Trial by TV: can the media skewer Donald Trump’s presidency?
It is a telling symptom of the sea change that has come over American life that Super Bowl commercials, which would likely have attracted little attention in other years, were suddenly perceived to be not only political, but also pointed critiques of the 45th president of the United States.
Coca-Cola offered a vision of “America the Beautiful” featuring a multicultural array of singers and languages. Budweiser made an advert about one of its founders, a German immigrant who is seen being harassed by English-speaking natives upon his arrival in the US. A Pennsylvania lumber company developed a commercial about an immigrant mother and daughter making their way to America.
What had once been the pabulum of Madison Avenue – America is strong and diverse, “our country” embraces all (as long as they have money to spend) – is now understood by many to be a direct attack on president Donald Trump, and the anti-immigrant hostility unleashed by his campaign, and by his recent attempt to ban entry from seven Muslim-majority countries.
Trump’s impact on popular culture is set to be extensive, with entities from Google to the Museum of Modern Art, which took down some of its Picassos and Matisses to display work by artists from the banned countries, prompted to weigh in. But one of the first places for any such shift to emerge, is across the landscape of late-night television, required to entertain its audiences nightly or weekly with a palette of material formed from the latest headlines.
Celebrities have taken to venting their hostility by tweeting at the president. Trump’s Twitter tirade about Saturday Night Live sketches poking fun at him led to Alec Baldwin, who plays Trump on SNL, replying “Release your tax returns and I’ll stop.” Talk-show host Andy Cohen responded to Trump’s recent dissatisfaction with prominent American retailer Nordstrom over dropping his daughter’s fashion line by tweeting “Is there a point when you’re going to start acting like a President?” After Trump tweeted that “We must keep ‘evil’ out of our country”, model Chrissy Teigen responded by acidly wondering, “What time should we call your Uber?”
After a year of headlines gloating that John Oliver and Samantha Bee had “destroyed” Trump, it has to serve as cause for re-evaluation of the political-comedy form – or at the very least of the verbs used to describe it – that far from being destroyed, Trump is now the 45th president of the United States.
Being in the opposition is generally beneficial for the programmes or media outlets that symbolically represent the party out of power, as with the rise of The Daily Show during the Bush era or Fox News, Breitbart, and their compatriots during the Obama years.
But Trump, as a creature of the media himself, presents a marked challenge – one that shows such as Saturday Night Live have already been struggling with.
How do you mock someone who, while himself incredibly touchy, does not appear to suffer in the eyes of his staunchest supporters when lambasted? What does it mean to be successful in counteracting the Trump presidency when all those same forces were unable to prevent his election?
Late-night hosts such as Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert, and comedic political commentators such as Oliver and Bee, are being scrutinised for their responses to Trump, with each subject to differing pressures and expectations.
Fallon came in for overwhelming criticism for having Trump on as a guest during the campaign, and feeding him a slew of softball questions. Worse, he playfully ruffled Trump’s hair, feeding into the candidate’s image as a good sport, and treating him as a genial uncle rather than an aspiring strongman.
The political commentators’ dilemma echoes that of American liberalism as a whole, which must determine whether it is devoted to firing up its staunchest supporters or stumbling toward a language that might bring back its vanishing white, working- and middle-class adherents.
Bee is choosing the combative mode, planning a no-holds-barred rival to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner for April. Her burn-it-down comedic style on Full Frontal, with Bee anxiously pacing a too-small stage in ill-fitting clothing, is perhaps the closest fit for the jitters of her coastal-liberal audience.
Meanwhile, Seth Meyers, the former Saturday Night Live performer languishing in the outer reaches of the late-late-night, has found his voice with extended, fact-filled monologues combining Jon Stewart’s savvy style with the wounding deadpan of Weekend Update. Meyers has brilliantly skewered the president for his television addiction, comparing him to his cranky nine month-old in search of a “Dora the Explorer” fix. (Meyers does a sneaky-good impression of Trump’s vocal inflections, as well.)
The fate of these shows, and others like them, rests on two factors. The first is that they will have to find a way to adjust to having a master showman/provocateur in the White House. Trump can’t be mocked like Bush; he is himself a product of the same television environment, and astute at creating his own cultural atmosphere. Some of these shows will likely crash and burn, unable to deftly counteract Trump, or speak both truthfully and humorously about him in a manner that compels their audience to continue tuning in.
The second is that they will have to wrestle with dark threats to American democracy and will have to craft a comic language that speaks to an illiberalism emerging from the White House. That language does not yet exist in American life and will have to either be imported from elsewhere or created afresh. Comedy, like liberalism, will have to stumble its way to a place where it speaks to the new reality. And audiences, at least so far, are hungry for political material; Colbert’s ratings have begun to overtake Fallon’s. But despite this, watching TV is no longer a communal experience and the power of the medium is not as potent as it was during the days of Johnny Carson.
Meanwhile, as the late-night comedians swivelled to face President Trump, an array of little Trumps, embracing his mixture of media-savvy and white-nationalist resentment, has begun to flower. The media profile of provocateurs such as Milo Yiannopoulos and Tomi Lahren have surged alongside Trump’s, with the media, in search of pro-Trump voices it can highlight for insight into his voters’ mindset, granting them copious coverage.
