Can Satire Bring Down Donald Trump?
Michael Moore calls for humorists everywhere to satirize Donald Trump, but what if our best satire simply cannot (yes, we'll say it) "trump" reality?
As I write, Hillary Clinton is enjoying a moderate post-convention bounce after the polls have been oscillating around even for the past few weeks. Most pundits think that we are heading towards another close election, though the majority is predicting a Clinton victory. One unlikely source, however, has put his money on Donald Trump: filmmaker Michael Moore.
The rationale for his prediction is a variation of what he calls “the Brexit strategy”, Trump targeting and winning the industrial heartland states to cross the line with a narrow victory. Whether or not one considers Moore’s analysis to be deliberately alarmist or astute, we might want to take his musings under consideration: it was Moore -- and seemingly Moore alone -- who, when talking to Business Insider in December, 2015, predicted that Trump would become the Republican nominee. While some foresaw that Trump would make one faux pas too many, and others argued that the candidate would ultimately be brought down by the sense and sensibility of the American populace, Moore dismissed such (blind) faith in our decency and rationality.
As he recently explained in his essay, “5 Reasons Why Trump Will Win”, reason is the least likely reason why the Republican nominee will be brought down: “If you believe Hillary Clinton is going to beat Trump with facts and smarts and logic, then you obviously missed the past year at 56 primaries and caucuses where 16 Republican candidates tried that and every kitchen sink they could throw at Trump and nothing could stop his juggernaut”. We all live within our political bubbles and if your daily news input consists of listening to Rush Limbaugh before turning to the coverage of the Fox News network, it's unlikely that facts or evidence will hold much sway.
What's required, argues Moore, is something that will truly reveal who and what Trump is in ways that will dissuade his supporters, at the same time as disarming Trump himself. A few weeks ago, while in the UK promoting his latest movie, Moore offered his prescription, telling The Guardian, “Other candidates couldn’t find a way to bring him down. And now Hillary Clinton is trying to do the same thing using logic and brains. It’s going to require something else. Personally I hope satire brings Donald Trump down.” He later re-iterated this call-to-satire on Real Time With Bill Maher during RNC week.
Again, Moore’s battle cry is worth reflecting upon as no filmmaker has employed satire more strategically than he, and arguably none have had greater effect when using its rhetoric to speak truth to power. His 2004 film, Fahrenheit 9/11, is not only the highest grossing documentary of all time, but it was largely responsible for establishing the negative caricature of President George W. Bush that still lingers to this day.
While Moore was in the UK, Trump was busy making (then breaking) plans to visit his golf course in County Clare, Ireland. During an interview with RTE Entertainment at the time, the filmmaker called on the Irish to tap into their comedic traditions and unleash a mocking assault, to “take the piss” out of their upcoming visitor. He then cited Irish writer Jonathan Swift as an example of the power that critical humor can harness. Swift’s essay, “A Modest Proposal” (1729), and his novel, Gulliver’s Travels (1726), are regarded as two of the more effecting satirical pieces ever written, and both are still studied today as illustrations of the potency of satire. Merely “laughing at [Trump]” is no longer sufficient, argues Moore; we must use humor seriously to reveal the truths behind the “truthiness” and the con-man behind the showman.
Although Moore has posited that “logic” has been an ineffective tool, skeptics of his alternative methodology might justifiably argue that there has been no shortage of critical humor aimed at the candidate over the past year, yet he’s still standing and still close enough in the polls. Could the problem be, conversely, that there has been so much mockery that the jokes are becoming stale and repetitive? Does Trump defy the essence of satire itself, as the form requires exaggeration in order to be comedic? When the satire cannot “trump” reality, does the critical bite of the humor become redundant? For example, when the candidate actually utters “My IQ is one of the highest”, how do you amplify this to a level of absurdity that has not already been reached?
