Even before Donald Trump was elected in 2016, he had been providing America’s late night TV show hosts with ample fodder for comedy.
These late night TV shows are the spearhead of political satire for liberal America, and many take their orientation from The Daily Show, which began in 1996. With John Stewart as host after 1999, it developed a mixture of political and news satire that became a popular genre.
Following Trump’s election victory, humour was quickly seen by disoriented liberals as both a balm and a weapon. The veteran TV host David Letterman claimed that “comedy’s one of the ways that we can protect ourselves” from Trump. Late-night comedy became the bellwether of this trend and the intensified focus on political satire proved a ratings hit for many of the hosts.
The Daily Show, helmed by Trevor Noah since 2016, and its offshoots – The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and Full Frontal with Samantha Bee – led the way. Meanwhile, The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and Late Night with Seth Myers also pushed into more political material, and Saturday Night Live drew interest in its cold openings that regularly focused on Trump.
For liberals, satire fed into a desire for narratives that would explain Trump’s election and continued authority, and also stoked fantasies about his inevitable fall. But there was no evidence that political satire attacking Trump had slowed Trump’s race to the presidency – or would lead to his defeat. Instead, it functioned mainly as a form of wish-fulfilment and catharsis for those citizens traumatised by Trump’s 2016 victory.
For all the satirical activity in the first year of Trump’s presidency, questions about the quality and efficacy of these shows’ promotion of political satire soon began to emerge. Some liberal and progressive commentators called them out as “lazy” and “ineffective”.
More and more voices complained that Trump was resistant to satire, arguing that he embodies irony and hyperbole, that he was a “already a walking caricature of himself”. The writer and producer Armando Iannucci, who created the HBO satire Veep, underlined the problem for satirists:
Just read him and you have found the joke about him. It comes out in what he says, which leaves people like me slightly redundant other than just to point it out.
As humourists have become more conscious of these shortcomings and challenges, they have pushed back against those with high expectations for political comedy. Stephen Colbert reflected in 2019:
I have never had any illusion that what I am doing is changing the world. We do it late at night, and maybe you sleep better because of it.
Some of the comedians have sought to address the perceived limitations of the genre in their methods. After the first year of Trump’s presidency, Oliver’s Last Week Tonight tended to avoid many direct references to Trump and to move outside the news cycle of the moment. Oliver has warned against focusing too directly or exclusively on Trump’s absurdities.
As these shows evolve, their political satire shows little sign of effective political intervention or reach beyond partisan audiences.
Liberals can’t meme
The landscapes of politicised stand-up comedy and of late night chat shows are dominated by liberals or progressives, but this doesn’t mean there is a conservative lack of humour (as liberals like to claim). There has been an outpouring of satirical material from conservative – often “alt-right” – sources on the internet and in social media.
Most liberal commentators were blindsided by the growth and deployment of trolling and meme culture in support of Trump’s election campaign and the indirect support it lent him by spreading distrust in media and government. Irony and satire are favoured devices of this alt-right discourse which has animated a toxic online counterculture and increasingly infiltrated more mainstream media and political communications.
Meme culture has been central to this. Due to what some researchers have called the “vernacular creativity” and immediacy of internet memes, they have become the dominant currency of comic and satirical online discourse. Their anonymity and potential to go viral has allowed them to become engines of racism, xenophobia and misogyny.
Key to this deployment is that memes blur the boundaries between whether something is intended as satire or not. They offer an ironic veil for abuse – if challenged, the creator can just say “lol” or “it’s just a joke”.
Trump’s first public use of a meme was when he tweeted an image in July 2017 made by a Reddit user that depicted Trump body-slamming a wrestler whose head has been replaced by the CNN logo. Trump’s endorsement of the meme was a significant moment – it signalled support for online trolling and spurred meme producers to be creative in their attacks on mainstream media and politics.
There has been a tendency on the left to dismiss memes as a form of political communication. But the right seem convinced they are a valuable form of information warfare and represent a new cultural battleground that progressives have struggled to fight on. There is even a subgenre of memes titled “the left can’t meme”.
Reality isn’t what it used to be
This is not to suggest liberals are not evolving fresh satirical platforms and tools. The recent Democratic National Convention featured Sarah Cooper, whose lip-synching parodies of Trump have reached large national and international audiences via Tik Tok, and whose reverse mansplaining has more critical bite than much of the late night comedy routines. That she is being hailed as “the Trump slayer” though, suggests liberals are once again pinning too much hope on the powers of satire to win them the November election.
Satire has traditionally functioned as an attacking form of political communication but it’s one that relies on a solid-seeming reality. Under Trump, as conspiracy theories and alternative narratives have proliferated, Americans seem to have lost belief in a shared referential world. This makes satire difficult – but not dead.
Both the currency and crisis of satire today reflect a significant disruption of the norms of political communications in a chaotic media ecosystem where viral memes and tweets shape public opinion. Under Trump, satire has evolved to take on new forms in this frenzied environment and in doing so illuminates some of the bubbles and blind spots in a media environment dominated by liberals.