- 15 Sep - 21 Sep, 2018
THE TRUTH ABOUT TRUMP
- 12 May - 18 May, 2018
- A Letter From America
What’s so funny about Donald Trump? It’s a serious question, and the serious and important answer is: nothing. He’s not funny at all, and neither is the fact that he’s President of the United States. In this sense he’s just like George W. Bush, only even worse and less funny.
It’s understandable that those many of us Americans who oppose him would resort – as we did under Bush – to humor and satire as a coping mechanism or a way of trying to make some sense of a nonsensical state of affairs. Pakistanis old enough to remember the repressive Zia ul Haq regime of the 1980s will remember what it was like. Years later, the Pakistani journalist Mohammed Hanif launched his fiction-writing career with the satirical novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes. And, in my book Alive and Well in Pakistan, I recount a conversation with Fawzya Minallah, who as a young woman during the Zia time had been a political cartoonist for the newspaper The Muslim.
“She showed me some of her cartoons,” I wrote. “One depicted Uncle Sam tossing wind-up dolls, labeled with names like Marcos, Somoza, and Duvalier, into the trash. One doll had no name and was shown from the back, holding a whip. ‘I got a call from this guy,’ said Fawzya, ‘and he said, “Can you tell me who is this one?” I said, “The best art keeps you guessing.” He said, “It looks like Zia ul Haq.” I said, “Well, you’re right!”’
”Unlike Pakistanis and many other people worldwide, middle-class white Americans – who within living memory constituted this country’s presumptive comfortable majority – have little direct or even historical experience of political repression to refer to, to try to understand all that’s happening here now. So to an extent late-night comedians like Trevor Noah, John Oliver and (my favorite) Jimmy Kimmel have been a godsend to us, especially given the many grave failures of the categories we still quaintly refer to as “serious journalists” and “mainstream media.” (I wonder what it says about us that Noah and Oliver are not even American; Noah – who took over on The Daily Show from the great Jon Stewart – is South African, and Oliver is British.) Noah recently got a lot of comedic mileage on his show simply by showing a clip from the pro-Trump show Fox & Friends and pointing out that never before had American journalists been visibly in a hurry to end an interview with the president on national television.
But there’s a limit to how much we can – or should – rely on comedians to do our political and civic thinking for us. They shouldn’t have to. Jon Stewart used to try to drive this point home by insisting, correctly, that he was a comedian, not a journalist, and leaving us to figure out how to deal with that fact. But – here’s the thing – we need them, because comedians these days are taking the responsibilities of their work much more seriously than journalists are. This was evident in the recent brouhaha over comedian Michelle Wolf’s performance on April 28 at the White House Correspondents Dinner, which traditionally has been an annual occasion for establishment politicians and journalists to poke a little harmless fun at each other. (Also traditionally, the President shows up to be a good sport as the butt of good-natured ribbing; Trump did not show up either last year or this year.)
There’s no such thing as harmless fun anymore, though, because the stakes are too high. And what offended so many huffy, stuffy people in and around Washington, DC about Wolf’s monologue was that she refused to play along with the chummy insiders’ game. What she did reinforces the truism – which I myself have experienced as a speaker – that you shouldn’t hand someone a microphone unless you’re prepared to hear whatever he or she might have to say. (If you haven’t heard what she said, just google “Michelle Wolf complete remarks” to see the full 19-minute video.)
“Political satire in less troubled times exaggerates existing facts,” wrote the consistently incisive (and, not incidentally, Russian-born) Masha Gessen in The New Yorker, “pointing out the absurdities inherent in all ideologies, or playing up smaller disagreements and failures for bigger laughs. But Trump is hard to exaggerate – it is enough, it seems, merely to mirror him. But why does faithful portrayal of fact-based reality elicit laughter in a country that has a free press and a healthy public sphere in which, it seems, reality is robustly represented? What do late-night comedians reclaim from the [New York] Times?”
“Wolf’s performance at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner suggests an answer,” Gessen continued. “… What makes these dinners possible are fictions about civility and performance. There is a fiction that holds that journalists and their subjects can eat and socialize together and yet maintain the distance necessary to continue performing their professional roles. There is a fiction that they can laugh at one another and themselves and not take offense, that the divisions among guests are ultimately bridgeable, that all of them inhabit the same reality, and that both the humor and the objects of the humor are innocuous.
“The same fiction continues to dominate our public sphere. In this story, Trump performs the role of President, albeit poorly, and those in the media maintain a strained civility in their coverage of him. … Wolf’s routine burst the bubbles of civility and performance, and of the separation of media and comedy. It plunged the attendees into the reality that is, in the Trump era, the stuff of comedy. Through her obscene humor, Wolf exposed the obscenity of the fictions – and the fundamental unfunniness of it all.”
Thus Gessen meant it as a very serious compliment when she called Wolf’s performance “sharp, unflinching and pointedly unfunny in places” and “the most consequential monologue so far of the Donald Trump era.” Some things and some people just aren’t funny, and it can be worse than pointless to pretend that they are. •
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