Some on-line conspiracy theorists have concluded that Trump cannot be parodied because he is engaging in a sophisticated form of self-parody, a performance art scam that will soon be revealed to a duped American people. This camp aligns with those critics who still believe that Trump never really wanted to be President; he only wanted to publicize his brand and/or pour scorn on the entire political system. They see Melania Trump’s plagiarism of a Michelle Obama speech as an ironic wink rather than a campaign error. That such a charade could achieve such goals, or the candidate possess such Manchurian capacities, is surely unlikely.
For those who do not see Trump as the second coming of Andy Kaufman, the question remains: can satire be effective in thwarting his rise to power? Leonard Freeman concludes that while his candidacy is ridiculous and he is ill-equipped for the presidential position, mockery has not slowed Trump down and is unlikely to do so. “The Trump phenomenon confounds political ridicule”, he exclaims with exasperation. Terresa Monroe-Hamilton feels likewise, though from the other end of the political spectrum at rightwingnews.com. She explains, “If Moore thinks satire can bring Trump down, then he really is a special kind of stupid… Moore seems to have not figured out that insulting Americans is no way to endear yourself to them or to get them to listen to you”. Her critique speaks to the pivotal factors of audience and reception, the nature of the latter depending on the make-up of the former. Monroe-Hamilton articulates one of the eternal verities regarding satire: what to some is funny, insightful, and persuasive, to others is insulting, abusive, and condescending.
Despite the nay-sayers, history shows us that satire can be both a weapon and threat when deployed against forces of power. If not, why have so many regimes attempted to control, censor, or commandeer its expression? In Taking Laughter Seriously (Albany: State University of New York, 1983), John Morreall explains why “humorists… have traditionally been personae non gratae under rigidly controlled political regimes” (p.101). He recalls how Hitler recognized the threat of humor to the Third Reich, establishing “joke courts” and punishing citizens who named their dogs and horses “Adolph” (p.102). Contemporaneously, Soviet Russia also suppressed critical humor unless it was targeted against enemies of the state. Stalin’s Central Committee formed a state journal of humor entitled Krokodil, at which staff were summarily dismissed whenever they strayed from the state(d) mission.
But what have these examples to do with Trump? Although a term largely assigned to the category of “that which shall not be named”, pundits, critics, comedians, and the majority of speakers at the DNC have largely cast the candidate as a “proto-fascist”. This is more than an inflammatory tag, however, for fascism, by definition, functions via a dominating combination of business and state powers. Meanwhile, outsiders (of race, religion, or whatever) are feared and demeaned, perceived as threats to the dominant ideology. Considering the drumbeat of insult and abuse Trump and his followers have pounded upon Muslims, Mexicans, successful women, and political enemies, it is perhaps not so shocking that the “F” word has been excavated, if with reservations. Europeans, no strangers to the realities of authoritarian regimes, have been less reticent in striking the analogy, regularly caricaturing Trump as a modern-day Mussolini. The candidate’s evocative body language when accepting his nomination at the RNC has hardly quelled that particular comparison, either.
As Morreall argues (and Moore no doubt seconds), satire is most needed when its liberationist message is most threatened. Its essence of critical insight and imagination threaten the inflexibility and rigidity at the heart of authoritarians. As dictators close down thought and deny the right to question, satire is needed to restore openness and enable new paths of perception and comprehension. Note how the intolerant forces of Islamism have consistently targeted critical cartoonists (such as at Jyllands-Posten and Charlie Hebdo). Trump, too, has declared war on those comedians that have most crawled under his skin, as Maher and Seth Meyers can attest. Fascism requires hero worship, and needs a population that is brainwashed and contained within its bubble; satire, on the contrary, bursts bubbles and encourages a mind-set amenable to alternative perceptions and to freedom of thought itself.
The satirist or parodist locates those traits in an individual or institution that have gone beyond the norm, then exaggerates them further in order to comically illustrate how absurd, hypocritical, or out-of-the-mainstream the butt of the humor has become. Among characteristics satirists of Trump have focused upon are his arrogance, thin skin, egotism, narcissism, elitism, insensitivity, ignorance, lying, inconsistency, charlatanism, machismo, sexism, racism, self-delusion, bluster, and even sociopathy. And that was just last weekend!
