“Are you not entertained?” boomed Alec Baldwin as he played Donald Trump on the US comedy show Saturday Night Live. We ought to have been. Baldwin’s Trump was a puffy-eyed pervert. He loomed over the actress playing Hillary Clinton like a rapist stalking a victim. He was entitled, bigoted and stupid. Baldwin’s satire appeared so good that the real Donald Trump tweeted: “Time to retire the boring and unfunny show. Alec Baldwin portrayal stinks. Media rigging election!”
It seemed the ultimate compliment at a time when comedians appear to have replaced poets to become Shelley’s unacknowledged legislators of the world. No novelist, let alone a mere poet, can fill stadiums as he or she delivers a take on current affairs. After a scandal breaks no one thinks, “I must hear what Zadie Smith has to say.” Not the way they think, “I can’t wait to see how John Oliver or Have I Got News for You exposes these bastards.”
The Trump candidacy ought to have been political comedy’s apotheosis. Yet rather than affirm the power of satire, Trump has demonstrated its limits. It turns out that political comedy works in democracies that undoubtedly can be sinister, corrupt, stupid, incompetent and unequal, but are not, when you get down to it, so bad after all.
If we are talking about the unacknowledged, the most unacknowledged limit on satire is the power of its targets to retaliate. Russia and Saudi Arabia do not have the equivalent of John Oliver. Any television executive who tried to put one on air would be fired, and the Russian or Saudi Oliver would be lucky to stay out of jail. You can roar along with the audiences at The Book of Mormon. But the only reason it is on stage is because its authors know that, however bad members of the Church of the Latter Day Saints are, they are not so terrible they would try to kill them.
You cannot, after Salman Rushdie and Charlie Hebdo, roar along with satires of Islam anywhere, because in that instance, producers and writers fear that they would be putting their lives on the line.
It tells you all you need to know about Trump, that he tried to intimidate his critics by threatening to sue them. But the First Amendment to the US Constitution means public figures have no chance of winning a libel case. It is a frightening thought that a candidate in Britain backed by a plutocratic demagogue could limit criticism from artists, comedians and journalists by deploying libel lawyers. In America, however, legal threats are hollow gestures.
The real trouble Trump should force liberal satirists to face is that when extremism flourishes their jokes die. They live by pushing caricatures to extremes. All conservative leaders since Thatcher and Reagan have been likened to dictators. Tony Blair was a war criminal. The Daily Mail is Der Stürmer. And so on. But if Western leaders were really dictators, war criminals and monsters, they would have had the comedians shot. Having exaggerated so much in the past, when an actual monster confronts them, they have no words left.
There was a sequence on Saturday Night Live which showed satire’s futility to perfection. After a question from an African-American actor in the audience Baldwin’s Trump started to rant about what a criminal “Crooked Hillary” was, and how he was going to put her in jail once he was President. “She’s committed so many crimes,” he sneered, “she’s basically a black.”
The audience gasped. But the joke had no impact. For how was it a satirical exaggeration for comic effect? The Republican candidate for President had rubbed the noses of America’s blacks into the dirt for years by spreading the lie that the first black President was not a real American. Nothing a satirist can say about Trump’s lechery can match his private boasts about sexually assaulting women, or his public humiliation of women for their looks and their periods. If you are Mexican, what gag can amuse you about Trump’s assertions that you are a probable murderer? If you are a Muslim, what laughs can you find in his opinion that all Muslims are potential terrorists and must be banned from the United States? You can’t make good jokes about Trump because his misogyny and racism aren’t funny. You cannot laugh at men like that. You give them too much credit when you do, and make them seem less frightening than they are.
The Trump candidacy marks the end of a cool school of satire exemplified not just by Oliver but by Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah and Jon Stewart, and a host of less successful British imitators. It was the leftish equivalent of Fox News in that it preached only to the converted. If you were a conservative, you weren’t in on the joke, you were the butt of the joke. Its exclusiveness meant that the millions of white working-class Americans who admire Trump would not give liberals a hearing at the precise moment when Oliver, Bee and the rest had something worth saying. Saturday Night Live unconsciously admitted the limits of satire in Kate McKinnon’s portrayal of Hillary Clinton. It made a couple of good cracks about her awkwardness and sheer inadequacy as a politician. But the real joke was the show’s gleeful Hillary displaying how immensely grateful she was to the Republican party for putting up Donald Trump, the one candidate she could beat.
What is it you admire about Trump, she was asked at one point.
“I do like how generous he is,” the spoof Clinton said. “Just last Friday he handed me this election.”
The laughter that followed was more a sigh of relief than a guffaw, snigger or howl. Of course, Trump would lose. Of course, everything would be all right in the end.
One day it won’t be. One day in America, Britain or France a cleaned-up Trump will run. He or she will be less openly racist — a Marine rather than a Jean-Marie Le Pen. If he is a sexual predator, it will be less obvious. Women won’t be able to tell exactly what he is with one glance at his piggy eyes.
When they run, laughter won’t stop them or even hurt them. You won’t be able to joke about them. All you will be able to do is put aside the jokes and the parodies, wipe that stupid grin from your face, and fight them.