Political humor during the presidential campaign was repetitive and monotonous — well within a comfort zone. Comedy was not at all dissident or subversive.

This made sense because the comics were preaching to the choir.

It also contributed to Hillary Clinton’s loss because the jokes played a role in dismissing, misunderstanding and underestimating Trump voters.

Yet another bit of cultural cockiness gone wrong — very, very wrong.

Making fun of Donald Trump
The election of Donald Trump may usher in a new age of political satire. Flickr.com/DonkeyHotey

It was, in short, same old, same old shtick in the same old, same old world, which turned out not to be the same after all.

But like a whole lot of other things now that Donald Trump is president, humor is going to change. 

The TV late night show comic worldview didn’t just get skunked by reality. In the new reality, political satire may become totally different — as risky, dissident and essential as it is in authoritarian countries.

Think of this story of 2016 satire and its future in three parts: repetition, reaction and the new reality.

Repetition: Why It Seemed To Work

Sure, there was some wonderful individual stuff, but overall the humor was predictable and formulaic: find a clip of Trump saying something stupid or outrageous (how hard was that?); show that video; build jokes around it.

This humor worked because it was consistent with viewers’ political preferences. 

The standard of comedic excellence was not based on aesthetics but rather on group identity: We are family. All my Trump-haters and me.

“The conclusion that people vote the way they do because they are stupid is itself pretty shallow.” —  Katherine Cramer

The comedy existed in a gigantic comfort zone bolstered by the band of urban cultural cognoscenti who thought that all these smart and talented artists were getting it so right.  So keep piling it on

And adding to this process, the standup and sketches went viral, from like-minded to like-minded — YouTube, Facebook, e-mail and message attachments. “Have you seen what Colbert did on Trump last night.” “Boy was Trevor Noah ever funny when he …” 

If you are holding out, you might still think about these entertainers as truth-tellers.

But really, this behavior is simply another example of the partisan human mind reinforcing previous beliefs with new information, like what Dick Cheney was doing when he insisted that Fox News be turned on in his hotel room even before he got there. 

This process of making and receiving comedy made it understandable, even hip, to be dismissive.

Reaction To The Result

To see how far some humorists have gone down the road of dismissing Trump folk, consider what Garrison Keillor, certainly a preeminent American humorist, wrote in the Washington Post a couple of days after the election:

To all the patronizing B.S. we’ve read about Trump expressing the white working-class’s displacement and loss of the American Dream, I say, “Feh!” — go put your head under cold water. Resentment is no excuse for bald-faced stupidity.

As someone from Lake Woebegone might say, “Geez, Louise!”

Keillor made his comedic bones by being wry, satirical and yet anything but dismissive about the small town and rural folks in Lake Woebegone. You laughed, but never considered them stupid.

He never distanced himself from them. In fact in his own sophisticated and sly way, Keillor used his Lake Woebegone stories to make fun of us urban sharpies.

But it turns out that because they disagree with Keillor’s politics, these citizens of Lake Woebegone are no longer complex and slyly smart. They are simply stupid. Period.

Now, as it happens, a few years ago a University of Wisconsin political scientist named Katherine Cramer began a five-year journey of conversations with groups of small town and rural people all over Wisconsin, many of them no farther than a few miles from the Minnesota towns that so inspired Keillor. 

Cramer set out to discover how these people thought about politics. As she says repeatedly in her book, her plan was to listen. (“The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker.”)

She met over and over again with people at coffee klatches, gas station dice games, Kiwanis Club meetings, anywhere she could get folks to converse, parking her VW compact wagon between the pickup trucks and not very new sedans.

Her views of these people are not dismissive at all.

Political satire in the Trump Age could very well become an important form of resistance.

“One can view as misinformation or ignorance the perception among rural folks that they are victims of distributive injustice,” she says.  “But the conclusion that people vote the way they do because they are stupid is itself pretty shallow. It overlooks that much of political understanding is not about facts; it is about how we see those facts.”

In case you haven’t already figured this out, the people Cramer studied turned out a few years later to be those rural voters who cost Hillary Clinton the election.

So to whom should the Clinton campaign have paid more attention, Keillor or Cramer?

Comedy In The New Reality

Trump humor did not have to be subversive. It does now, because the cushion of cultural comfort is gone.

During the campaign Donald Trump sent strong signals that his view of freedom of speech is, to put it delicately, more constrained. Look at how he recently demanded an apology for the polite, patriotic message that the “Hamilton” cast members offered to Mike Pence.

And racism and anti-Semitism are now far more public in the U.S. than they have been in years, not a good omen for tellers of sensitive jokes.

The cushion is also gone because our own laughter as an audience will be less confident, less certain, more aware of the possibility that the people we dismissed as chumps and racists are more complicated than that — and that their side won.

In authoritarian countries like those behind the Iron Curtain then, and Turkey now, political satire is a risky, life-threatening business. The good news is that this repression leads to some wonderful art that helps keep aspirations of freedom alive. 

The bad news is that, as a result, satirists are exiled, imprisoned or killed.

Political satire in the Trump Age could very well become an important form of resistance. Political humor might become far more risky and dissident, far more an essential political survival strategy than a late show monologue.

Closer to Trevor Noah’s former home in apartheid South Africa than to Jimmy Fallon’s Gramercy Park, New York.

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