By Alex Holzman
There is a tragedy looming on the cultural horizon. This November, the American people risk murdering, in cold blood, one of the most cherished institutions of dissent, critique and comedy: satire. No doubt most Americans have already sensed this, if not by that description then certainly by some other.
The 2016 election has already become, should we say, the most interesting in a century or more. The revolt against the parties’ establishments, led by Donald Trump on the right and Bernie Sanders on the left, reflects nothing if not a general sociopolitical dissatisfaction, the likes of which has possibly never before been experienced.
According to a Gallup poll released on Jan. 22, 2014, dissatisfaction with the American government has risen from 23 percent in 2002 to over 66 percent in 2014. A more recent Gallup poll from March 12, 2015, found that the U.S. government itself is considered the “No. 1 problem” facing the United States by the American people. Conventional realist political science would predict either a violent revolution or another civil war.
Yet, no reasonable American fears imminent civil war, nor do international money markets, political analysts or foreign governments. The great tragedy we tempt stems not from the potentially violent consequences of this dissatisfaction, but from the markedly non-violent popular and political response to it.
What exactly is satire, though? This is a topic worthy of far more discussion than anyone can offer in an opinion column, but it can be generally understood by its Oxford English Dictionary (OED) definition: “The use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.”
Notice that this definition accurately describes not only Trump’s modus operandi, but also the source of his visceral appeal. Trump is a satirist, possibly even the most successful satirist of all time. He viciously insults and ridicules everyone from Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush to disabled reporters to female debate moderators to talk show hosts, all with the impunity of an established comedian.
It is undeniable that Trump has focused more on ridiculing his opponents, along with anyone else who opposes him, than he has on laying out a thoroughly substantive policy plan. At the absolute least, it is what the media and many Trump supporters have made most salient.
Now consider this: In an effort to curb the perceived negative effects of political correctness and pandering, Congressional deadlock, structural economic changes, eight years of a controversial presidency and a fiercely divided nation, millions of Americans — and soon to join them, the Republican Party — have chosen as their standard bearer none other than Donald Trump.
The fact that many of us read that and flippantly think, “Well, yes, of course,” demonstrates the extent to which we have already mortally wounded satire.
The 2016 U.S. presidential election now more closely resembles the plot of a mediocre episode of “The Simpsons” than any other upheaval our country has endured.
I do not mean this as a lazy criticism of Trump as a person or politician. Politics in a democracy, like so much else, is largely controlled by the laws of supply and demand. Being literally nothing if not a shrewd businessman, Trump saw a niche and filled it. He is a political capitalist. However, it is not always clear whether or not demand caused supply or vice versa.
In this case, we should go back to the coverage of Trump’s participation in the 2012 Republican Primary, according to an ABC News article from April 7, 2011. It reads as utterly, forgivably naïve. In 2012, a serious Trump presidential bid was laughable. Four short years later, not only is it a reality, it might also achieve fundamental success. The electorate’s demand has seemingly changed in a way that in one fell swoop eliminated career politicians such as Jeb Bush and Rand Paul and put meaningful satire on life support.
On one hand, this is the unsurprising conclusion of a political atmosphere that has for decades rewarded showmanship substantially more than policymaking. The seemingly valid notion that Sanders — a dedicated civil servant who has categorically stuck to his admittedly unpopular policy views for over 30 years — is “unelectable” serves as a testament to this (and even his poll numbers are on the rise, according to the Huffington Post).
On the other hand, the OED definition of satire omits a key component. Most satire parodies something — that is, it constructs a believable, relevant straw man version at which to levy the aforementioned ridicule.
Let me be perfectly clear: Trump is a parody in himself. He has become a self-fulfilling and self-causing parody of the very thing that he currently satirizes. This should not be a controversial claim. The United States and the world at large have been laughing at Trump for decades. He is funny and provides mountains of material for other satirists.
But how many among us would stand up and declare that they have always supported Trump and what he stands for — how he acts, what he has constructed — and have always considered him an ideal American worthy of election to our highest office?
Again, this is not a criticism of Trump himself in any way. First, he has not changed much of “who he is” yet has enjoyed mainstream success, so it must be mainstream tastes that have changed.
Second, we know that he has consciously profited off this exact sort of attention — how else could an otherwise run-of-the-mill successful real estate investor become a cultural icon if not by embracing and promoting his own extreme personality? According to a Forbes article from June 16, 2015, Trump has gone on record that his very name and personality is his brand (which he values at $3.3 billion).
Trump was (and remains) an effective straw man parody of an American: a rich, tanned, toupeed, bold billionaire reality TV celebrity with multiple wives, scandals and bizarre political beliefs. A presidential run is the next logical step in the construction of that parody. The fact that he’s succeeding is another matter entirely.
Let’s recap: Trump is a self-realizing parody of an American, who is currently running a campaign whose primary strategy is the satirical takedown of opponents, and has so far dominated the election for the most powerful person in the world. If Trump’s campaign were performance art, it would be the most brilliant work of art in the 21st century. If he were a Democrat/Clinton plant designed to destroy the Republican Party, it would be the most effective political tactic in American history.
Unfortunately, it is unlikely to be either of those things. Instead, his run represents the end of satire as an effective or meaningful tool of critique, and perhaps even strips it of its fundamental comedic value. In a way, this is because Trump has perfected satire.
The “problem” with satire up until now has been that it was reasonably clear that the satirist did not hold to the beliefs in which they claimed — rather, they were parodying people who do. This is not the case with Trump, who seemingly truly believes in himself, a parody, and his campaign, which is purposefully satirical. He has collapsed the boundary between satire, parody and the real world.
Elsewhere, other professional satirists are retiring or turning to more direct forms of commentary, most obviously in the cases of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. The dread that so many feel from their inopportune departure is symptomatic of both the declining vital signs of modern satire and to the efficacy it once enjoyed.
But what good would Stewart’s and Colbert’s style of satire be in a world where a walking, talking parody is doing their job for them?
This state of affairs is what so many heady, unreadable philosophers, such as Jean Baudrillard, refer to as the “postmodern culture.” Trump is what the German sociologist Jürgen Habermas would call “hyperreal,” although he considered President Ronald Reagan to be the hyperreal president, so Trump might represent something even further removed from “regular” reality.
Culture is postmodern when it seems normal that someone can go from reality TV star to president of the United States in less than a year without changing anything other than their job title. Culture is postmodern when irony becomes the norm rather than the exception. Culture is postmodern when our idea of a successful politician becomes only arbitrarily distinguishable from an effective lampoon.
In short, we have no idea what a postmodern culture truly is because we can’t even operationalize its basic terms. What is a “politician” when a Bush is bullied out of a legacy by a casino mogul? What is a “Republican” when the leading “Republican” candidate is despised by the Republican National Committee? What is a “debate” when participants spend their time insulting one another, and this is the most prudent possible strategy?
Singer Tom Lehrer said that “Political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.” His mistake was that Kissinger, often accused of propagating subtle but horrific worldwide violence, being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize was merely ironic.
A Trump presidency would instead be the ascendency of irony into the most salient aspect of our political reality, with the blood of satire being not on the hands of some Norwegian elites, but of the American people themselves. Satire is dead, and we have killed it.
Students share opinions around campus
Is Trump a real candidate?
“I do think that he is a serious candidate… I think that once (Trump wins) the primaries… he will start to appeal to a wide range of people… He’s not a dumb man.”
“Oh, God… I’m going to say yes… I’m hearing that he could cause bad relations with other countries, (but) that his business background (can be beneficial).”