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Is political comedy dead in the Biden era?

In the days following the attacks of 9/11/200, no one wanted to laugh. Jon Stewart burst into tears as host of "The Daily Show" and Bill Maher got fired from ABC for suggesting that you could call the terrorist attackers many things, but "coward" wasn't one of them. Then on September 18, 2001, Graydon Carter, then editor of Vanity Fair, suggested that the attacks signaled "the end of irony."

This article originally appeared at Salon.

Carter's intervention was noteworthy, since he was the co-founder of one of the most significant U.S. satirical magazines, Spy Magazine. If one of the masters of satire thought satirical irony was dead, then, surely, we were doomed to live in an era of boorish, literal communication.

Except Carter was wrong. As Michiko Kakutani explained in a piece for The New York Times, what Carter missed was the fact that irony always comes back, even if it is briefly held in abeyance during moments of extreme social upheaval. Sure, 9/11 led to a momentary pause in black humor, irony and cynicism, but those all-too-common forms of human expression popped back within weeks of the attack. By September 26, 2001 — a mere eight days after Carter suggested irony was dead — the satirical magazine The Onion ran the headline ''U.S. Vows to Defeat Whoever It Is We're at War With'' in a special edition called "Holy Fucking Shit: Attack on America." Some might have bristled that the issue was an example of "too soon" dark humor, but it was clear evidence that only days after the shocking events of 9/11, American irony was alive and kicking.

This story is revealing because it reminds us that just as irony is a social constant, irony's critics are, too. In fact, we might take as the greatest sign of irony's social force the ironic reality that there will always be pundits out there signaling its demise. Isn't it ironic that the proof of irony's power is the never-ending parade of pundits suggesting it is dead?

This ironic fact was never more apparent than during the Trump years, when we kept hearing how Trump was killing comedy at the exact same time that Trump comedy was peaking. Perhaps the best example of this doublespeak was Dan Brooks' piece for The New York Times, "How President Trump Ruined Political Comedy," which offers a sweeping overview of a wide range of Trump comedy at the same time that it suggests that none of it matters. What Brooks hints at in his piece — and what is much more accurate — is that irony adapts with each historical transition.

Irony never dies; it just changes with the times.

Nevertheless, that truism isn't stopping a new wave of comedy pundits from suggesting that with the election of Joe Biden, U.S. political satire is now on its way to being truly dead. Given the penchant for old man Biden jokes, such a view could be wickedly ironic, except it's wrong.

First to come under fire was "Saturday Night Live" (SNL), which Lorraine Ali described as "remarkably weak" now that Trump was out of office. Much has been made, as well, over whether or not anyone will want to make fun of Biden. Fox News, unsurprisingly, claims that "liberal" comics are "scared" to make fun of Biden, but others have suggested that our new president will get a pass. Richard Zoglin noted that Biden has so far "been impregnable" to satire because his mannerisms and policies simply don't give comedians much material to work with.

But just because Biden comedy has faltered in these early days doesn't mean it's doomed to failure.

In fact, it makes sense that the shift to Biden from a bombastic and absurd blowhard like Trump would send comedy through an adjustment phase. That does not mean, however, that we won't see plenty of political comedy under Biden. In fact, we can count on it for the simple reason that political comedy is a staple of American expression.

There are a number of reasons you don't need to worry that Biden's win means comedy's loss.

Trump isn't in office, but he still offers good material

When George W. Bush left office, political jokes about him quickly abated. Not so with Trump. Trump jokes have not stopped, even if they have stopped taking center stage. From Trump leaving the White House memes, to jokes over his farewell note to Biden, to jokes over the bizarre Trump statue at CPAC to political cartoons that mock Trump there are plenty of signs that Trump is still on the comedy radar.

