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During his tenure as a president, Donald Trump flouted the norms of his office. His unconventional behavior inadvertently exposed the fragility of American democracy and thwarted the press corps, who often wound up covering spectacle, not substance. In contrast, America’s comedians, especially political satirists like John Oliver, Hasan Minhaj, Samantha Bee, and others, were well equipped to cut through the onslaught of bizarre antics emanating from Mar-a-Lago and the Oval Office. They provided Americans with a way to make sense of Trump’s administration.

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Sophia McClennen, a professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at Pennsylvania State University, argues that audiences of satire turned out to be more politically informed than those who only consumed traditional news. The author of Colbert’s America, Ariel Dorfman: An Aesthetics of Hope, and other volumes, McClennen has long investigated the political potential of laughtivism—the combination of protest action with elements of humor and mockery. Her newest work, Trump Was a Joke: How Satire Made Sense of a President Who Didn’t, explores the role satire plays in helping audiences retain news, contextualizing contemporary politics, and undertaking the watchdog responsibilities expected of the Fourth Estate. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


Why did satire become so prominent during the Trump era and what evidence is there that it was influential in public discourse?

Public conversations change based on satirical coverage of issues. Alec Baldwin’s impersonations of Trump are a good example. People were watching them—they would see the clips.

The other thing is noticing the extent to which satirical interventions change how people talk, every once in a while, we’d have a thin-skinned political leader who complained about jokes made at their expense, but Trump went head-to-head with comedians again and again. He’d mock Alec Baldwin and insult him. Alec Baldwin would tweet back at him. We’d never seen anything like that.

Can you imagine George W. Bush tweeting at Colbert? Bush, whatever his flaws, stayed in his lane as a statesman. Trump did not. So, of course, satire was going to start to have a bigger impact because you suddenly had the leader of the United States engaging in a direct way with comedians.

Trump tweets out, “despite the constant negative press covfefe”, then tweets, “who can figure out the true meaning…?” Webster’s makes fun of it on their feed. The lines between serious and unserious speech were obliterated. So, of course, it was going to change the space of satire because satire was no longer the thing you went to after the news, no longer on the side. It was right in your face.

In the GOP debate, he said that just because he had short fingers didn’t mean he “had a problem,” comedians are diving in on this stuff. You can’t really recount a serious Trump media moment and not correlate it with a satirical intervention of some kind.

How did this affect public trust in comedians versus in traditional journalists?

Even before Trump, right after Walter Cronkite died in 2009, Jon Stewart topped a poll on the most trusted news person. There were older studies, where the trust in Stewart and Colbert were on the same level as Brian Williams. These were already signs that the public was taking the messaging of news satirists at a level that they simply shouldn’t have been. They shouldn’t have been correlating Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert with Brian Williams. But they were, and part of the reason they were doing it was because cable news had itself gotten so stupid, increasingly becoming like a scandal junkie.

Jon Stewart was giving the public information but packaging it through ironic commentary. Figures like Brian Williams were later discredited because it came out that he lied about being on a helicopter that was shot down, things like that. People started saying, “I don’t trust you guys, you’re just trying to get views. Whereas Jon is trying to help the country understand important issues.” That’s where the shift starts to happen. The public started believing that his goal was to help inform them.

By the Trump era, there are people like John Oliver, Hasan Minhaj, Samantha Bee creating a more fragmented satire information space. Colbert, who had started off on The Late Show not being very satirical, got more politically satirical once it became clear it was helping him with his ratings.

It was particularly noticeable because of the stupid ways that the news covered Trump. CNN would literally have an empty podium before Trump was about to show up. The screen is three quarters and a podium with no person, and the commentator on the side. And they would show this for twenty minutes at a run.

How else did news coverage change during the Trump presidency?

Thomas Patterson at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard has some great data that shows the disproportionate media coverage for Trump. Polling numbers and donations should be the metric, more or less, for how much coverage a politician gets. In the early days, Trump had raised no money and wasn’t polling very high, but the media couldn’t take their eyes off him—Patterson shows that Trump got two billion dollars in free media coverage. They created him as the candidate.

The other study that Patterson did shows that not only was Trump’s coverage disproportionately more than Hillary Clinton’s, but it also shows that when Clinton was covered, it was often Trump’s voice talking about Clinton that would be used in the news segment. Very little of the coverage in 2016 was about Trump’s policy versus Clinton’s policy. Patterson talks about horse race coverage—it doesn’t help the electorate; the coverage was not policy driven.

A lot of the initial post-Trump election coverage, mainly cable news—we have to bracket off Fox because Fox is its own thing—CNN and MSNBC, some of the major newspapers like Washington Post, New York Times, for the most part, the dominant narrative was that Trump is a disaster and that some sort of judicial option will take him out of office. There was obsession with that. It’s like watching a movie. You’re waiting for the bad guy to get arrested, the world to even out. The problem was that this narrative allowed the public to not take agency.

