Satire, Despair, and Art in the Age of Trump
Kate Tuttle and Kera Bolonik Consider the Future of America
We asked writers Kera Bolonik and Kate Tuttle to talk about the increasing difficulty of satire in the age of Donald Trump. Happily, they touched on that, and so much more of what’s facing America, regardless of tomorrow’s election results.
I think, after FBI Director James Comey’s letter last Friday, that we are in a similar frame of mind—and the morning is too early to reach for the wine, but I’m sure it’s happy hour somewhere. Anyway, the election is just a week away, and I feel too inside of it to wedge a distance from it and consider satire right now. Last week, when the numbers looked a little more secure, I was a little more relaxed, anticipating the moment when we could all laugh about how ludicrous this 18-month circus has been. But the mere possibility of a Trump presidency is genuinely terrifying and panic-inducing—and as a woman, a gay person, a Jew, and, like you, the mother of a black son, it’s hard to find the humor in it though I’m sure we will because that’s how we manage to retain our sanity and humanity.
I often think, when this is all over, of the innumerable ways this horrendous chapter in American history will be recounted in nonfiction and fiction. I don’t know how you satirize something that is already seemingly if terrifyingly satirical. I’ve also been thinking about something the VEEP show runner recently said about how Trump is ruining comedy, that they’ve had to pull jokes on the HBO series. The show runner was talking about the character Selina Meyer, and said, “what we used to do was sort of like funny incompetence and this [Trump] is just sort of sad, scary incompetence.” Well, how do you? And if the writers of VEEP are struggling with it…
I mean, of course, one day the story of what I call the “HELLECTION ’16” will be told, Oh, it’ll yield fictional and nonfictional books—consider all the essays that have been written, the essays already placing this into historical context—HBO series, a prime time sitcom, so many dramas, so many comedies. That is if we live long enough to tell the tale. I am almost wistful reminiscing about the days when I thought Sarah Palin was too outrageous to be real, then Michele Bachmann, and look how far we’ve come… oy fucking vey. I swear, if I were reviewing this story that is this HELLECTION ’16, I’d have flagged so many parts of this narrative as being too ridiculous even for satire, too on the nose, too… too.
We have a lot on our vagenda to cover here, so many different places to take this conversation, but before I go on any more sad-sack tangents… I wonder, do you think there is room for satire when you’re living in the thick of it?
Yours in the struggle for sanity,
If this election season has taught me anything it’s that the line between comedy and tragedy is very, very thin—within the margin of error, you might say.
I’m not surprised the folks who make VEEP are finding that reality is outstripping their own writing room’s ability to spin outrageous storylines. God knows, the minute we learned that the emails mentioned in Comey’s letter were found on Anthony Weiner’s device, I could almost literally hear the sound of everyone on Twitter folding up their laptops and saying, nope. Implausible. Just too much. In just the same way, when I found out that the boy who’s been bullying my son, Mack, at school is an avid Trump supporter, I felt like rejecting that knowledge because it was too obvious—life these days sometimes feels like the work of a comedy writer who just isn’t that good.
As a critic who mostly reviews nonfiction, I’m always interested in what it means to say that a creative work is nonfiction, true, factual. Some of the best writing these days pushes up against the boundaries that once divided genres—Claudia Rankine blending poetry and essay in Citizen, Maggie Nelson putting memoir through the rigor of cultural theory in The Argonauts—but those books resonate because they are, above all, true.
There’s a difference between truth and lies (not truth and fiction—good fiction is true in its way). I guess that’s what concerns me the most about this political cycle—the continuing (accelerating?) degradation of our ability to care whether something is even true. To watch Trump lie so effortlessly, so often, and to such great applause makes my heart sink. Because even if he loses, those applauding him will still be here, checking InfoWars to read up on the next big conspiracy theory or rumors that the next school shooting is a false flag operation, instead of the saddest, most dismal truth about the place we live in.
