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Dec. 14, 2016: Media, Jokes, and Donald Trump

This is something I wrote a few weeks after the election. At first I thought it would be cool to have it "published," and maybe it still would be, but there are also a lot of knots and unresolved questions that I had trouble addressing. So, here it is for now. There's some good stuff in here, trust me.

Even before The Apprentice made Donald Trump a legitimate entertainer, he was closely aligned with the entertainment industry, appearing since the 1980s in movies, on television, in tabloids, and on best-selling book lists. For a large portion of his 2016 presidential campaign, The Huffington Post accordingly covered his goings-on in their Entertainment section, not Politics. His candidacy was a joke, they implied, a spectacle devoid of the seriousness of political discourse. But that was it: his candidacy was a joke. It was an unpredictable, “un-PC,” nonsensical troll of spectacular improvisation that spread like wildfire—or rather, like a meme—across joke-friendly platforms like Twitter and television. “It may not be good for America,” said CBS’s Les Moonves regarding Trump’s campaign, “but it’s damn good for CBS.” Far outside the purview of any Politics section, the candidacy was primed media consumption, but impervious to comprehension and, in turn, to criticism and satire. How to joke a joke?

Other politicians have been entertainers: Reagan, Schwarzenegger, Franken, and many more. (In Europe, recent examples include the Five Star Movement’s Beppe Grillo in Italy and former Reykjavik mayor Jón Gnarr, both comedians.) It makes sense that entertainers, experienced with audiences, would make for convincing politicians. “In a society where the President is experienced most often as a character on TV, why shouldn’t he be played by a TV personality?” asks Sam Kriss, writing in The Baffler about the connections between Reagan and Trump. Reagan “has no understanding and no expertise,” Kriss notes, answering his own question. “He’s never previously held any national office; he’s not even a politician, he’s a demagogue, a conman, an entertainer, a fucking clown.” Obviously Trump could be described the same way. Yet Kriss points out a key difference: “Reagan was an actor, whose job was to read his lines, while Trump comes out of reality programs—he expects to improvise.”

In the early 1980s, the video artist Doug Hall paid close attention to the ways in which Reagan, as an entertainer, conveyed an image of American power. Hall’s videos The Speech and This is the Truth (both 1982) feature the artist playing a nameless politician, delivering platitudes in front of a ceremonial backdrop. Hall hammers home the idea that politicians like Reagan—in his first term at the time—are trusted by the public when they look and sound powerful (i.e., confident, white, manly). “Image politics is about morphology; that is, form and structure,” wrote Hall in a corresponding essay. “Television is so well suited to Reagan's politics because he is best at conveying form, not content." Reagan, unlike Richard M. Nixon, had mastered the “form” of image politics. “Listen to your superiors,” Hall intones in This is the Truth. “They know more than you give them credit for.” Reagan trusted that the American people would heed Hall’s joking statement; Trump does too.

But Trump, by improvising (spouting made-up “facts,” changing his opinions depending on his audience), creates a new form. His entertainer-cum-politician is based not in Reagan’s paradigm of rehearsed image politics, but in a shifty model founded upon outrage. Criticizing Trump as Hall did Reagan—i.e., highlighting the idiocy of his statements—doesn’t work. Throughout 2016, journalists tried to do that: after all, quoting boasts about molesting women should deter would-be voters. Comedians took a similar approach. On Saturday Night Live, all Alec Baldwin needed to do was, for the most part, repeat things that Trump actually said. “Let’s not make things up,” SNL cast member Michael Che said in a post-election interview. “Let’s not demonize [Trump]. Let’s let him demonize himself.” Yet, for Trump’s supporters, this satirical approach only affirms the “PC,” elitist tone of Hollywood and the media. If anything, Baldwin’s portrayal—and the liberal backlash to Trump’s real-life remarks—inspired confidence in his voter base and provided his ideas an ever-widening public platform.

