One Nation, Divided by Humor

We may be one nation in America, but today we appear to be living on different planets.

Are we just joking to our own choirs?

Although a celebrated attention-grabber in 2005, few could have predicted how prescient Stephen Colbert would be when he introduced the world to his word “truthiness” on the debut episode of his eponymous TV show, truthiness. Defined as a claim that favors a gut feeling of truth over any evidence of it, truthiness was hailed at the time as the word of the year; its currency since, however, has risen such that it is even more so the word of this past year. Recently joined by less wit-inspired terms like “post-truth”, “alternative facts”, and “fake news”, Americans now face their days perceiving, experiencing, and articulating varying versions of “reality”.

We may be one nation, but we are seemingly living on different planets. That reality is both reflected in and exacerbated by the different ways we consume and understand politics, news, and even humor.

It was not so long ago that, while our political divisions existed, we mostly received our news from the same sources; likewise, we laughed together at the same late night talk shows, each hosted by non-partisans that would consciously oscillate back-and-forth between the political parties when offering up their comedic fare. With the exception of Jimmy Fallon, this is no longer the case. Now, night-time talk shows are Trump-bashing zones and day-time talk radio shows are dominated by anti anti-Trump “trolls” masquerading as insult comics. Each play to specific, unwavering “identity” demographics and each makes no attempt to pacify or reach out to the other side. Their less comedic correlatives can currently be found in every federal, state, and local governing body throughout this nation.

Alison Dagnes, in A Conservative Walks Into a Bar: The Politics of Political Humor (Palgrave McMillan, 2012), speaks of our “hyper-polarization” (p.33) and how our bubbles are formed by the select news outlets and comedy we tune into; each are housed within their own spheres of influence, each shared within select pockets of social media for repeat, but segregated, consumption. Such partisan living merely consolidates existing beliefs and prejudices, while excising any perspectives or facts that might burst the bubbles.

The resulting entrenched yet different realities cast outer ripples such that analyses, too, bespeak competing narratives. Conventional liberal wisdom regarded satire as Trump’s “Achilles’ heel” during the campaign, but Emily Nussbaum argues that humor proved an asset for Trump more than Clinton. She explains how his tweets and slogans provided fodder for his deceit-riddled campaign. She talks of the “army of anonymous dirty-joke dispensers who helped put him in office” by making memes of his missives online, where “jokes were powerful accelerants for lies”.

With humor — as with politics, religion, race, class, gender, sexuality, and generation — are we becoming Balkanized? Are we just joking to our own choirs? Such rhetorical questions indicate negative consequences to the likes of Dagnes, who predicts, “If we become a nation so divided that we cannot even laugh together, the future of the republic is bleak” (p.7).

Liberal Humor

Satire is often presumed to be a liberal form of humor, but its inclinations are more anti-establishment than ideological. Anyone who remembers the steady stream of mockery that befell candidate and President Bill Clinton during the ’90s can testify to that. However, in its systemic scrutiny, one that chastises the powerful over the powerless and the exploiters over the exploited, satire gives sustenance to the underdogs and a weapon for those wishing to fight for them. As such, satire can be seen as playing to liberal values that include empathy for victims, distrust of unchecked authority, and sensitivity to discrimination.

Of course, the hypocrites and faux moralists that provide regular targets for satirists come from across party lines. Nevertheless, with their predilection towards using the bully pulpit and pontificating on behalf of “family values” and the like, conservative politicians and preachers oftentimes set themselves up for the wrath of satirists when their public and private behavior fails to measure up to their rhetoric. Thus, when Donald Trump stacks his cabinet with Wall Street billionaires after promising to “drain the swamp”, satirists understandably had a feeding frenzy. As Bill Maher recently quipped, the only members of Goldman Sachs not on Team Trump are Goldman and Sachs.

As much as satire has the ability to reveal injustice and present it in animated form, can it actuate real change? Historians may cite the new policies that were introduced in the wake of the cutting humor of Jonathan Swift (on poverty) or William Hogarth (on alcoholism), but most would concede that satire can only do so much. We can laugh and be outraged all we want by watching Seth Meyers, John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Stephen Colbert, and Bill Maher unmask Trumpian political obfuscation, but it means nothing if we don’t show up to vote on election day.

For liberals, the challenge is to harness the outrage, the questioning, and the uplifting joy of satire and to channel it into effective activism. Perhaps the recent Women’s March offers a template for such pragmatic humor going forward. There, clever hand-lettered signs proclaiming “Grab Him By the First Amendment”, “This Pussy Grabs Back”, and “I’ve Seen Smarter Cabinets at IKEA” were paraded in public spaces amidst mass gatherings. Like the satirical folk songs performed at rallies and marches by the likes of Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, and Pete Seeger during the ’60s, “folk” humor empowers by virtue of its communal context, its binding spirit of solidarity, and a tone that couples critique with joyful uplift. As Stephen Johnson observed after the Women’s March, “When things are bleak, we lean on humor to fight back, to build bonds, to whittle away at the pedestals of the powerful.”

Conservative Humor

The liberal domination of satire has less to do with bias — as is often claimed — than with the nature of the form itself. Dagnes explains: “Conservatives want to maintain the status quo and liberals want to change it. Satire aims at questioning the power structure — so why would conservatives want to do that? They don’t” (p.xiii). This rationale, while valid, has been complicated by contemporary political developments. Whether due to the lure of new populism, the successful deployment of wedge issues, or the propagandizing of cultural grievances, recent conservative voters, even their working class constituents, regard themselves, not liberals, as the change-agents of our society. Trumpers, particularly, consistently fly the flag of outsider outrage and regard the liberal “establishment” as the status quo.