Wasn’t it just a few years ago that all the big think-pieces were about the end of irony and how we were ready to re-engage with sincerity? I think all those arguments feel sort of silly now, or just beside the point. As we face the real possibility of electing a president who doesn’t know how government works, disdains our normal electoral processes, openly vilifies women, people of color, gay people, people with disabilities, and so on and on—it’s hard to maintain ironic distance, but even harder to face reality squarely. Both stances feel inadequate.
I think that’s why I find myself laughing at the stupidest things right now: fart jokes, memes about how Trump’s mouth looks like an asshole. Ugly times call for bad jokes. I know I should remember what Michelle Obama says about “when they go low, we go high,” but for me, I can barely talk without swearing these days.
Your miserable fucking friend,
Hello fellow miserable fucking friend,
Which is to say, of course I’m sharing in your misery—which is good because it loves company and you’re excellent company. I must admit in times like this, while many find comfort in escapism, I can barely read fiction these days. I find myself—and maybe it’s because I’m a glutton for punishment—desperate to make sense of something that is impenetrably, illogically, absurdly impossible to parse because it demands a deranged mind that I simply do not have. I do, incidentally, share your love and desire right now, of fart jokes and other base things because when they go low, so go I. What is the point, really, of taking the high road? Has it gotten us anywhere? Right now, I feel like we’re watching The Manchurian Candidate unfold before our eyes. I worry that I sound paranoid; perhaps I need to stop reading Kurt Eichenwald’s Twitter feed right now, but I’m of the mind that we’re girding our loins for a coup—or an attempted coup by Russia, in any case.
Let me get back on track, because I am something of a tangent queen, I was just reminiscing about the sick pleasure I’ve had in watching The Americans, remembering my adolescent existential terror during the final years of the Cold War, worrying we wouldn’t live to see 1990 because we’d be nuked by the Russians and then… oh, sweet, they’re playing Yaz’s “Winter Kills”—it almost felt quaint, like a rite of passage it seemed so long ago, and here we are again.
Reading Frank Rich’s essay, “Trump’s Appeasers,” in New York this week, about how fascist sympathizer Charles Lindbergh is a cautionary tale for the GOP—one, I’m sure they’ll summarily ignore, as they have every other—and I was reminded of the brilliance of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, which imagines what would have happened if Lindbergh had defeated FDR in 1940. It’s not satire, of course; quite the opposite, it is so terrifyingly real that there’s a part of me that believed Roth’s theory, delivered by his Aunt Evelyn (or the novel’s Roth’s Aunt Evelyn, as the protagonist is a young Philip Roth and his family, living in an America in cahoots with Nazi Germany), about Lindbergh’s kidnapped child. It hews ever-too-closely to what’s going on right now in this country with Donald Trump—have you read it? I mean, I don’t think Lindbergh was the puppet Trump is, and of course Lindbergh was popular not because he was some hack reality star and tabloid fodder—well, he was the latter—but before he’d become a renowned fascist, he was a celebrated aviator, of course, and then a subject of empathy when his baby son was kidnapped and murdered in what was then considered the crime of the century.
Trump is infamous for being a grifter and a hack and is barely literate and has never been a sympathetic character, so it’s unclear how he’s endeared himself, with his anus face and cheap-baby-doll hair and ill-fitting suits. Oh, yeah, because he is “politically incorrect” and “tells it like it is.” Or whatever. Yeah, I’m going low. All this to say, I can almost understand how Lindbergh could seduce voters if he’d run—at certain points in history, when morale is low, hate is an easy sell to the angry (and often lazy) white American male. But I’m truly astonished that the race turned so fast, to a man who has constantly fleeced the American worker he is promising to go to the mat for, a man in bed with Russia, a man who has allegedly raped and boasted about groping women, who brags about not having paid taxes in nearly 20 years—I could go on. America really does hate and fear women just that much that they’d turn a blind eye to all of that and decide Hillary, not Trump, is the one with the credibility problem.
But I digress…
Yours in the struggle to stay sane,
Sanity is relative, isn’t it? And maybe overrated, or untenable.