Trying to situate Trump within the mainstream comedy apparatus (or that of neoliberal politics) has proven futile. When he himself hosted SNL, the episode “vacillated between pandering to Trump and passive-aggressively mocking him,” writes The Atlantic’s Megan Garber, and ultimately took “things that Trump has already said in earnest and imbu[ed] them with levity." This was not just “extremely unfunny,” Garber states, but also politically irresponsible, like Jimmy Fallon tousling Trump’s hair on The Tonight Show. For, writes Katie Baker in The Ringer, "When someone’s supporters are bringing up World War II internment camps with implied approval, what’s the point of reminding everyone that Trump has silly hair?” Baker concludes that “being too neutral, or too gentle, or even too funny can run the risk of softening up a man who has said and done some truly disturbing things for much of his life."

Before the election, we (left-leaning coastal citizens, particularly white men) were afforded a certain distance from Trump’s joke that allowed many to perceive it as “funny.” Maya Binyam notes in The New Inquiry: “among the white men I know, and among white men at large, Trump’s threats of mass violence circulated as points of humor and disaffection... In Trump’s anticipated defeat, white men imagined a punchline.” Once he won the election, the punchline was erased, as was the distance separating his threats from the realities of American life. The white men to whom Binyam refers may still find it funny, but the president-elect is no longer a joke; he’s a concrete threat to much of the American population.

In 2016, comedy failed us. “Have you read this open letter from Leslie Knope?” asks Mayukh Sen, referring, in the same New Inquiry feature, to an article by the Parks and Recreation character. “Please don’t,” Sen adds; “if you did, grow the fuck up." But is it possible, now that Trump’s “joke” has become reality, to re-weaponize jokes? To paraphrase the title of a 2013 book by Amsterdam-based design team Metahaven: can jokes bring down Trump’s government?

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To approach undermining Donald Trump through jokes, it’s important to understand how his joke functioned in the first place. His campaign relied on a network of media and rhetorical strategies usually inherent to comedy: Twitter and television in the first category, and unpredictability, crudeness, and nonsense in the second. Twitter in particular proved to be a smooth conduit for Trump’s joke. His use of the platform (many consider it a divertive tactic, instead of an index of his outsized ego) is indicative of its broader use as a tool for spreading partisan views, misinformation, and, well, jokes. By mirroring Twitter’s popular dynamics instead of tweeting like a politician normally would, Trump unwittingly arrived at what J. Hoberman refers to as an “avant-garde use of media”—something unusual and experimental, at least within the context of politics. Citing Marshall McLuhan and Charles Musser, Hoberman suggests that “the candidate most adroit in deploying new communications technology has pretty much always prevailed.” Hitler utilized radio and film; Kennedy, television; the list goes on.

“Trump began tweeting six or seven years ago,” Hoberman adds, “around the time that The Apprentice mutated into The Celebrity Apprentice. To use a film studies term, this form of direct address served to suture the audience into the show.” Because so many of his supporters (and bots) tweet like he does, they become part of the “show,” the larger entertainment apparatus; because his statements are so fiery and quotable, many of his opposers have bolstered this nationwide “suture” by retweeting him or subsuming his Twitter language into their own (“Sad!,” etc.). Trump forces the tweeting public to spread his message on Twitter, like SNL unwittingly did on television. And as with Hitler and his pioneering use of media, this coercion of the public is a tool for autocracy. "Criminal regimes function in part by forcing the maximum number of subjects to participate in the atrocities,” writes Masha Gessen in The New York Review of Books. “For nearly a century, individuals in various parts of the Western world have struggled with the question of how, and how much, we should engage politically and personally with governments that we find morally abhorrent.” We’re still working out strategies of engagement on social media: ignoring Trump’s tweets ignores potential threats; discussing them keeps people discussing Hamilton and not breakdowns in foreign policy. In the meantime, the memes keep flowing.

In Can Jokes Bring Down Governments?, Metahaven draw from a wide resource library that includes Susan A. Stewart’s 1979 study Nonsense: Aspects of Intertextuality in Folklore and Literature and the meme “One does not simply…” to trace ways memes, jokes, and graphic design affect political discourse in the information age. Whereas, in the 1980s, Reagan offered what Doug Hall saw as non-answers—“his response is rhetorical, no answer at all,” Hall writes—politicians now, in a time of surging populism on both sides of the Atlantic, actively cancel out questions through meme-like behavior. “Responding to a sensical question with a meaningless answer is an effective tool to negate the politics of the frame in which the question was posed,” Metahaven write, in many ways predicting Trump’s candidacy; “and politics has become so dispiriting and tiring that it inspires a dadaist troll mentality.” Trump, like his Pepe-lionizing followers, negates any serious question posed—about racism, violence, conflicts of interest—with meaningless nonsense and interruptions (“Wrong!”).

