US President Donald Trump. Picture by Olivier Douliery/Pool, Sipa USA/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved. As a recent immigrant to the US, the spread and influence of political satire took me by surprise. After the election, many on the left have put a lot of faith in the power of political satire. They religiously watch Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah, cite John Oliver and Seth Meyer, and consider this a form of dissidence.
Comparisons have been made between the current popularity of political satire and laughtivism, which was a prank staged by a group of activists in Belgrade, introducing a new way of protesting Milosevic. Is there an equivalence between late night political satire shows in contemporary America and the Serbian style of laughtivism?
If you lived through populist regimes elsewhere, this excitement over getting under Trump’s skin to make him tweet out his outrage, probably wouldn’t make you cheerful. The cycle of lampooning the populist, receiving his vitriol, and making new jokes in response, serves only the populist and the entertainment industry.
We are mesmerized by Donald Trump, and hate ourselves for that.
Currently, so many people around the world watch Trump’s press conferences and speeches, wanting to die out of despair, yet can’t roll their eyes away from the screen. We are mesmerized by Donald Trump, and hate ourselves for that. This has paralyzed us: we feel the urgency to do something, yet we don’t know where to begin. Since laughter is a convenient reaction to despair, we have resorted to anti-Trump rants of famous comedians.
Which is fine, as long as we are aware that this doesn’t amount to action. For the most part, political satire is a reactive mockery, focused on the contemptible leader to gain applause and support from the incensed audience. It is designed to add fuel to the fire of those who dislike Trump and further embitter his supporters. It barely takes the harder path of targeting the root cause of his success, criticizing the political system as a whole, giving a thought-out vision on how to resist the unfolding tyranny. It remains focused on screwing laughter out of us, no matter what the issue might be. Something is wrong if we can laugh indiscriminately at everything, from the bombing in Mosul to the war on women’s bodies, from the end of the environmental regulations to the botched air raid in Yemen. Laughter loses its relevance and power when it’s so ubiquitous.
To be fair, satirical shows don’t seem to want that role. Many of us ascribe something to them they never claimed. This is because we haven’t found another place to go, another vent for our rage. If the anti-Trump demonstrations like women’s march or JFK protests continued in organized, meaningful way, we wouldn’t have been so addicted to our daily shot of Trump mockery. If the mainstream media wasn’t so inept and supine to the Trump administration, so focused on ratings at the expense of truth-telling, we wouldn’t have to go to satirical shows to get our news.
Late night comedy shows are inextricable from the culture industry, and their ultimate raison d’etre is to entertain their audience. Their job is to spot their faithful followers, survey them to see what they want to hear and see, and provide them with it, so that they keep coming back every evening. They purposely avoid deeper issues that disturb the assumptions of their audience. Contributing to the booming echo chamber business, they consolidate an ultra-liberal followership that simmers with rage through the day and turns to the comedians at night to get their daily shot of laughter. Night time comedies are like strong painkillers for a nation too traumatized to look at the cause of its disease.
These shows are also ineffective for another reason: Donald Trump is a new brand of proto-fascist, right-wing populist politician. He is not in the ilk of the dour, grim men that used to be the face of those movements. He ran a campaign based on lampooning other candidates, mocking the press, making jokes about his genitalia. He knows how to get in on a joke and nullify it, how to weaponize comedy.
Night time comedies are like strong painkillers for a nation too traumatized to look at the cause of its disease.
This form of reactive lampooning to boost an entertainment industry is far from what satire is supposed to do. Political satire was born in the Roman republic, and from there, spread throughout the history of culture, giving birth to masterpieces such as Cervantes’ ‘Don Quixote’, Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’, Chaplin’s ‘The Great Dictator’, among thousands of others. What we witness as political satire seems more like a departure from that tradition by watering it down and incorporating it into the TV industry.
There are exceptions, obviously. In his criticism of Satire shows, Malcolm Gladwell makes a compelling case for the Israeli show Eretz Nehederet, which goes beyond eliciting laughter and deploys satire to reveal the brutality of the seemingly innocent rhetoric around the occupation. But that show, as Gladwell points out, is a rare exception.
That is the reason the comparison between American satirical shows and laughtivism, in my view, falls flat. The Serbian activists took the humor into the public sphere, risked their lives to bring people into a public protest against a dictator, and riled up the whole establishment. Here we sit in our apartments, glued to screens, chuckling at the jokes famous comedians transmit to us on the invisible waves from their own ventilated chambers. Rather than an act of resistance, the TV political satire has blunted the edges of laughter by turning it, to quote Jonathan Coe, into an ‘unthinking reflex on our part’. Political satire should be understood as what it is: a profitable part of the entertainment industry that makes money off of a president produced by the very same industry.