“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality,” wrote Shirley Jackson in her sublimely spooky The Haunting of Hill House. That quote comes closest to how this election season has made me feel. The absolute reality of what we face in a possible Trump presidency (and what we have to deal with even in the event of a Trump loss) is difficult to take over an extended period of time and remain sane.
If reality is a threat to sanity, it’s no shock that much of Trump’s fame and wealth (such as it is—we now know that the one joke he can’t take is one that doubts his billionaire status) stems from his reality TV stardom. He first made it big in the family business: real estate. But as the reporting of journalists like Eichenwald, along with David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post, makes clear, much of the Trump empire is anything but real. In fact, one of my favorite artifacts from this campaign is surely this tour of the faux glamor and actual shoddiness of Trump Tower, the GOP candidate’s eponymous landmark and home, which is kind of a dump. (The piece was part of the welcome but temporary resurrection of Spy magazine, in the form of brief dispatches within Esquire.)
So much unreality! It makes sense to find yourself thinking about Roth’s The Plot Against America, one of those unsettling counter-historical novels that terrify us with a plausible alternate reality. Like a lot of people, I’ve had Sinclair Lewis’s It Can Happen Here in my head lately. I read it while on this crazy Sinclair Lewis jag (another one of his dark political and social satires, Elmer Gantry, is the novel everyone would be talking about this year if the GOP had nominated Ted Cruz or Rick Santorum). Roth’s story of Lindbergh ushering in an age of American fascism ends with the aviator’s disappearance, FDR’s eventual election, Pearl Harbor and America’s entrance into WWII, order and historical accuracy restored. For Lewis, writing in the 1930s as fascism was unfolding around the globe, there was no relief in restoration of reality. His demagogue, Buzz Windrip, was based on Louisiana’s Huey Long, who unlike Lindbergh really was set to run for president (he was shot to death in 1935, the same year Lewis’s book was published). It Can Happen Here concludes with the country in the midst of an ongoing, unresolved second Civil War. Both books are fiction, both come too close to our current reality to be read without a certain amount of dread.
And don’t even get me started on the Cold War memories this election is bringing back! I haven’t watched The Americans yet, but my touchstone for that era is the television movie The Day After, filmed and set in my hometown of Lawrence, Kansas. I was in high school when they filmed it, and just starting my freshman year of college when it aired in November, 1983. I was a cynical, punk rock-loving teenager; I watched it at first mostly to see whether I could spot any of my friends who had worked as extras, victims of the nuclear bomb blast, complete with singed flannel shirts and melting flesh makeup. By the time John Lithgow got on the ham radio to ask whether anyone else on earth was still alive, I was in tears, in terror. That story wasn’t real, either, but it might have been. It might yet be.
To quote another great American writer who understood the complex workings of sanity and despair: “There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness.” As Melville warned in Moby-Dick, we follow Ahab at our peril. But rather than give in to that woe that is madness, I’m trying to stay (if only by a fingernail) on the side of wisdom. We might just survive this.
Even though I awoke this morning from a series of nightmares the likes of which I haven’t had in years—more on that in a minute—I still have a weird feeling that we might survive the election. Maybe it’s because the Cubs won, and I just witnessed something I never thought I would? Or because it was revealed that Giuliani is at the helm of this FBI email witchhunt? Or because I’m a cautious optimist? Or because I have an inner Anne Frank belief system inherent in me that ultimately thinks, in spite of everything that people are really good at heart? I am actually somewhat serious: I do, weirdly, have some faith, call it a survival mechanism (even though she was tragically betrayed in the end) because I have to believe it to get out of bed in the morning.
I remember well the made-for-TV movie The Day After, because my parents debated whether to let me watch it, as they’d have to deal with the fallout if they did: I was a very neurotic 12-year-old (now I’m a very neurotic 45-year-old). I was in eighth grade, I think, and I myself wasn’t sure that I could bear it. The mere fact that it was on TV made me apoplectic. A classmate had told me about the existence of nuclear weapons in sixth grade, and from that moment on, nearly every plane that flew overhead frightened me—I was certain it would drop bombs. Which drove my parents nuts since we lived not far from O’Hare Airport.