So, if the entertainment industry is mostly run by conservative giants like Rupert Murdoch, and the conservative base includes many economically and culturally disgruntled blue collar workers, why has satire not found a footing in this political world? Here, Dagnes tip-toes around a theory that places character at the heart of the form. Satire, traditionally, creates empathy because it punches up at those in power. When it punches down, as conservative humorists often do at racial minorities, immigrants, and women, it can come across as mean-spirited. Donald Trump’s mockery of a disabled reporter on the campaign trail is a case in point (). And as Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter have shown us, while cruel humor works well in provoking liberal backlash and then subsequently the conservative cause against “political correctness”, it ultimately has a breadth of appeal insufficient to convince comedy club owners — or even businessmen like Murdoch — to invest in such “entertainment”.

Satire encourages free-thinking, courts complexity, and engages irony; these traits are anathema to the “straight” talk of advocacy-driven conservative humor. Such an assertion, of course, comes dangerously close to suggesting that conservatives are simple of both mind and wit, incapable of understanding the subtleties of satire. Yet, Dagnes cites various studies in her book that show many conservatives as not only averse to satire but as satire-challenged. Her body of research reveals that “confirmation bias” is particularly common amongst conservatives. Whether Archie Bunker (from All in the Family) or Stephen Colbert (of The Colbert Report), while liberal audiences laughed at these parodies of right-wing stereotypes, many conservatives laughed with Bunker and Colbert, and thus against the liberal “elites” these characters raged against. Dagnes even cites one Republican Congressman that relayed a news report he had read from The Onion, wholly oblivious that it was intended as a satirical piece of faux news (p.217).

If satire requires an informed, open-minded, and questioning audience, conservative humor is more absolutist, with a world view painted in black and white (sometimes literally!) and in large brush-strokes. Ad hominem insult humor is tailor-made for such “simple” minded audiences, and its master, much as it pains liberals to admit, is Donald Trump.

Reviving a genre that enjoyed its heyday in the ’80s, Trump elicits the same kind of laughter that Andrew Dice Clay, Rodney Dangerfield, and Don Rickles once did. Whether via tweets or on the campaign stump, Trump enjoyed uproarious responses to the put-down nicknames he gave to his rivals (Crooked Hillary, Little Marco, Lyin’ Ted, Low-Energy Jeb, Elizabeth “Pocahantas” Warren), the rally-the-masses slogans (“Lock Her Up!” “Build That Wall!”), and the unvarnished braggadocio of his rhetoric (“Buh-lieve Me”, “Only I”). If the insults sometimes crossed the line of general acceptability, he claimed to the mainstream press that he was “just kidding”.

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His audiences, meanwhile, just laughed harder, egging him on and relishing the audacity of his personal shots, particularly those targeting the liberal “snowflake” brigade. Ever-the-egotist, Trump pushed his incendiary humor further, growing ever more intoxicated by the loving embrace of their mob adulation. For some, the ’50s is the decade Trump evokes when he promises to make America “great” again, but it is the ’80s, an era when testosterone-fueled male comedians revived misogyny and crass insults for a new generation, from which his comedic impulse derives.

Another style of conservative humor still popular today is “rube” humor. Ubiquitous for generations within country culture, one finds it in country music (Uncle Dave Macon, Minnie Pearl), country comedy (Jeff Foxworthy, Larry the Cable Guy), and even pseudo-country presidents (George W. Bush). Rube practitioners pre-empt liberal ridicule about unrefined rural ways by exaggerating their features and self-parodying them in-house, in the process calling attention to the elitism and condescension of liberal outsiders. Bush Jr. used rube humor whenever he self-deprecatingly joked about his own well-documented verbal flubs; to his base, his inarticulate utterances made him one of them, and the humor showed an endearing modesty. Trump conservatives have responded likewise to their tweeter-in-chief, a man who has “trumped” even Bush when it comes to a lack of verbal skills and deficit of basic knowledge and facts. So when Candidate Clinton called his supporters “a basket of deplorables”, they took to wearing T-shirts emblazoned with “Team Deplorable”. Team Trump even named one of its inaugural celebrations “DeploraBall”.

Is There a Bridge Across the Great Divide?

There are comforts to be had from the respective expressions of humor emanating from each side of our ideological divide. For liberals, satire has proven to be an essential substitute for a mainstream news media that has so often proven derelict in its duty when covering contemporary politics. The truth-telling and low tolerance for BS that are the calling cards of satirists are a welcome contrast to news reporters that, in their relentless pursuit of higher ratings, sycophantically fawn over a pseudo-dictator and react with impotence to his stream of misdirections. Comedians, conversely, “are the only ones paid to tell the truth in public discourse”, admits journalist Keith Olberman (Dagnes p.4).

Conservatives, too, have found sustenance in the insult humor they consume daily from talk radio and right-wing web sites. It brings group empowerment against perceived enemies and provides walls of defense against the “liberal” satire raining down on them from mainstream entertainment. But of this factional empowerment on both sides we might ask: to what end? Are we facing a future in which we become so entrenched that we can neither talk to each other nor laugh with each other? Can the humor that currently divides us into separate camps of solidarity be adapted to encourage a more national unity?

Aziz Anzari’s recent monologue on Saturday Night Live was hailed for his attempt to unify rather than divide the American people. While maintaining a critical edge that refused to give ground to “lower case KKK” types, Anzari called for respect, tolerance, and “basic human decency” across party lines. Instead of demonizing or demeaning all Trump supporters, he outlined the many motivations behind their votes, encouraging them to not let fears lead them down the path of prejudice and extremism. Moreover, he held out these olive branches all the while being hilarious, capturing the joy and togetherness that humor can sometimes harness.

Dagnes no doubt had such humor in mind when she reflected, “In our increasingly polarized political climate, laughter may be the one thing that can bring us together, as long as the comedy is not dismissed as a reason to keep us apart” (p.40).

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