The good news is that he is no longer the center of comedic attention and that variety is a welcome development. In a study done by Robert Lichter, communications professor at George Mason, he found that a whopping 97 percent of the jokes Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon told about the candidates in September 2020 targeted President Donald Trump. Thankfully, Trump isn't getting that degree of bandwidth today, allowing comedians a wider range of targets for their material.

Trump may be gone, but he has plenty of allies still in government

What we also have to remember is that Trump may have been the cherry on top of the absurd sundae, but he was never alone. The only reason why Trump political comedy got to take such center stage is because much of it focused on more than the man himself. The bluster, braggadocio and bullying of Trump are emblematic of a wide range of right wing politicians. When we bundle that with an aversion to the truth and the egocentric policy platform at the center of the Republican party, it is easy to see how there is no shortage of things to mock.

Think, for example, of the Ted Cruz jokes that emerged in the wake of his trip to Cancún as Texas faced a weather emergency. And who could forget the roasting Mitch McConnell got on Twitter during the second impeachment proceedings?

Probably one of the best recent Trump ally sources of satire has been the story of Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz, a notorious supporter of the former president and who is under investigation over allegations of sex trafficking of a minor. Gaetz was often referred to as part of the "warrior class" that pledged to defend Trump, making his fall from grace even more spectacular, thereby offering satirists an irresistible target. Andy Borowitz, who has a regular column with The New Yorker, has taken to just posting his Gaetz satire straight to Facebook with mock headlines like "Gaetz Blames Liberal Media for Getting his Girlfriend Grounded," "Gaetz Fears that if He is Arrested He Will Miss Prom" and "CDC Urge Social Distancing to Stop the Spread of Matt Gaetz."

Comedians will eventually make fun of Biden

The sea change from Trump to Biden has clearly caught the comedians a bit off guard, but that hiccough doesn't mean they won't eventually find their comedic footing. It is worth remembering, too, that when Biden served as vice president under Barack Obama he was regularly roasted. In one example, a viral piece from The Onion held the headline "Shirtless Biden Washes Trans Am In White House Driveway." It got folks so riled up that there was even an effort to try to buy Biden a Trans Am.

The easy jokes about Biden's age, or the jabs mocking his stutter, may feel like punching down these days. And that's all for the good, since such jokes are just mockery and not satire. Soon enough, though, comedians will find ways to satirize his policies. Remember that even Obama came under fire from comedians like Stephen Colbert, who, on "The Colbert Report" liked to target Obama's hypocrisies. He delivered an especially scathing take-down in 2012 of Obama's drone program, for example.

"SNL" is not a barometer for the state of political comedy today

It is worth noting that many of those who fret over the current state of political comedy may overemphasize the role of "SNL." There is little doubt that the show plays a central and significant role in the history of U.S. satire, but it has historically had an uneven status as a source of U.S. political comedy. During the George W. Bush years, for example, "SNL" offered little in the way of biting political comedy. And, while it is true that a lot of powerful Trump material came out on Saturday nights, it is a mistake to think that if Jim Carrey's impersonation of Biden was uninspiring that that means political comedy for the nation as a whole is in decline.

In fact, late night comedy overall is not really the source of the most innovative political satire today. For many, the real source of cutting-edge political comedy this last election cycle was TikTok. For those of us older than our teens, we may have first stumbled onto TikTok thanks to Sarah Cooper's brilliant Trump impersonations. But Cooper is just one small example of the massive amount of political satire on the platform.

TikTok has offered a unique space for a very particular type of political comedy, one that is radically different from the style of late-night comedy. As Hannah Giorgis explains in The Atlantic, "Young people on TikTok don't need to supplement their short videos with lengthy explanations of the sociopolitical ideas they're poking at, nor do they justify their own antics by fitting them into an established format."

What makes the satire on TikTok so powerful and so edgy is the fact that some miss the irony. In one example, the teenage owners of a TikTok account called POCRepublicans found themselves being criticized by both the right and the left when their videos went viral on Twitter and were interpreted un-ironically. When your satire confuses people, it can be a promising sign that it is smart, creative and subtle.