Like Putin isn’t going to do or say anything where you point and giggle. Trump did do things like that. When he calls Kim Jong Un ‘Rocket Man’, you can’t report on that and not have a smirk on your face. You saw this with Don Lemon, with Anderson Cooper, where they had a difficult time even delivering the news without an “are you kidding me?!” look on their faces. That wasn’t satirical, but it was snarky. It became hard to cover Trump with a straight tone because of the absurdities within his administration. The news media were deeply unserious about the serious damage he was doing.

How was Trump normalized by mainstream media?

News media were regularly burying the lede. They were caught up in hype in ways they didn’t even recognize. People seemed particularly offended by Michelle Wolf’s joke about Sarah Huckabee Sanders at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Almost all coverage of Michelle from the news media was negative.

Michelle Wolf at the 2018 White House Correspondents’ Dinner alongside tweets by @mitchellreports @seanspicer and @morningmika

At the same time, Trump himself was bashing the press, and the media wasn’t covering it. They had lost the bigger picture.

This dials into a longer history of that happening with Stephen Colbert roasting George W. Bush, people said he crossed a line. There’s no reason why the news media can’t suggest that a comedian has gone too far. But look at it in the broader context where the media itself was not recognizing the fact that at the same time Trump was attacking journalistic rights to cover him. Which is worse? There was a lack of context, an inability to zoom out.

Could you talk more about the challenges that satirists faced in covering Trump?

Andy Borowitz has a brilliant quote on this—”You have a president of the United States who is a former game show host. That sounds like something that would happen on a Sharknado sequel. It’s really tough to make a daily diet of comedy out of something that’s already ridiculous.”

Part of what satire tends to do is reframe faulty logic and false narratives, but then when the narrative is not just a false narrative but an absolutely inane narrative, it gives you very little room to reveal its absurdity through absurdity.

What are the tools in the satirist’s toolbox? Hammer is exaggeration. Screwdriver is invective. Trump already took your favorite tools, so now, the satirists got more blunt and crass and aggressive, but then they also got more creative because they had to figure out how to use irony in a situation that’s extremely ironic—at a level we simply had never seen, certainly not in presidential politics.

Trump raised the stakes. He appointed a cabinet where almost every single member hated the agencies they were leading. So suddenly you get somebody like Jimmy Kimmel—who you wouldn’t think of as political—coming out and literally advocating for healthcare reform and gun reform and being very serious about these things.

In the lineup of satirists and political comedians, one who really changed under Trump was Jimmy Kimmel, who, if anything, was a relatively toxic male comedian. At best, he was bro humor—not representing sophisticated political comedy. He was funny because he was mean. So when he was schooling Trump on how to be a man, that had a whole extra layer of power in the political comedy space.

Then there were people like Sarah Cooper who was the opposite. As a woman of color, an immigrant, just lip-syncing Trump’s words and doing split screens where her facial expressions are like, “What the holy…!”

You had this huge range in which satirists were trying to identify how strange it was to have the president have no interest at all in preserving the values and democratic institutions of the United States. We really never had somebody quite that uneducated in terms of what democratic institutions are even supposed to do.

What do you make of the wave of female comedians that emerged in the Trump era?

We’ve always had female comedians, but satire has been particularly male dominated. The irony that happens when a female is impersonating a toxic man is brilliant. The bit where Sarah Cooper is replaying the Access Hollywood tape, where Helen Mirren and her embody these toxic men, the layers of irony increases the ability to see the blatant misogyny of these people. It takes the gloves off in a powerful way.

Trump ushered in a period of open misogyny that it made it easier for satirical female comedians to get into the game. Impersonations are at the heart of the power of women to shape the satirical conversation. I still rewatch Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer whenever I’m feeling depressed.

What sparked your interest in covering satire?

I was on the Harvard Lampoon when I was an undergraduate, so I was interested in being around satire in general. When I saw Colbert’s speech at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in front of George W. Bush, I felt like this is exactly what this country needed to hear. I had done a lot of research in human rights… difficult things, torture and torture survivors. Satire is a different way of trying to make sense of hard times. Colbert was, for me, such a quintessential breath of fresh air from a cultural standpoint. That started it.

The first book I did was on The Colbert Report, and then I did a book called Is Satire Saving Our Nation? That looked specifically Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert during those years, but also at the larger forces at play, people like Michael Moore, what we were calling at the time, citizen satirists. Citizens could speak truth to power through satire, through social media at levels that we had never seen before. My plan was to start working on this in a more global framework. I did a small book called Pranksters versus Autocrats with Serbian activist Srdja Popovic who had real world experience of how satire was effective at helping to bring down Slobodan Milošević. We looked at forty-four cases of these kinds of activist tactics in a global setting to see how inserting comedy and creativity could help advance social movements.

What makes ‘laughtivism’ a powerful tool for social change?

You can’t do a protest these days without seeing a significant amount of laughtivist protest signs. The playfulness helps you not be exhausted. It’s successful at reframing the narrative and showing where real abuses of power are. Activists are so regularly depicted in the media as disruptive, as threatening to the status quo, as potentially violent. The typical news media coverage of a protest is that they didn’t break anything. So, when you interject laughter, it changes the coverage because now it’s actually about the issue at a different level. It also shows the issue they’re protesting to be the threat. Not the activist. And that’s what you want.

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