Breitbart editor Yiannopoulos came to mass attention last year, as his army of Twitter followers harassed Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones out of misplaced mis- ogynist outrage over the all-female remake of the beloved 1980s comedy. Yiannopoulos was ultimately booted off Twitter, but the publicity encouraged Simon & Schuster to buy his book. Trump supporters routinely refer to critics in the media as snowflakes – as somehow unable to deal with opposing opinions.
Yiannopoulos’s book may or may not find an audience, but the US$250,000 (Dh918,000) advance he received, and the persistent drumbeat of media coverage of his antics, speaks to an interest in undercutting the perceived strictures of political correctness that helped elevate Trump to the presidency.
Yiannopoulos began by bashing advocates who wanted the world of gaming to be more hospitable to women; he now presents himself as Trump’s comic-relief wingman, bashing liberals who want the world to be more hospitable to women. But there has also been notable pushback; fellow Simon & Schuster author Roxane Gay pulled her book rather than allow it to be published by the same house.
The Daily Show host, Trevor Noah, reached across the aisle after the election by interviewing Lahren, known for comparing the Black Lives Matter movement to the Ku Klux Klan. Noah and Lahren bantered and sparred, with Noah getting in a few solid blows: “For somebody who’s not racist, you have to spend a lot of time saying: ‘I’m not racist.’” But Lahren was granted a mainstream platform, leading critics to observe that The Daily Show had helped to normalise her noxious views.
And yet, the remarkable fact of the early days of Trump’s presidency, one that perhaps should have been obvious to all before his inauguration, is the extent to which he is a product of television. Not only is he a reality-TV star turned politician, he is a TV junkie whose worldview apparently stems from the reports broadcast on the cable-news networks. A cottage industry of Trump-watchers have taken to stencilling Trump’s remarks atop cable-news coverage, noting that the president’s Twitter musings on sending federal assistance to Chicago came soon after a story on the city’s soaring murder rate.
Trump appears to believe that he has as much of a responsibility as the lowliest TV recapper to religiously watch Saturday Night Live and report to the masses on its relative humour quotient. Reports following Melissa McCarthy’s riotous appearance as press secretary Sean Spicer indicated that president Trump was disturbed by the portrayal – especially by the suggested insult of a woman playing a male staffer.
Saturday Night Live has been mocking presidents since Gerald Ford was wearing a football helmet in the Oval Office, but the impact of the venerable, long-in-the-tooth sketch-comedy series is dramatically amplified by the knowledge that the president of the United States is watching so closely.
Moreover, Trump is clearly unsettled by negative attention. Numerous reports from the likes of The New York Times and Washington Post noted that coverage of Trump’s inauguration, and the implication that attendance was sparser than at Obama’s 2009 inauguration, prompted the president to lash out at what he perceived to be negative coverage, and to send Spicer out for his first press briefing with incorrect information about crowd sizes, and a petulant demeanour not generally in keeping with the White House.
According to numerous reports, Trump has mostly eschewed the top-secret daily intelligence briefing prepared for him by the CIA, preferring to get his information from Fox News and CNN.
Trump is a politician who thrives on the feedback loop of outrage. He is not held hostage by the dictates of politesse; the temptation, for comedians and protesters alike, will be to match him blow-for-blow. This will likely prove to be a mistake. The comic instinct is to say something shocking enough to unsettle even Trump, and the result is likely to be outrage from the very fans otherwise likely to applaud the anti-Trump sentiment. This may work for Twitter, which has spawned its own subset of hilariously barbed responses to @realDonaldTrump, but not for popular culture at large.
There was an uproar recently over a tweet from Saturday Night Live writer Katie Rich, who made a vile joke about Trump’s 10-year-old son, and was forced to apologise. The result is a kind of asymmetric warfare, in which the most powerful man in the country is at liberty to be harsher than his critics. And while Rich’s comments were indefensible, they also serve as a worthy reminder that such gratuitous dumpster-diving is likely unnecessary. Trump is perhaps the most thin-skinned president in historical memory, and attacking his grade-school-age children is hardly necessary if the goal is rattling him. Trump appears to have expected his presidency to be an extended coronation, and has been taken aback by the ferocity of the media’s opposition to his loose approach to facts. Simply pointing out the obvious, over and over, may be enough to unsettle the 45th president.
Trump’s is already shaping up to be the first presidency to exist almost entirely in and through its media representations. When the president and the Japanese premier Shinzo Abe found out about North Korea’s latest nuclear-missile test this week, they were dining on the terrace at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s private country club in Palm Beach. As the drama of events played out, fellow diners tweeted photographs of a scrum of advisers surrounding the two men.
There is no presidency outside how it plays on TV, even for the man who is himself the president. This places an enormous amount of pressure on the media, from all sides – from the president, who expects a permanent state of obeisance, and from his opponents, who hope that they will demoralise him with their efforts.
Whichever happens, everyone can agree on one thing: Americans have never been here before.
Saul Austerlitz is a frequent contributor to The Review.
Updated: February 16, 2017 04:00 AM