The best political comedy isn't personality-driven anyway

One of the truisms of satire is that it isn't interested in balance or covering "both sides" of an issue. Instead it focuses on BS, abuses of power, human folly, and hubris. This gives satirists a never-ending supply of material, regardless of who is in the White House.

If we look back on the comedy of a number of on-air satirists over the past four years, we see that there are quite a few who were never Trump-obsessed. Sure, Trump was a staple on both "The Late Show" hosted by Stephen Colbert and "Late Night" hosted by Seth Meyers, but a number of late-night comedians made a point of not letting Trump dominate their material.

Trevor Noah, host of The Daily Show, is one of the few late-night comedians to regularly satirize race relations on his show. One of his most viewed segments is "White People Unnecessarily Calling the Cops on Black People," which has been viewed over 11 million times. Noah also likes to cover a range of topics, especially global politics, that aren't personality-driven. In fact, only two Trump-related segments even show up in his top ten most-viewed segments.

In contrast, Trump is featured as the top-viewed segment of Samantha Bee, host of "Full Frontal." Her Full Frontal Investigation, "Trump Can't Read" was seen over 5 million times. Still, a number of her best segments are issue-driven, especially when she takes up gun violence or women's rights. Her second-most viewed segment, "Sam Has Had Enough of the Thoughts and Prayers for Gun Violence," has been seen over 3.6 million times.

For a satirist like HBO's John Oliver, who tends to investigate complex issues and package them in ironic comedy, the question of who occupies the White House is of even less consequence. Segments on televangelists, multilevel marketing, sex education, tobacco and FIFA are perfect examples of how his work isn't going to change under Biden.

So, while it is true that we now have an administration in office that can speak English, name the branches of government, do basic math, and understand science, it doesn't mean that our nation's satirists won't have plenty of chances to mock what they find stupid, absurd, and unjust. Biden may have a new job in the White House, but that doesn't mean that the satirists will be out of work.

Rush Limbaugh’s toxic patriotism will be his worst legacy

Back in 2014 I pissed off Rush Limbaugh. The source of his ire was a piece I wrote for Salon on the eve of Stephen Colbert stepping down as host of "The Colbert Report." In it, I suggested that Colbert's character on that show had played a valuable role in redefining patriotism for the left.

This article first appeared in Salon.

Limbaugh wasn't pleased. It led him to deploy his characteristic misogyny and call me a "professorette" as he twisted my argument in order to make his point. His angry rant included the fact that I was part of leftist academe, that I dared to criticize American exceptionalism, and that I had something positive to say about the legacy of Stephen Colbert's character.

Well, now that he's dead, I have something negative to say about his legacy.

Rush Limbaugh made America worse. He made the media worse, he made his party worse, and he made our democracy worse. He made toxic masculinity worse. He made white nationalism worse. Actually, he made a wide spectrum of noxious bigotry worse. Even more, his twisted invective passed off as reasoned arguments made our collective intelligence worse.

Rush Limbaugh left our country more angry, more divided, more stupid, more intolerant, more prejudiced, more arrogant and more incapable of solving any of our problems. Limbaugh created chaos and he fed off of it. There was never any moment when he wasn't trying to make everything worse so he could profit from his followers' fear and anger over it.

Much will be made of what will be Limbaugh's most lasting legacy. Will it be the way that his radio show single-handedly opened the floodgates for alt-right punditry? Will it be that his unique brand of manufactured outrage and angry hysteria became a seminal feature of right-wing rhetoric? Will it be that his vicious bigotry came to epitomize the "values" of the right? Or that his celebrity cult following paved the way to Trump?

These, of course, will all be a central part of his story, but they will not be the most significant. Instead, as we unpack the devastating consequences of his life on this nation, it will be his unique brand of toxic patriotism that will be his worst legacy.