I had no faith in President Reagan, and I’d repeatedly ask them if there was any possibility of surviving a nuclear holocaust. (No, they’d say, but we’d probably die instantly and never know it happened, my father would say, as if that would provide me any comfort.) So in the end, I opted out of watching, though I pressed my ear against my parents’ closed door as they did; I did the same when they watched the more high-brow Testament with Jane Alexander, on PBS. It’s probably better that way, my imagination provided plenty of terrifying scenarios, to be able to see what it might have looked like through the lens of Hollywood would have pushed me over the edge.
But these days, I’m less terrified of a nuclear holocaust, and more terrified of something more immediate, of the fact of so much hatred, now emboldened by this idiot demagogue, and fully armed. And the willful blindness of his voters willing and determined to overlook so much: his racism, his misogyny, his xenophobia, his anti-semitism, his homophobia, his illiteracy, his betrayal of the American worker, his all-too-possible sedition. I worry about what that means for our family, our friends, our neighbors, our fellow Americans and those who seek to be Americans or who want to live here. And those abroad. It’s very real.
Last night I dreamt we were visiting my wife’s sister in Atlanta. We were at their home, though I don’t recall seeing Meredith’s family there, and some people decided to crash the BBQ they were hosting. And they were most unwelcome, because it was clear to us, though they weren’t wearing their garb, that they were Klansmen. We were in the house, peering out from behind the curtain of the window and making sure our five-year-old black son was safely tucked away with us, where we could protect him, and out of their sight line. My wife took him into the bedroom to play (and keep him distracted, ostensibly) when I saw some more men razing a neighboring house that belonged to a black family. They were still in the house while these Klansfucks were demolishing it. It was one of the most horrifying images that ever entered my dreamscape. I took out my phone and filmed it with the idea that I’d send it to the police but then I thought, in the dream, that they were likely in cahoots with the cops, otherwise they wouldn’t have been so emboldened—it was broad daylight. But I did it anyway. And then I thought they might see me, and wondered if I wasn’t putting us all in more danger. And then I woke up, my heart was racing, and I realized this is what it life could be like under a Trump presidency. And this is what his people are threatening if he doesn’t win. Though they’re underestimating those who don’t want him in office—most of the country can take on pathetic cowards, even if they’re armed. We have to remind ourselves of that, of our individual and group strength, and stop panicking, but I digress.
Which isn’t to say it isn’t absolutely frightening because it is. I know that you share my fear, as a mother of a black son, a black child, what it’s like to watch our kids grow up in this world, which is plenty ugly for anyone, already. I don’t want him to be fearful, just cautious, but how do we prepare him for what awaits him? I want to say, leave the fear to the parents, I don’t want to impose my neuroses onto him. He has his whole life to develop his own, to decide which ones protect him from the world—neuroses are a kind of shield, or at least a way to metabolize a lot of information, I’ve come to discover. Right now, I want him to have a childhood, all children are entitled to a childhood. Doesn’t mean they get to have one, but … they’re entitled to it. But, I keep thinking: If under an Obama presidency we are seeing unarmed people of color killed by militarized police, to watch protesters who are fighting against police brutality and for clean water and the environment tazed and pepper-sprayed and put in animal cages and thrown in jail, it’s hard to imagine what comes next. That is the world we live in now, under a so-called liberal president. It would be worse with Trump, no doubt. But will it be better with Hillary? I sure as hell hope so but I don’t know.
I realize this conversation was supposed to be about political satire. So I’m going to swerve this car back on the road, because I realize I’ve gone off and taken myself down so many other paths. As I said in the beginning, I’m looking for witty explainers, life rafts, those who can make sense of the nonsensical, and in this case, it requires an immediacy because so much happens so quickly, and so I am ever grateful to Samantha Bee and John Oliver, who have hilariously guided us through the morass, allowing us to cackle at the absurd, even as we just want to cry or drink ourselves into oblivion. Because as is clear here, there’s a point where it becomes so absurd, it’s just not funny anymore, but perhaps in hindsight we’ll find the yuks. I mean, it is funny if it weren’t our reality. But these two resist the low-hanging fruit. They reveal their outrage while seamlessly explaining how SuperPACs work or the deliberately complex horror of TRAP laws that have made it impossible for women to get abortions in many states—well researched segments that are absolutely gripping. I’m so grateful to them for getting me through these past few months, and I know I’m not alone.
