisted the President cannot be indicted while in office, even if he commits murder. Was he having a laugh? Despite its rich comic tradition, contemporary America finds it hard to agree on what is and isn’t a joke.

Consider the following:

  • Comedian Samantha Bee called the President’s daughter and adviser, Ivanka Trump, a “feckless c**t” for posting a pretty photo on Instagram of herself and her infant son Theodore as US immigration officials were enforcing her father’s policy of separating migrant parents from their children at the border as a deterrent to their trying to get into the US.
Macro alias: ModuleRenderer
  • White House aide Kelly Sadler said seriously ill Senator John McCain’s opposition to President Trump’s nominee for CIA director didn’t matter because “he’s dying anyway”.
  • Apropos of who knows what, TV star Roseanne Barr tweeted, “muslim brotherhood and planet of the apes had a baby=vj”. The vj in question is Valerie Jarrett, an Iranian-born African-American and senior aide to Barack Obama when he was in the White House.
  • Observing that nothing else in nature matches the colour of Trump’s hair and an orangutan’s beard, satirist Bill Maher speculated in 2013 that the future President might be the spawn of a sexual encounter between his mother and an orangutan in Brooklyn Zoo. Maher offered Trump US$5 million if he conclusively proved otherwise.

Bee’s comment isn’t a joke; it’s abusive commentary. She swiftly issued an unqualified public apology. Sadler’s comment is a statement of fact – McCain has terminal brain cancer – that may qualify as a joke only in the sense that it was intended to get a laugh. It was leaked from a private meeting at the White House where McCain, despite being a war hero and former Republican presidential candidate, is detested.

Barr’s initial defence was that her tweet was a joke and it may well be what passes for a joke in the alt-right fever swamps. It was subsequently downgraded to a “bad thoughtless” joke, the result of tweeting under the influence of the sedative Ambien. (The manufacturer responded that racism isn’t “a known side effect”.)

Ivanka Trump with her son Theodore Kushner.

Maher’s orangutan scenario is obviously a joke, even if you weren’t aware that he was satirising Trump’s spurious “birtherism” campaign, which demanded proof Obama wasn’t born outside the US and therefore constitutionally barred from being president.

No doubt it was hurtful for Trump to have his late mother cast as a depraved lunatic, but most jokes have a butt. Second, Trump had inserted himself bruisingly into the political arena with a prolonged racist dog whistle accusing the sitting President of perpetrating a fraud on the American people. Third, satire, of necessity, must land like a hammer blow or be stiletto sharp since power and privilege bestow a protective layer of rhinoceros-hide effectiveness.

Mother Trump’s walk on the wild side pales in comparison with the most famous example of satire in English literature, Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal (1729). Swift’s target was indifference to poverty and Britain’s treatment of Ireland; his mock solution was for the poor Irish to sell their children to the rich English as food: “A young healthy child, well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious, nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked or boiled; and I make no doubt it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.” In his day job, incidentally, Swift was dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin.

Naturally, Trump unleashed the lawyers – their letter began, “Attached hereto is a copy of Mr Trump’s birth certificate demonstrating that he is the son of Fred Trump, not an orangutan” – and vowed to sue if Maher didn’t cough up the US$5 million. Not surprisingly, the lawsuit never eventuated. In Hustler Magazine v Falwell (1998), the Supreme Court ruled that a parody advertisement in which Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell admitted his “first time” was a drunken encounter with his mother in an outhouse, while false, didn’t entitle him to damages for emotional distress because it was so obviously ridiculous and a universally disbelieved allegation conferred no liability. (Maher: “Do these morons even know it’s impossible for people and apes to produce offspring?”)

Samantha Bee. Photo/Getty Images

Progressives’ problem

In Trump’s America, where the common ground is contracting before our eyes, where outrage has been weaponised and the President and his supporters see every interaction as a zero-sum game, precious few jokes cross party lines. The problem for progressives is that they’re less unified and more fastidious than conservatives and tend to view each episode in isolation, as opposed to another skirmish in the culture war.

Thus, Bee’s apology didn’t even begin to placate Trump, who tweeted, “Why aren’t they firing no talent Samantha Bee for the horrible language used on her low ratings show?” Conservative commentators deplored the double standard: Trump-supporting Barr’s popular sitcom Roseanne was axed but Trump-loathing Bee’s show survived.

Whereas many liberals lamented a lapse of judgment that both obscured the point Bee was trying to make and handed the right a stick to beat her with, some went further, suggesting she was as guilty of pandering to her audience as the right-wing shock jocks: “When [Bee] levels the profanity,” wrote the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple, “cheers go up from the audience, from people who would flip out if any cable host deployed the same word against a Democrat. [Her show] Full Frontal is a must-view program for the resistance to President Trump and Bee appears to know how to please her fans. It’s like watching the country lose its decency in real time.”

In contrast and in keeping with her boss’s philosophy of “never admit, never apologise”, Sadler didn’t make a public apology to McCain or his family and White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders studiously declined to apologise on behalf of the administration. To do so, she said, would “validate the leak”.

Roseanne Barr. Photo/Getty Images

Barr eventually delivered a full apology but within hours was tweeting madly about investor George Soros, an alt-right hate figure on account of being a billionaire who isn’t a conservative. By that stage she was acquiring martyr/victim status and her defenders were evoking Maher’s orangutan, as in “how come he got away with suggesting Trump was half-monkey whereas Roseanne got crucified for the same thing?”

When comedian Michelle Wolf skewered Sanders at the White House Correspondents’ dinner in April, there was widespread hand-wringing on the part of those who felt she’d been unnecessarily mean and committed the no-no of dwelling on the White House press secretary’s somewhat forbidding appearance and demeanour. (Wolf convincingly argued otherwise.)

As the angst and criticism were drowning out Wolf’s point about Sanders’ brazen mendacity, a reporter from Fox News, the Trump administration’s unofficial propaganda organ, went on the offensive. Ed Henry described Wolf’s routine as “disgusting and despicable” and in striking contrast to what the President was doing – “talking about issues people actually care about”. Indeed: exactly when Wolf was zapping Sanders for lying to the media, Trump was ratcheting up his demonisation of journalists, telling a rally in Michigan the fake news liberal media were “very, very dishonest people” who “hate your guts”.

This week, former Daily Show host Jon Stewart, whose acute and hilarious take on American politics is sorely missed, issued a timely warning to liberals: “Please understand that a lot of what the right does, and maybe it’s their greatest genius, is they’ve created a code of conduct that they police that they don’t have to, in any way, abide.”

This article was first published in the June 16, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.