Limbaugh certainly wasn't the first one to suggest that the left "hated" their country, but he was the most successful at amplifying that view and embedding it as a core feature of right-wing identity.

In Limbaugh's world patriotism was synonymous with right-wing politics. Thus, if the left criticized the right, it meant they hated their country. And when the right criticized the left, it demonstrated love of country. It was a perfectly circular logic that allowed the right to understand any form of critique as hatred and any disagreement as treason.

The consequences of this twisted version of nationalism have been devastating. Limbaugh offered up a fascist version of U.S. patriotism and, at least for many years, till he lost his edge to even more lunatic incarnations like that of Alex Jones and Glenn Beck, his toxic patriotism was his trademark symbol.

As Limbaugh put it in his rant against me: "I can't escape these professors and these lies and all this crap that's in the media about everything that's so-called wrong with America. Meanwhile, we're losing everything this country's known for."

The number one goal of the left, according to Limbaugh, is to destroy the right. For him, the left sees the right as its enemy. "I really do think that they are so twisted with this hatred for us," he cried.

But who exactly hates whom? I mean, yes, I — along with many, many others — critique the right. Yet, critique is not akin to hatred. Nor is questioning American exceptionalism. Debating the core values of U.S. nationalism is not hatred, either. But for snowflake Limbaugh and his followers, any questioning of them feels like a full-on assault.

In this way Limbaugh manufactured liberal hatred of the right in order to stoke right-wing hatred of the left, all in the service of merging partisan hatred with patriotism.

It was a brilliant move, because it allowed Limbaugh to suggest that the right is both a victim of left-wing attacks and also the only ones who care about the country. The left, according to him, is too busy hating the right to care about preserving the nation. Thus, the right are aggrieved nationalists left to fight off treasonous liberals while elevating their nation to greatness.

And that's where Colbert comes in, because his in-character persona on "The Colbert Report" did an excellent job of parodying toxic right-wing patriotism and suggesting that it was high time for the left to fight for an alternative version of the country. As I argue in "Colbert's America," Colbert was uniquely focused on wresting the notion of patriotism away from the right and suggesting that an active, engaged and critically thinking citizenry could offer a powerful contrast of national values.

Colbert's parodying of exaggerated patriotism on his show had him swooping in on the opening credits accompanied by a bald eagle and an American flag only to take a seat in a studio that was filled with Americana. Colbert often used his satire to poke at Limbaugh, who functioned as one of his character's alter egos, alongside those based on other right-wing pundits like Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck.

In a clip from March 5, 2009, Colbert highlighted the fact that Limbaugh loved to suggest he was more patriotic than anyone on the left — in this example, President Barack Obama, who Limbaugh claimed was violating the principles of the Constitution. In his anti-Obama rant, Limbaugh then offered up a quote of the sacred document. Except that the quote was from the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution; and even worse, Limbaugh got it wrong anyway.

Colbert's bit did an excellent job of pointing out what a bunch of buffoons these so-called patriots are. They don't even know the patriotic documents they accuse the left of disparaging.

But, in contrast, Colbert did. He used his character to not just mock the faux patriotism of Limbaugh, but also to give his own viewers a lesson in U.S. history. Throughout his show, through recurring segments like "Better Know a District," Colbert outed self-proclaimed patriots by showing how little they actually knew about their country. Instead, he suggested, all they really knew was that they hated the left.

So, it was my defense of Colbert's patriotism that really set Limbaugh off. Because for the most part, up until Colbert and Jon Stewart used their satire shows on Comedy Central to satirize right-wing "values," there really hadn't been an effective counter to the vicious nationalism on offer from Limbaugh and his allies. Their satire served as a particularly good foil for the rise of extremist patriotism because it was able to use satirical irony to expose the absurdity of saying that the best way to love your country is to hate the left. Colbert and Stewart suggested that hatred wasn't a patriotic value, but reason, debate, attention to the truth and critical engagement were.

