Just 24 hours before Donald Trump was elected the next president of the United States, Americans were still in the mood to laugh about their volatile political climate—or rather, late-night hosts were still trying to make them laugh about it.
The Late Show’s Stephen Colbert went all-out for the occasion with an 11-minute, live musical theatre piece starring his former Daily Show boss, Jon Stewart, a.k.a, Mr. Zeitgeist (2001-15).
The skit begins with a street urchin confiding in Colbert that she’s too scared to vote. Colbert urges the girl, who is clearly well shy of voting age (also part of the joke?) that it’s her civic duty to vote and to not worry about it, because voting is an easy process.
“Except in black districts,” pipes up bandleader Jon Batiste.
Oh yeah, says Colbert, furrowing his brow before quickly shrugging off the very unfunny implications of many Republican-driven changes to the voting process, adding restrictions which some argue limited minorities’ access to the democratic right to vote.
Enter Stewart in one of those cringe-y, ‘Now Who Do We Have Here…’ celebrity moments that late-night TV thrives on. Stewart, we’re told, is the “Mayor of Candy Town,” whatever that means, and he couldn’t care less if the girl votes or not, at least not until he hears that Donald Trump is one of the two major presidential candidates.
Cue the spit take.
“That tax- and draft-dodging little orange groundhog is running?” shouts Stewart.
It turns out that the little urchin isn’t really fearful of voting, but contemptuous of politics in general. She confides that she doesn’t like the system or the candidates, who she calls “two unsavoury folks.”
But here’s where it gets weird(er): Stewart and Colbert agree with her assessment. Their only corrective is their claim that Crooked Hillary is less awful than Trump.
That two of the nation’s most revered satirists seem oblivious to the irony of calling the political system corrupt and its candidates loathsome in a number designed to encourage voting should have been the first sign that their brand of political satire needed some fine-tuning before going live, but the skit went on (and on) regardless. Eventually, Hamilton’s Javier Munoz shows up to “clarify” things with a rap. The less-than-inspiring kicker of the whole mindless shebang: Don’t forget to vote tomorrow!
The next evening, during his Live Election Night special on Showtime, Colbert quickly lost his taste for the political absurdity that has defined his success. When it was clear Trump’s victory was all but assured, the amiable host couldn’t summon up the heart to tell a joke. Trump as president “ is a horrifying prospect,” he confessed. “I can’t put a happy face on that and that is my job.”
Cue the sinking feeling that you didn’t really know what was going on—all this time you thought politics was just a big joke that you shouldn’t take too seriously.
It was a Colonel Kurtz moment for Colbert, his guests, and the audience that had tuned in to be entertained by political humour and not troubled by its complete inadequacy in the face of seismic change.
You can hardly blame them for being caught unaware of the new dark zeitgeist, though. For the past 15 years, satire has become the preferred mode of left-leaning civic engagement. And The Daily Show’s tone—sarcastic, smug, chiding, and then creepily sentimental—has infiltrated mainstream media on TV, in print, and online (take this Nov. 11 story on Slate, for instance, that’s suffused with the adolescent eye-rolling that often accompanies troubling political information these days).
Given satire’s cultural dominance, it is not surprising that many may have naively assumed any real threat to American democracy had somehow been ridiculed into nullity by the likes of Stewart and Colbert, John Oliver, Trevor Noah, Larry Wilmore and Samantha Bee. But Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Rodham Clinton revealed the error of the mainstream faith in political satire as an effective form of political engagement. In reality, our prolonged love affair with cracking wise wasn’t a tonic that shook people out of their apathy—it was a symptom of it.
The Daily Show premiered on Comedy Central in 1996, but the “fake news” show became a critical hit when Stewart took over in 1999, and for good reason: It was funny and edgy. Stewart was special, too; something of a wildcard in the world of bow-tie twirling, piano-playing satirists a la Mark Russell, Stewart was cool, the Eminem of political satire. More important, he gave angry voice to the very real discontent with partisan politics and political corruption. The real kicker: he fused it with the dazzling appeal of celebrity. For that sleight of hand, he was universally lauded, winning Emmys and Peabody Awards and no end of hyperbolic acclaim. The New York Times even likened Stewart to a modern-day Edward R. Murrow.
We’ve given our hearts to satire, to “fake news,” even at the expense of more straightforward approaches to politics. Last year, New Yorker editor David Remnick hailed Stewart’s brand of fake news as “10 times as deflating to the self-regard of the powerful as any solemn editorial—and twice as illuminating as the purportedly non-fake news that provides his fuel.”
Journalists seem oddly happy to give over the task of making politics interesting and coherent to the public—even to themselves.