Using satire and its side-kick, parody, these vices are exposed, held up for public mockery, ideally shaming the object of ridicule into reform. In classical comedy, the chastened individual ultimately sees the error of his/her ways and is then integrated back into society. Such corrective comedy has precedents as far back as Ancient Egypt when court jesters would parody the excesses of the pharaohs, and later to Medieval Europe when the designated “fools” would do likewise to the kings of the courts.
Over the past year we have witnessed myriad attempts to apply comparable satire to candidate Trump. Through the process, a humor boom has ensued as neophytes Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah, Larry Wilmore, and John Oliver have joined veterans Maher, Stephen Colbert, and the writers at The Onion, South Park, and Saturday Night Live in the expanding satire industry. Even mainstream media have joined in on the act, with The Boston Globe recently running a parody front page in its Opinion section, captioned “an exercise in taking a man at his word”. Proving that one need not push far to reach the threshold of parody with Trump, the newspaper envisions his presidency a year hence, with stories extrapolated from various comments made on the campaign trail. Among the mock-alarming headlines for 9 April 2017, are “Deportations to Begin”, “Markets Sink as Trade War Looms”, “US Soldiers Refuse Orders to Kill ISIS Families”, and “New Libel Law Targets ‘Absolute Scum’ in Press”. Suffice to say, Trump was not amused by The Globe’s “exercise”.
Satire has even filtered into the rhetoric of politicians, particularly of those speaking at the recent DNC. Jeb Lund, writing for Rolling Stone, described the “cool satire” of our comedian-in-chief, President Obama, thus: “So there he stood last night… almost tickled that he had to explain to anybody that Donald Trump is a paper tiger… That ironist’s appreciation for and compensatory delight in the stupid has always lain at the root of whatever shade he throws”. Even Tim Kaine and Clinton have been working on their comedic chops. The VP nominee may not have lit up the convention room with his speech, but a tangible energy was injected at that point when he ventured into his “Believe me” parody segment.
Clinton, likewise, has never been known for having either speech-making skills or a sense of humor, but even she is finding a dry style of sarcasm, thanks to the material her challenger keeps feeding her. On the campaign trail, she has taken to parroting Trump’s words, referring to his “very good brain” and underscoring the ease of such humor when saying, “Yesterday I had the opportunity in San Diego to just repeat what Donald Trump has said”. At times her satire has been more finely crafted, such as in this attack-pun combo that has been well-received at campaign stops: “If he ever gets anywhere near the White House, you know what he is going to do? He is going to Trump U!”
Satire, sometimes referred to as Superiority humor because it presumes the humorist and audience to be ethically “superior” to the butt, is controversial and not without its detractors. As far back as Ancient Greece, both Plato and Aristotle decried such wit as arrogant, self-congratulatory, even “evil” (Morreall. p.5). Today, concerns relate more to its effectiveness, particularly relating to specific audiences. If one of the purposes of Superiority humor is to win over detractors, does it? Or do opposition crowds merely dismiss its aggressive put-downs as patronizing and insulting? This is particularly pertinent to Trump’s hardcore following, who take every attack on their leader as an implicit attack on themselves. The challenge of political satire is to never mock the victimized followers, however (self-)deluded, and to show that the values of those followers are superior to those of their targeted leader. Can such an act of comedic gymnastics be successfully performed for the Trump disciples?
Freud saw laughter as the release of our pent-up hostilities. If this is so, it's fitting that humor should play such a pivotal role in this most combative and contentious presidential election in recent history. That the humor itself is aligning into two warring camps seems equally appropriate. Attack, with whatever (rhetorical) weapons, is clearly the order of the day, the mission and modus operandi of both political camps. “What is his kryptonite?” Salmon Rushdie recently asked when discussing “Superman” Trump on Real Time With Bill Maher. For Moore, at least, the answer might be satire.