Shortly after Limbaugh decided to attack me to the over 3 million listeners who tended to tune in to his show every hour, I got death threats. They came via social media, via email and even in the form of creepy hand-written letters that I had to turn in to campus police.

My experience wasn't unique. In fact, it was common for Limbaugh's listeners to use death threats, nasty messages, and social media stalking to harass anyone Limbaugh had chosen to single out on his show. As has been noted by Dannagal Young, the rise of outrage as the core "virtue" of the right has been decades in the making. And, as Peter Isackson explains, death threats have "become one of the standard means of expression for aggravated outrage."

But Limbaugh's special contribution was to make death threats, aggressive attacks, and belligerent bullying the ultimate act of patriotism. He infected conservative patriotism with vicious hate.

He might be dead, but as we all witnessed on January 6, the legacy of his toxic patriotism remains very much alive.

Another mess left by Trump: A cult of die-hard followers whose delusions run deep

We all have them. The handful of Trump supporters who somehow still show up on our social media. The ones that we didn't block or unfriend because they seemed like the "reasonable" ones. We thought, maybe, that staying connected would be valuable, might offer a chance at dialogue, might provide insight.

One of my token Trump supporters sent me a direct message the other day. It was a meme that has a photo of the National Guard troops arriving at the Capitol building. The text reads, "If you need 10,000 armed soldiers to protect your inauguration from the people, then you probably weren't elected by the people." On The Right Can't Meme Reddit thread trashing this particular meme the comments follow a predictable pattern of pointing out the astonishingly bad logic that frames it.

How exactly do you blame Joe Biden for the presence of troops at his inauguration and infer that he is the one that wasn't elected? How exactly does harming elected officials make sense for a group that claims to honor law and order? The deep ironies that underpin these false beliefs are as stark as they are common.

As we all know, it has been tremendously exhausting to deal with the faulty logic, made up truths, and cognitive bullying that has characterized Trumpland these last years. Well before Trump even took office, many of us were calling attention to the collective brain rot his administration was sure to cause. We documented the lies, the BS, the tortured reasoning, the gaslighting and the outright absurdity of many Trumpist claims. And we worried that having such a disinformation machine occupy the White House would pose a grave threat for the future of our democracy.

On January 6, when the U.S. Capitol was stormed by a mob of insurrectionists hellbent on disrupting the electoral process, we got a chilling glimpse of what many of us had predicted. It is not just that 70 percent of Trump supporters don't think the election was free and fair. It is that a significant subset of them thought that the appropriate response was to enter the Capitol by force and violently stop the certification of Joe Biden as the next president of the United States.

These people believed that the best way to defend our democracy was to destroy it. That literally made sense to them.

What this means is that the problem we face is far deeper than a community trapped in its own delusional reality. The problem is not just the culture of lies and deception and bluster and bragging; the problem is the cult itself.

This vocal subset of Trump supporters didn't just swallow falsehoods; they were brainwashed. Moreover, they weren't just confused about the facts. The core concern is not just disinformation; it is the violent response to it. So, if we are going to recover from the Trump years we will have to recognize that we need to do more than stop the lies. We also have to stop the actions and behaviors that have been justified by these lies. His diehard supporters will require collective deprogramming.

The Cult of Trump

Over the last four years various commentators have flagged Trumpism as a cult. Former White House director of communications Anthony Scaramucci, of all people, called attention to the idea that his supporters were part of a cult. In June 2018, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-TN) suggested that Republicans were in a "cult-like situation" with Trump because most refused to even consider disagreeing with him.

To make matters even more disturbing, when Donald Trump Jr. was asked on Fox & Friends about Corker's claims, he replied "You know what? If it's a cult, it's because they like what my father's doing."

The reason why it matters to think about Trumpism as a cult is because it allows us to consider that the problem is not simply a consequence of falsehoods consumed via right-wing media. Yes, the culture of disinformation was severe, but those listening to the falsehoods did much more than fall for a bunch of BS. They blindly adored their leader, refusing to question any of his actions, and then they were prepared to use violence to protect him, even if, in the case of the Capitol marauders, it meant risking their own lives.

