Remember when Donald Trump just seemed like a kooky wackadoodle who would spout off insane blather that was obviously nuts and only taken seriously by a lunatic fringe? Well, those days seem long gone. Now Trump isn't just a fringe lunatic, he's actually leading the GOP primary field. His hate-filled speech has gone after immigrants, POWs, women and more. And he doesn't care because so far these loony comments just help his campaign.
It's hard to imagine how he could alienate so many voting groups and win, but none of that matters now. What matters is that his aggressive, hyperbolic, asshole rhetoric has no real foil. There is no public voice effectively countering the Trump spin machine. Thus far not one single news figure from Jorge Ramos to Megyn Kelly has been able to make a dent in the Trump wave. And it is likely that we won’t see any mainstream journalist make a difference regardless of how hard they try.
This is because Trump is not a politician. He is a farce. He's a mockery of American exceptionalism, not an advocate for it. Unfiltered, unabashed and unapologetic, Trump aims to present himself as the strong leader this nation needs. But he's a clown version of a strong leader. If we lived in the era of court jesters, they'd all be copying Trump.
And that's why the mainstream media won't get traction with him. Kelly asked a serious question of him at the debate. But Trump acted like it was an improv prompt to perform the role of an egomaniac. He literally said "we need brain" at the end of his rant. Even my 10-year-old son thought that was hilarious.
Sure politics is performance and sure it is entertainment. As Jeffrey Jones explains in "Entertaining Politics," politics and entertainment have been intersecting and blending for decades. But Trump’s performance is nothing like Bill Clinton playing the sax and trying to be cool in order to balance a policy-driven campaign. Trump is nothing but performance. He has no substantive policy. His talking points come in tweets.
He doesn’t speak in a way that is rational or reasoned. This means that straight, evidence-based critiques of Trump fall flat. Everyone is too busy watching the spectacle to digest its horror. The only way to counter such destructive farce is with a mode of communication that can both expose the farce and out-entertain it, i.e. satire. Farce is distractingly entertaining; straight news simply can’t counter it the way that satire can. And this is why the satirical interventions of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have been so important.
In the weeks before Stewart signed off as host of "The Daily Show" he offered viewers daily doses of anti-Trump satire. Without question, Stewart was one of the few media figures to finally nail what was wrong with the fallout from Trump’s comment that Mexicans are rapists. The brilliance of his piece was to point out that “It’s hard to get mad at Donald Trump for saying stupid things for the same reason it’s hard to get mad at a monkey for throwing poop at you in the zoo.” Stewart then said that the good news was that the farce of his campaign was finally on display and that he would be clearly seen as an unserious candidate. He then cut to show Trump rising in the polls. The result was to point fingers at the U.S. public who was continuing to let this lunatic have a voice in our nation’s politics. That sort of incisive critique was not happening in the mainstream media.
But Stewart’s foil to Trump is now gone, which leaves us with Colbert. The trouble is that we don’t know how much of the sort of sharp satire we saw on The Colbert Report will be present when Colbert takes over "The Late Show" on Monday. We know that he has told the public that he expects to keep political satire as a staple of the show and we know that he did a brilliant spoof of Trump’s campaign announcement, but the move to a network is still likely to bring limits he did not have on Comedy Central.
Perhaps more important than the move to a network, Colbert won’t have his satirical blowhard pundit character to frame his comedy. As he recently confessed to Eliza Berman of Time, he was ready to let go of the character since it was such a confining comedic role. But, while the flexibility may be liberating for Colbert, the end of the character is a loss for U.S. public discourse. Spoofing a pundit allowed Colbert to engage with the loony nature of media and politics in ways that were funny and extremely potent. He had a unique angle to critique the hubris because he embodied it in exaggerated form.
Recall, for example, the time he went after Trump in the weeks before the 2012 Presidential election. By then, Trump was long out of the race, but he still was beating his “birther” drum. To continue to fan the flames and in an effort to boost Mitt Romney in the polls, Trump announced on October 24, 2012 that he would give $5 million to a charity of President Barack Obama's choosing if would provide Trump with his college transcripts and passport records. Colbert’s response was quick and perfect. On the day of Trump’s announcement, Colbert countered by announcing he would donate $1 million to the charity of Trump's choice if he would allow Colbert to dip his balls in Trump’s mouth. Colbert swung his balls right at Trump and outdid him. It was a brilliant move, since it exposed Trump as both a braggart and a fool — while making us laugh.
Not only did Colbert reveal the ridiculous nature of the stunt, but by mirroring it in satire, he immediately deflated its power. One of the most powerful features of satire is that it is able to show when the emperor is, in fact, naked. And that’s a move that just can’t happen on mainstream news shows that can’t decide whether to take Trump seriously or not. (In fact, they often can’t decide whether to take themselves seriously or not.)
So this is why we have to hang our hope on Colbert. Colbert won’t be in character on "The Late Show" and we don’t know whether CBS will support full-scale satire of Trump. Thus far, CBS has been relatively neutral on the issue of Trump coverage, unlike NBC, which has had closer and more complex ties to the flamboyant candidate. Trump hosted "Celebrity Apprentice" for NBC, and after the rapist comment fiasco, they announced that they were not planning on doing business with him in the future. CBS has no such backstory with Trump.
Even though we don’t have clear clues about how Colbert’s new network home will handle Trump critique, the news from Colbert’s camp has been pretty consistent. Colbert has signaled that one of his main goals when he gets back on air is to target Trump. At a press conference Colbert explained, “I’m not going to name any names, but let’s just say I want to do jokes on Donald Trump so badly and I have no venue, so right now I’m just dry-Trumping.” He then went on to live tweet and create the now-popular hashtag #drytrumping.
As Matt Taibbi held in a recent piece for Rolling Stone, Donald Trump just stopped being funny. While he’s right about the dangerous ways that Trump has infected U.S. public discourse and persuaded popular opinion, the only corrective to the farce of Trump is through the sort of political humor that can reveal him for all of his caustic lunacy. Our best hope on that front is Colbert. Luckily we don’t have much dry-Trumping left before the real fun begins.