Did you remember Bill Maher calling President Trump “more of a gross creep than Harvey Weinstein”? How about Jimmy Kimmel saying that the President “has the memory and the skin tone of a goldfish” after he remarked that he’d never heard of a Category 5 hurricane? And John Oliver of Last Week Tonight, not wanting to miss out on the fun, mocked Melania Trump in a piece on Trump’s proposal to buy Greenland. He described Greenland as “icy, distant, and semi-autonomous” and added, “It’s exactly Trump’s type” while showing a picture of Trump and First Lady Melania. Nice. Were you rolling around on the floor in laughter? Are you secretly dreading the end of the Trump era because Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, or Amy Klobuchar are tougher material for comedians to work with?
If you are among the millions of Americans who get much of their news through shows originally developed as comedy such as Last Week Tonight and The Daily Show, or who have chosen to get your news through outlets with a focused bias, such as Fox or MSNBC, you are in the mainstream. Only about 10 percent of Americans rely primarily on newspapers for news today. Is this a good thing? In 1816, Thomas Jefferson said “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” Would Jefferson consider voters who got most of their news in the form of political satire well informed? I doubt it.
A friend recently suggested that “politics as comedy” unintentionally aids the re-election of Trump. Heaven forbid! The suggestion is that the Trump base, like Trump himself, is thin-skinned and rises to defend the President when he is under attack. What better way to voice your rejection of the anti-Trump media than to vote for him?
Political comedy is nothing new. A reading of Aristophanes will tell you that the treatment of Trump is not much different than that afforded to various Greek politicians of ancient times. Political comedy also has been with us throughout our history. Remember those skits of Gerald Ford falling down the stairs of Air Force One on SNL? Or Tina Fey’s ridicule of Sarah Palin? What about Al Gore and his social security lockbox or the ridicule that ensued when he claimed to invent the Internet? No major political figure has been spared. If anything is different with Trump, maybe it stems from his propensity to do and say ridiculous things.
Today we are witnessing an endless flow of political satire, most of it directed at Trump, his family, or his policies. The audience, presumed by many to consist of Democrats and “Trump-haters” continues to grow, suggesting that voters’ understanding of Trump is growing. But is it? And is my friend right in suggesting that political satire may work to Trump’s benefit in 2020?
The theory of the resolution of cognitive dissonance suggests that once voters make a choice, as 61.9 million did in 2016, attacks on their choice prompt them to defend it. Thus, when a comedian calls Trump a “Nazi” for his immigration policy, Trump voters see it as an attack on themselves. The effect can also extend to policies, such as immigration or even climate change denial, and lead to new support for Trump, if voters see attacks on Trump for his positions on these issues as attacks on themselves.
If comedy targeting Trump is working to his benefit, what can or should be done? The answer is probably nothing beyond encouraging awareness of the role of comedy in politics today. Any attempt to censor comedians not only violates the Constitution, it would also fail. Also, sympathy may be created for Trump because the attempt to silence the comedians would unintentionally “confirm” that the “attacks” on Trump were wrong. Most comedians and most commenters on news programs would also, correctly, ignore the unconstitutional attempts to stop the ridicule.
Thus, those of us who would like to see a more disciplined, issue and fact-based campaign, need to resign ourselves to more political satire. Better yet, enjoy the satire, but remember that it is not news. Watch Fox or MSNBC but remind yourself that what you are hearing is anything but fair and balanced. Perhaps we should encourage friends and neighbors to diversify their information sources and encourage discussion of real issues. Perhaps most importantly, we should remind ourselves that the ridicule of Trump that often seems ubiquitous is not a sign of his impending political demise. If Trump is to be defeated, it will take more than a few jokes from Stephen Colbert or Jimmy Fallon to make it happen.
J.E. Dean of Oxford is a retired attorney and public affairs consultant. He is a former counsel to the House Committee on Education and Labor. For more than 30 years, he advised clients on federal education and social service policy. He is the former chairman of the National College Access Network (NCAN), a group promoting success in higher education among underrepresented groups, and KnowledgeWorks Foundation, a national leader in strategic foresight and education innovation.