Yet, as Benjamin E. Zeller points out, describing Trumpism as a cult misses a few critical distinctions and may not be an effective strategy to counteract the negative effects of Trumpian ideology. There are a few reasons for this, he argues, including the fact that Trump supporters are not a fringe minority as most cult members tend to be. In fact, they come close to representing half of the voting electorate. But, perhaps, most importantly, Zeller argues that focusing too much on brainwashing absolves those holding false beliefs from being responsible for themselves. Brainwashing conjures up victimhood and turns the brainwashed into innocents.

Will a cult pushed to the extreme fracture?

That's what leads to the silver lining of the terrifying and disturbing attacks of January 6 on the Capitol. The good news is that they were so bad.

Certain rioters planned and schemed and deliberately and coldly sought to overthrow the government. They were not just caught up in a frenzied swoon caused by Trump's incendiary speech that day. They were not innocent victims of brainwashing, though they were clearly delusional. They were openly and unabashedly attempting to perpetrate an insurrection. The images of them attacking a Capitol police office with a U.S. flag, for example, are too disturbing for most Trump supporters to justify. The awful truth of it, it turns out, could prompt an encouraging step forward.

Sure, the rioter who was shot and killed by Capitol Police is now being martyred as an innocent victim. Sure, there are rumors circulating that the attackers were actually Antifa. Sure, there are those who try to insist that Trump wasn't to blame. But as the truth comes out, thanks to the fact that most of the rioters had a compulsive need to document their every move on social media, it becomes harder and harder for those Trump supporters who are not part of the fringe extreme to ignore the horror of the attacks.

The chilling reports that the rioters may have been given tours of the building in advance by Republican representatives, that they had guns and bombs, that they intended to abduct and harm Vice President Mike Pence and members of Congress, and that they spent weeks preparing to storm the Capitol combine to offer such a grotesque picture of the insurrection that few can stomach it. The promising news is that the type of "patriotism" on display in the attack was so obscene that it is serving as a wake-up call for many of those aligned with Trump ideology.

Consider it this way: Trump's call for carnage was so grotesque that it may well have broken his spell.

In fact, a recent PBS New Hour/Marist poll shows that 80 percent of Republicans oppose or strongly oppose the actions of the Trump supporters who broke into the U.S. Capitol to disrupt the process of certifying the presidential election. While a disturbing 18 percent of Trump supporters still back the rioters, it is the 80 percent in opposition that offers a glimmer of hope, because it shows a stark division among the mass of Trump supporters, a crack in the cult, that offers the possibility that Trump's ideological grasp on his "base" may no longer be complete.

We have seen defections from the Republican elite in the form of Mitch McConnell's condemnation of Trump and the fact that ten Republican members of the House voted to impeach. But if we look at the general public, we see that the percentage of the population that voted for Trump, yet condemns the attacks, is far higher than what we are witnessing in Congress.

This offers a unique opportunity to dismantle Trumpism and its cognitive hold on his supporters. The more that the violent rioters can be separated out from other Trump supporters, and the more that Trump supporters can be separated from the Republican party, the better our chances of fragmenting the right and unraveling Trump's psychic hold on the party.

On one of the few lawns that has a Trump sign in my neighborhood, the name "Pence" has been cut out. When I first saw it, I wondered why someone would deface the sign that way only to quickly realize that the Trump household itself had cut out "Pence" from their very own sign. It struck me to see an act that was so openly childish and silly and also so deeply anti-democratic and aggressive. The worse it is, the better it gets.

And it made me hopeful to think that it may well be exactly through these sorts of absurd, cult-like actions that others might start to question their allegiance to Trumpism. What if the excessively delusional dogma of Trumpism might actually be its own undoing?

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