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Satire Is Changing. Have You Noticed?

Donald Trump’s presidency is ushering in a new era in American politics, and with it a new era in political satire: the age of post-truth. With Trump railing against the press on a seemingly daily basis (and tweeting his own facts), satire is poised to play an important role during his presidency, but what will post-truth satire look like in Trump’s America?

Though it is relatively young, satirizing presidential politics has undergone a radical shift in its roughly fifty-year history. Many of the earliest presidential satirists sought to illuminate the absurd within the real. Through the latter half of the 20th century, presidential satirists mainly worked to amplify their targets, making them more extreme, more out of touch, more absurd. The truth these satirists sought was not found in the real, but in the absurd amplification of the real.

Chevy Chase’s Gerald Ford on Christmas Eve is a prime example. In the sketch, Ford’s clumsiness and general buffoonery are amplified – he starts his fireside address early, cuts ornaments off the tree, hangs stockings upside down, and of course, falls over trying to put the star on the tree. Similarly, Phil Hartman’s Bill Clinton voraciously eats all the McDonald’s he can get his hands on. His one-on-one charm and policy knowledge are on full display, as is his uncontrollable appetite (and not just for food). Both of these examples push absurdity in order to reveal truths about the two men.

After 9/11 and during George W. Bush’s presidency satire began to shift. The truth became harder to find, thanks in part to the secrecy of the Bush White House and the “patriotically correct” reporting of the media, who seemed tentative to question lest they be seen as unpatriotic. Cable news went all in, often sensationalizing the news rather than reporting it. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report stepped into this truth vacuum.

The shows rose in popularity specifically because they were speaking a truth the media and others were not (albeit a truth leaning left). The shows called out the media for echoing not only the Bush White House, but also each other. The Daily Show especially gained traction as a media and “truth” watchdog. With each shows rise, satire itself began to change. Stephen Colbert’s turn as the right wing broadcaster Stephen Colbert began as a traditional satiric amplification of the absurd, but over the course of the show shifted into absurdity mirroring the real. Suddenly satire didn’t need to amplify the absurd, cable news was already doing that, so satire began pointing out the real in the absurd. Colbert’s trademark “truthiness” embodied this change, satirizing the very real (and absurd) notion that truth was something to be felt rather than objectively known.

Sarah Palin’s rapid ascent during the 2008 election and Tina Fey’s portrayal catapulted the notion that satire’s new role was to point out the real in the absurd. Fey often simply repeated Palin’s actual speeches and interviews – most notably in a sketch about Palin’s interview with Katie Couric. Fey’s request for a lifeline in the sketch is a prime example where the real – Palin’s lack of preparation to be Vice President – is found amongst the absurd.

With the campaign of Donald J. Trump pushing all notions of normal to the wayside, satirists have attacked Trump in much the same way Tina Fey attacked Sarah Palin – by repeating Trump’s own words. While SNL and others (most notably his Republican primary challengers and Hillary Clinton) have tried to use Trump’s words against him to amplify the real behind the absurd, the strategy has proven largely ineffective both politically and satirically. As such, much of the political satire about Trump has focused on his mannerisms, speech pattern, and larger than life persona, veering more toward parody than satire. While Fey’s Palin seemed to be speaking to the truth of Palin’s identity, much of Trump’s satire has been poking fun at him rather than revealing any deeper truth.

So how can satire succeed in the age of post-truth? By satirizing it. Satire has always sought to reveal truth and in our current climate that charge has never been more important or seemingly more difficult. Truthiness used to be satire, now it is part of our reality. Trump himself and The Daily Show’s history offer a guide for satire to succeed in post-truth America – start with the media’s coverage of Trump as it balances the absurd and the real (and Trump’s own truth telling Twitter account), often blurring the line between the two. Jon Stewart became satire’s leading voice for taking on CNN as much as George W. Bush.

Will post-truth satire continue to mock Trump’s persona, or will it begin to actually satirize his beliefs and actions (and satirize the media’s coverage of Trump)? More importantly, in our post-truth era will we be able to tell the difference? Will satire be able to cut-through post-truth by pointing out the real within the absurd, or will it simply become another voice in the fight for reality?