But I’ve been thinking about whose voice I really miss the most—and it’s not Jon Stewart’s. It’s not a satirist at all. It’s Adrienne Rich, one of the most brilliant poets and essayists this country has ever produced—and indeed one I believe who should have gotten a Nobel. And she was a moral compass. For her sake, I’m glad she’s missed this whole travesty. She passed away four years ago, now, before the reality of a Trump candidacy was even imaginable. Well, maybe it was imaginable. Rich was alive to have seen Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, unfortunately. And, man, she was no fan of Bill Clinton—Rich famously refused the National Medal of Arts in 1997 because, “the very meaning of art as I understand it is incompatible with the cynical politics of [his] administration.”
So what would Rich make of what’s going on now? I imagine this is a level of horror she’d not witnessed before. I’m not even gonna bother wondering whether she’d put her feelings about Bill aside and defend Hillary—I think she’d recuse herself altogether because she’d believe the whole system to be so beyond broken. Maybe I’m wrong. But here’s a clue, which comes from her book of essays and poems, Credo of a Passionate Skeptic, in which she commented, “I began as an American optimist, albeit a critical one, formed by our racial legacy and by the Vietnam War… I became an American Skeptic, not as to the long search for justice and dignity, which is part of all human history, but in the light of my nation’s leading role in demoralizing and destabilizing that search, here at home and around the world. Perhaps just as passionate skepticism, neither cynical nor nihilistic, is the ground for continuing.”
And that’s where I’ll end my part of this particular exchange. But always willing to continue.
See you on the other side of Election Day, my dear friend,
That dream sounds terrifying, and so terrifyingly real. But I’m glad you ended with Rich. You’re right. Skepticism that’s neither nihilistic nor cynical—that’s where we ought to set our sights for now. One way or another, we’ve got to get through the rest of this, elect a new president, and move forward into history. As they sing at the end of Hamilton, it’s only a matter of time. The secret is not to take our eyes off what we believe in.
So, whose voices do I wish were around to help us make sense of this election? Some absolutely are political satirists: Twain, of course, and George Orwell. I’d love to hear what Orwell would have made of the third-party “conscience voters,” who seem to view their ballot as a kind of brand statement, rather than a tool to choose a future we’ll all have to live with. Among essayists, I wish I could read what James Baldwin would have to say about Trump, but I’m sort of glad he isn’t around to see this.
It’s difficult to find solace in prose right now. These times require song. Like you, I worry for my son. When I read about the black church in Greenville, Mississippi, torched, Trump’s name spray-painted there, a hideous calling card, my mind went to Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam,” a cri de coeur from the 1960s (she wrote it after Medgar Evers was murdered). Will that song ever not feel current?
When I sing Mack to sleep at night—less and less often now, as he grows older—we end with Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” It matters that Guthrie was a fervent hater of fascism, and it fascinates me that he wrote a song about Fred Trump, Donald’s father, and the “racial hate” he stirred up in his segregated apartment buildings. I want Mack to know that history, all of it. Equally, though, I want him to feel that he belongs here, in this ugly and beautiful country, where his ancestors, black and white, have long grappled with who and how to be.
This land is his land, and your boy’s land, and our land.
Kera Bolonik is the executive editor of DAME magazine. Her work has appeared in New York, Glamour, Salon, Slate, the Village Voice, and The Nation, among other publications.
Kate Tuttle reviews and articles about books have appeared in the Boston Globe, Washington Post, Salon, Atlantic.com, and elsewhere. She is a boardmember of the National Book Critics Circle. Native Kansan, longtime Cantabrigian, she is falling in love with Decatur, Georgia.