In the Trump era, satire is a dying art

Barack Obama and Joe Biden team up in a fictional crime novel (left) and Sacha Baron Cohen poses as one of his new characters (right), but neither match the absurdity of reality.
Image: quirk books/showtime

Nearly 20 months into the international embarrassment that is the Trump administration, faced with the prospect that its president may well be a Russian asset of some sort, Americans are in dire need of a laugh. 

Yet political comedians seem incapable of beating or even matching the sheer self-evident ridiculousness of the moment. (Heck, we feel their pain: It’s an impossible task for journalists to keep up with the news, let alone comedians.) 

In Trump Year 2, satire may not be dead exactly — but it’s certainly on life support. 

Cases in point from the past week: a satirical novel of real-life presidential mystery with great potential that completely undershot its target, and a famous big-screen comedian whose most planned, most biting, most shocking punk bit yet was immediately outdone by the news. 

In the spirit of a world turned upside down, let’s take the last one first. I speak of Sacha Baron Cohen’s new Showtime show Who Is America?, in which Cohen transfers his Ali G and Borat interview shtick into all-new characters meant to represent Trump’s America. 

In Episode 1, we saw an Alex Jones-esque online conspiracist in a wheelchair interviewing Bernie Sanders, an ex-con attempting to sell his art at an actual art gallery, and a crunchy lefty ponytailed NPR fan having dinner with two actual Trump-voting GOP 2016 delegates in their gaudy home. 

None of those sketches quite landed. Bernie wasn’t buying the inanity act. The ex-con bit was tired scatological humor unworthy of Cohen’s great bits of the past. The crunchy lefty sketch was worse, in that it rebounded off its target. The intent was to show the Trumpies as dummies for believing the parody liberal to be real, even as he rambled out a story about his wife’s affair with a dolphin. 

Instead the couple came across as gracious, if intensely gullible. You cringed for them through the charade. 

Then came the segment that got everyone talking — for one evening, at least. Cohen plays an Israeli gun rights activist, a “terrorist terminator,” who suckers leading Republican Congressmen past and present into taking part in a video promoting firearms training for young children ages “12 to 4.” 

Here for once was true satire, in all its historic ability to bite and shock with truth. The GOP is so cravenly submissive to all pro-gun arguments, many of its members will say on camera things that — judging by the fear in their eyes — shock even themselves. Clever writing betrays them. The last line is “happy shooting, kids,” which former Illinois Rep. Joe Walsh accidentally says so fast that the comma is lost. The result was the closest thing to a mic drop in American political comedy in the past two years. 

And it was immediately outpaced by events. 

Because all of a sudden, the next day, the NRA’s role in buying the GOP and burying gun control was old news. All of a sudden, we learned alleged Russian agent Maria Butina had been arrested while operating right at the heart of a “Gun Rights Organization,” as her indictment carefully put it. Pictures immediately emerged of her meeting with more major NRA and GOP figures than Cohen could manage. 

The real-life pro-Trump trolls had out-trolled the comedy troll.

Increasingly, it seems, Russia has been funneling unknown millions into GOP accounts using the NRA as a conduit. Both the GOP and NRA may be bought and paid for, their donations like Russian nesting dolls. Their complicity in a state of constant school shootings, amazingly, is now only the second most anti-American thing about them. 

The day after his show launched, and Sacha Baron Cohen may as well have tried to parody the Hoover administration. At this rate, future targets on Cohen’s show that are already complaining, such as Sarah Palin, needn’t worry. Whatever idiocy they’re spouting will have been totally overtaken by events by the time it’s screened. 

By the book

If a TV comedian can’t keep pace with events, what hope does a satirical novelist have? No wonder that Andrew Schaffer, a New York Times bestseller for Fifty Shames of Earl Grey, doesn’t even try in his Trump-era political comedy thriller Hope Never Dies.

That title is a political message in itself — as is the cover, which promises an “Obama-Biden mystery.” At this moment in time there’s something almost cruel about the cover image of Barack Obama pointing with conviction from an open-top roadster with Joe Biden at the wheel. It’s like being taunted with a picture of your family when you’re being held hostage by an evil stepdad. Look what you used to have!

A similar kind of taunting continues in the narrative, which is affable — too affable. Delaware-bound Biden narrates the mystery guilelessly like a Wilmington Watson. Obama leads him into an investigation of Biden’s favorite Amtrak conductor, who died on the tracks with heroin and a map to Biden’s house in his pocket. Dun dun duuuun! 

But this is a mystery set in 2017; Obama’s successor was fully engaged in setting fires around America and the world. It stretches credulity that the former president and his Veep wouldn’t talk about it. As much as they were preoccupied on the trail of the conductor’s real killer, don’t you think they might have mentioned the name Trump just once?

Because they do not. The closest we get to a political statement comes on page 130: incensed by an off-hand reference to Hillary Clinton, Biden says this: “I could’ve beaten that short-fingered clown in the general, Barack, I could have.” Then, a hundred pages later, as the pair are patching up their friendship, Obama dismisses his high approval rating:

Nostalgia for a bygone era. I leave office, and suddenly Obamacare becomes popular? It’s flattering, but it says more about the current administration than it does about me … there were some wins, but they were few and far between. The slate’s being wiped clean. If anything, we’re going backwards. 

Also going backwards is the book, which other than these passages reads like the gentlest presidential satire of 2014. Biden is a car-loving dad-jokester. Obama is overly cerebral; at one point he delays the investigation while explaining to a girl behind a counter why we call it climate change rather than global warming. 

Is this kind of gentle ribbing of nerdiness still relevant in 2018, when the non-nerds are in charge and the planet is on fire? For example, speaking of climate change, the ex-President has had a choice thing or two to say in public about Trump pulling out of the Paris climate agreement. It would have been good to hear a little of what he was saying in private, even if it’s only a best-guess fictionalized version. 

Hopefully we’ll get a little more of the skewering thing in the sequel Schaffer is already planning on writing, called Hope Rides Again

This may not be the best advice, of course. Given the unpredictability and speed of our news cycles, anything Schaffer writes that includes Trump virtually guarantees he’ll be removed from office by then, just to make the prose irrelevant on publication. 

Then again, as I’m sure Schaffer and other comic writers would agree, that would be a price worth paying. If traditional satire is dying — the satire of “both sides are bad and we must laugh at them equally,” the satire of “all politicians are kinda silly,” let it at least take Trump down with it. 

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