“Jon Stewart, we need you in 2016,” proclaimed New Yorker writer Amy Davidson in Feburary 2015, in a piece after he announced he’d be leaving his Daily Show post. “Someone needs to sort out who is clumsy and who is absurd, who is semi-serious and who is wholly alarming; the Republican base isn’t going to do that on its own,” she writes, eliding the role that someone like herself might play.
She goes on to praise Stewart for his real achievement, which is making politics seem fun: “It created a pleasure in politics itself, which is otherwise endangered in this country.”
A few think-y detractors, including the late Christopher Hitchens and most recently, Malcolm Gladwell, have questioned the substantive value of the universal yuk-fest, our preference for fake news over news, punditry over knowledge. For their intellectual courage, they got about as much traction as a Mother Jones reporter at a Trump rally. Gladwell’s temperate critique of the ultimate value of political satire and the efficacy of its messaging in his Revisionist History podcast was either shouted down by people who just didn’t want to hear it, or ignored for its broader implications.
In his 2009 Atlantic essay “Cheap Laughs,” Hitchens invoked Jonathan Swift, the satirist par excellence, to diagnose the real problem with satire. “Swift famously compared satire to a mirror in which people could see every face but their own.”
Sound like anyone you know?
Faith in the power of political satire is so strong that some have speculated that Clinton would have won if Jon Stewart had helmed The Daily Show. Another asked, “Will Trump make The Daily Show great again,” as if that were some kind of compensation.
Nothing breeds success like success and The Daily Show launched a number of leaky S.S Satires into the mainstream: The Colbert Report, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, and The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore. The Colbert Report was the most successful of the spin-offs, and as Gladwell points out, it may in fact be the most confusing.
“The more liberal you are, the more you see Colbert as a liberal skewering conservatives. But the more conservative you are, the more you see Stephen Colbert as a conservative skewing liberals.”
What did the Left see in Colbert’s murky mirror? Cute and kind of harmless hardliners—wind-up toys for them to play with. It’s hard not to see the mainstream media’s approach to Trump’s candidacy as being tainted by that dynamic: They were entertained by him, but few took him seriously.
That incredulity has legs, unfortunately. Many journalists and thinkers appear to be operating within the old zeitgeist still, assuming American politics is just another genre of entertainment, and that Trump is, at bottom, a soulless entertainer who was only pretending to be a racist, a xenophobe, and a despot in an effort to get elected.
In a Nov. 10 op-ed for the New York Times, Thomas Friedman consoled himself and his readers with the idea that Trump doesn’t believe in what he said during the campaign trail. “I don’t think Trump was truly committed to a single word or policy he offered during the campaign, except one phrase: ‘I want to win,’ ” wrote Friedman.
Even Oprah thought it wise to reduce Trump’s potential for damage after the election, suggesting that, on little evidence, he’d been “humbled” by his meeting with Obama.
Call it hope or magical thinking, seeking solace in emotion seems about as useful in the current political climate as mockery was during the campaign.
You’d be forgiven if you thought The Daily Show, its offspring and adolescent editorializing DNA, had actually encouraged greater participation in that rotten old democracy. But you’d be wrong there, too. Voter turnout has been declining in the U.S. since 1960. In the 2012 election 58.6 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot. The 2014 mid-term elections saw 38.5 per cent vote. On Nov. 8, an estimated 57 per cent of the electorate voted.
The reasons cited for reduction in voter participation, according to the New York Times: apathy, anger and frustration at the relentlessly negative tone of the campaigns.
Remember that angry little street urchin in Colbert’s skit? The one who doesn’t want to vote because she’s filled with contempt for politicians and the whole corrupt system? Well, she represents the era’s most pressing political problem, one we haven’t been able to solve for five decades. Contemporary satirists’ relentlessly negative assault on politics and politicians—a habit that extended even to their own candidate in the final hour of a desperately meaningful election—didn’t do much to change her mood. Rather than provoke her out of apathy, it may have only served to strengthen it. It sure as hell didn’t make anyone smarter.
It’s a painful irony for political satirists and the audience that lionized them to absorb: that those good intentions may have had the opposite intended effect. But it would be wise to take it to heart because it seems that while we were relentlessly mocking politics and politicians, subbing wisecracks for knowledge, and making dissent unfashionable, the political climate was heating up—and not in a ha-ha way.
Between the fault lines of Democrat and Republican, an altogether different kind of political animal merged: a bona fide despot, and one who was happy to provide vulnerable human targets for people’s anger. And he had his own kind of fake news to disseminate, too. Instead of jokes that confirmed bias, he gave them lies that confirmed prejudice—and we still think it’s not real. Donald Trump played the jester for a time and we liked it because it felt familiar and safe. But President Trump is not Stephen Colbert’s bumbling neo-con. He’s not a piñata for Dems to bat around.
Trump is Mr. Zeitgeist 2016-20 and nobody should be laughing about that anymore.