Hillary Clinton, by contrast, was a realist, someone who, no matter the questionability of her views and tactics, tried to go with the political grain and had visions for accomplishing real-world goals. But if, as David V. Johnson writes in The Baffler, “Political candidacies are like jokes,” Clinton’s realist campaign was a bad one. “If you need to explain them, there’s something wrong,” Johnson continues. “Hillary Clinton’s candidacy launched an entire cottage industry of explanation.” The emails, the Foundation, Benghazi: Clinton promoted a radical transparency that her supporters appreciated but that left her susceptible to attacks. “Comedy is a reveal,” as Michael Che notes: jokes rely on lies and obfuscation. The election revealed that the pseudo-populist, right-wing surge in America prefers jokes to seriousness, haziness to clarity. The Oxford English Dictionary named “post-truth” 2016’s word of the year, after all—an apt choice when language in both online and political discourse relies on the nonsense usually attributed to jokes and memes.

Trump’s opposition to realism fosters another quality both comedic and autocratic: unpredictability. “Realism is predicated on predictability: it assumes that parties have clear interests and will act rationally to achieve them…,” writes Masha Gessen. “Patterns of behavior characteristic of former presidents will not help predict Trump’s behavior. As for his own patterns, inconsistency and unreliability are among his chief characteristics.” On CBS’s Face the Nation, Mike Pence claimed, “we’re going to have a president again who will never say what we will never do.” So, what do we do?

Trump’s unpredictability has even alienated his supporters, though, who have recently been dismayed by his not “draining the swamp.” If Trump’s “joke” is now reality, it seems its mechanisms still continue. Maybe supporters will tire of his unpredictable behavior—but that isn't something to rely on. With Trump and the right’s control of not only the government, but also media (television, Twitter, even cell phones), finding new forms of satire and dissent will no doubt be difficult. His self-contradictory threats to First Amendment rights are terrifying to all Americans, not least to comedians and journalists. Metahaven believe, albeit in a pre-Trump world, that “the joke is an open source weapon of the public.” Trump’s campaign proved the negative side of this, as his supporters on Twitter, Reddit, and other platforms used jokes and memes to effectively negate any important discourse about race, climate change, or other issues in and around the election. But could an open-source joke attack somehow provide new pathways for positive dissent in an autocratic America? If media and comedy, like neoliberal politics, have been enervated and perhaps destroyed, can a progressive, populist wave of nonsensical, unpredictable comedy—riding behind an “avant-garde use of media”—exist? What would it look like?

The internet would have to be involved, though as we’ve seen, left-wing Twitter satire rattles around in a confined area; hacking and leaking, meanwhile, can be helpful but also not. In comedy, Eric Andre’s trips to the Republican National Convention this summer injected the proceedings with a bit of nonsense sourced from outside the comedic establishment, but such antics are, if anything, only a small step in the right direction. Katie Baker mentions that Kate McKinnon should portray Trump on SNL moving forward—a concept that, in its simple cancellation of Trump’s misogyny, could be an effective tool for getting under his skin and that of his supporters. While getting under Trump’s skin might actually be enough to bring the fragile president-elect down, comedy will need to do more than that.

“Jokes, when politically effective, perform what everybody knew but couldn’t say,” write Metahaven. Trump, as a joke, was a white-nationalist cipher for this phenomenon: “what everybody knew but couldn’t say” was, to many American whites, that immigrants needed to leave. To Trump’s opposition, “what everybody knew” more closely resembled reality: that Trump was a bloviating, dangerous joke that could make the United States hostile to the majority of its own population and landscape. If jokes can be a force of positive change and true disruption in Donald Trump’s America—and it’s indeed a question of if—how can we perform what we believed, before the election, “everybody knew” in a way that shocks, upsets, yet ultimately educates those that, in fact, don’t know? Can a new form of joke bring down this government? Jokes in today’s meme economy are often tossed-off and ineffective. It’s time for people to get serious about joking.

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