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How political satire let Americans down in the U.S. election

Satire made in The Daily Show’s image made politics seem like entertainment, lulling viewers and voters into complacency


 
In this July 27, 2016 photo released by CBS, Stephen Colbert, host of "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert," appears during a broadcast in New York. (Scott Kowalchyk/CBS via AP)

In this July 27, 2016 photo released by CBS, Stephen Colbert, host of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” appears during a broadcast in New York. (Scott Kowalchyk/CBS via AP)

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.

Supporters cheer Republican Presidential nominee Donald J. Trump during a rally at Giant Center in Hershey, Pennsylvania. (Mark Makela/Getty Images)

Supporters cheer Republican Presidential nominee Donald J. Trump during a rally at Giant Center in Hershey, Pennsylvania. (Mark Makela/Getty Images)

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.

(Photo by Scott Gries/Getty Images)

(Photo by Scott Gries/Getty Images)

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?

(ASTRID RIECKEN/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

(ASTRID RIECKEN/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

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.

People vote at a polling site at Public School 261, November 8, 2016 in New York City. Citizens of the United States will choose between Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

People vote at a polling site at Public School 261, November 8, 2016 in New York City. Citizens of the United States will choose between Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

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.


 

How political satire let Americans down in the U.S. election

  1. People with confederate flags on their trucks don’t much understand political satire.

    • Speaking of the Confederate flag reminded me of how extreme hypocrisy runs through the Democratic vein. Remember at the start of the Presidential campaign there was the big flag flap – summer 2015. Big online retailers like Amazon and Alibaba starting pulling the flags from their online offering. I never ever heard of a single Democrat giving back campaign money to these generous online donors, even thought the money would have been “tainted” with racism. Companies like Yahoo, for example, own a 15% stake in Alibaba worth $35 Billion. But Clinton had no problem accepting campaign donations. Then Verizon bought out Yahoo, and Verizon paid Clinton $225,000 to be a guest speaker. Yet – Clinton never denounced the donations, never gave back the money. Wow!

      This past year the US decided to replace Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman on the US $20 bill. You may remember that Andrew Jackson is the only US president to own slaves. As well, he displaced over 40,000 native Indians in what has been recognized a massive genocide. In any case – none of my US card carrying Democratic friends wanted to depart with their $20 Andrew Jackson bills. Strange eh? I thought they would have trouble keeping a symbol of racism/hatred/oppression in their wallets and purses. I challenged them on their stance – but no – as soon as $$$ were involved all of a sudden the symbol of racism/hatred/oppression went out the door.

      • Pull yourself together Chip…..yer losing it.

        A dozen presidents owned slaves.

        • One minor point. When the Presidents owned slaves, they were 100% within their legal rights.

        • WOW! People read the comments!?!

          Of course more than one president owned slaves and more than one slave owner appears on US currency.

          Thus the dilemma of the left leaning politically correct. US currency is a symbol of racism/hatred/oppression. Where are the inflamed? Why are not people demanding change? Why will the left leaning politically correct not depart with these symbols of racism?

          If a country can demand the confederate flag be taken out of circulation is it that big of a step to demand a change to US currency? If not, then are not the left leaning politically correct just demonstrating utter hypocrisy?

    • Satire “forced” Americans to vote for Hitler? Adults are supposed to be rational, thoughtful, responsible, so blaming comedians is one pathetic cheap shot. This joke of an article is the equivalent of standing in court to claim, “Celebrities made me do it!”

    • Such condescension and dismissiveness played a big role in the election of President Elect Trump.

      Keep up the good work!

  2. Everyone is going to get their 15 minutes of fame trying to figure out “what the hell happened” and “who the hell to blame”. Personally I find your take disingenuous at best but more likely just plain ignorant. Face it. The times were ripe for such a Con Man in this day and age of social media and conspiracy bloggers. They outsmarted main street media who played by the rules of civility. And face it, people want to be entertained. Policy smolicy.

  3. Initially, there was Brexit. Now, we should be aware that this Trump rhetoric will, eventually, die down. Then, articles about Marine Le Pen will become headlines.

    And the world turns ….

  4. Honestly, speak to a lot of Americans and you come to the realization that a lot of them straight up voted for Trump to give the middle finger to the smug douchebags on tv. Sounds crazy right? But for a lot of them, that was a factor. The “left-leaning” media, actually just straight up Democrat party organs, is so smarmy and condescending that people voted for an orange con-man who can barely string a sentence together. Because they know that if the John Olivers and Bill Mahers of the world don’t like him, he must be doing something right. People are sick of being called racist, sexist, bigoted etc every time they don’t agree with every aspect of left-wing dogma or the Democrat party.

    Oliver, Maher, Seth Myers, Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah…..where is the comedy anyway? Where’s the humour? Makes you wonder about the self-loathing in some of these “liberals”. They love to watch people like Noah, Oliver or Bee who aren’t even American live in their country for a few years and then tell them how crappy of a country and how stupid they all are. But in general, a lot of the working class hate the smug self-righteousness that comes out of these clowns and voted for the worst candidate of all time in protest. Those who work with their hands, live in a “fly-over” state or practice Christianity are always treated with scorn and contempt. Put it this way, the DNC was sitting on a propaganda apparatus that would make most dictators cream their pants. Trusted media giants like CNN openly shilling for them, Hollywood celebs and pro athletes campaigning for her, and nightly infomercials for their campaign packaged as “late night political satire” or whatever….and she still lost lol because all that crap made people hate them more.

  5. Political comedy shouldn’t take a side. A slight bias is fine. But the comics lost their credibility by taking a side. One has to skewer both sides.

    They weakened Hillary as a candidate by not going as hard on her as they did on Trump. Their “virtue signally” because they were afraid to equally skewer Clinton actually helped Trump.

    The same with the mainstream media in general, by taking a side, by virtue-signalling, instead of being critical of both sides, instead of actually trying to understand why working people were supporting Trump, they were actually helping Trump and hurting Hillary as a candidate.

    The comics and the media completely ignored how the DNC rigged the race for Hillary over Sanders…so the Democratic Party ended up with the weaker candidate.

    They ignored the problems with the Clinton Foundation and the e-mails.

    Ignoring and denying and going soft on the weaknesses of one’s own candidate, strengthens the other side.

  6. The satirists did THEIR job. The sheer absurdity of the political landscape provided an unlimited source of prime material. The problem is that the mainstream media forgot that their job was to inform, highlight policy (or severe lack thereof) and identify outright lies. They weren’t supposed to get distracted by every shiny object or just offer up fluff pieces (like the “hard-hitting interview” of Trump by 60 Minutes this weekend.)
    It shouldn’t be left to the satirists to be the best or only source of legitimate information, not because they can’t do it. It just isn’t their job.

  7. I guess is you treat everything as a joke then people will fail to take you seriously. These comedians used to make fun of politics and now they make fun of republicans. But the people in the US wants their issues taken seriously. Maybe it is time for the Democratic Party to grow up.

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