Satire in the Age of Trump

In 2001 the critic and journalist Charlie Brooker was writing fake TV listings when he realised that reality had overtaken satire:

The problem, he says, is that some TV has become so bizarre, it’s pointless to try parodying it. “Touch the Truck made the point for me,” he says, referring to the show in which contestants stood round a truck touching it for as long as possible, with the last one standing winning it. “I was seriously considering just copying the listing from the Radio Times and putting that on the site straight.

Fast forward 16 years and the words of U.S. government representatives seem to be having the same effect. Take Sean Spicer, for example: the White House Press Secretary, the man who explains to the world the position of the U.S. government, spoke about dangerous five year olds, twice burped up some random letters and numbers which may have been his password, and endorsed (presumably by accident) a headline from satirical news site The Onion which stated that his job was to ‘spread misinformation’.

Like Touch the Truck, the actions of the White House Press secretary are as ridiculous and amusing as anything satirists can come up with, so why should they even bother? Even the attempt by The Onion to out-weird him was cancelled out by his apparent endorsement. You might as well make fun of a clown for having bad dress sense.

But unlike Touch the Truck, the source of the absurdity is now coming straight from the top: as if Touch the Truck was not only commissioned, but personally crafted by the channel director and broadcast on a 24 hour loop.

Perhaps the best satire in 2017 will come from those merely describing what is happening, like this tweet from Narrated POTUS, a Twitter account that rephrases each of Trump’s tweets:

Or perhaps Trump’s presidency just won’t be a good time for satire, which works by revealing the ridiculous side of the mundane and respectable, like turning a silver coin in the light and exposing it as a piece of tinfoil.

Already the actions of Trump’s government, on a superficial level, seem ridiculous to many people, without the need of satirists to expose it. A case in point:

It’s absurd that someone who sets immigration policy is referring to unwanted migrants as ‘bad dudes’; it’s like something a gas station assistant might say in a remote part of Arizona, waving his hand vaguely in the direction of Mexico. Trump’s use of quotation marks is also comical, as if he thinks ‘bad’ and ‘dudes’ are technical terms most people wouldn’t understand, or else quotations from some great literary source (perhaps ‘it is never good / To bring bad dudes’ — William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra, Act II Scene V).

We have to remind ourselves that this is a statement from the head of the United States government, and is part of real, acted-out policy.

And it is journalists, analysts, and political commentators who highlight the policy behind the absurdity, just as satirists reveal the absurdity behind the policy.

Senator Bernie Sanders does this on an interview with Conan O’Brien:

Sanders begins by talking about the absurdity of Trump’s tweets and then explains the significance behind that absurdity:

What [Trump] is really saying is, ‘If you want to really dissent, be careful […] We’re watching you.’ That’s what’s scary about that.

I don’t think political satire is dead or dying. It’s just not as revealing as it has been in other times.

Update, 12th February 2017:

David Smith at The Guardian writes about ‘satire’s resurgence under Trump,’ citing a 22% increase in viewing numbers for spoof sketch show Saturday Night Live. On the other hand, Amol Rajan at the BBC argues that Trump may be the saviour of commercial news media and analysis, citing a tenfold increase in subscription numbers for The New York Times. So it seems there is a large appetite for both analysis and satire.

However, the two may also be hard to distinguish: Dominican Republic newspaper El Nacional printed a photo of Alec Baldwin as Trump from Saturday Night Live as if it were the real thing. Freak accident… or another sign that Trump’s administration is already a parody of itself.

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