Does satire work? The size of Donald Trump’s ego suggests not

Even Stephen Colbert struggled to land a comedy blow at this week's Republican Party convention

Stephen Colbert: “I know I’m not supposed to be up here, but neither is Donald Trump.” Photograph: Getty

Stephen Colbert: “I know I’m not supposed to be up here, but neither is Donald Trump.” Photograph: Getty

 

Before Stephen Colbert could be rushed off the stage of this week’s Republican national convention the American talkshow host and sometime fake pundit tried to get one more line through the podium microphone. “I know I’m not supposed to be up here, but let’s face it, neither is Donald Trump. ”

This was hardly unique among the sentiments of the United States’ late-night comedy shows or global conversations, but it was a fraction pithier. Colbert’s intervention was widely reported as a fearless act, recalling his remarkably trenchant roasting of a visibly unhappy President George W Bush 10 years earlier.

But the gesture wasn’t as subversive as it seemed. The convention had not yet begun, the Quicken Loans Arena – named, presumably, by a consortium of political comedians – was almost empty, and the subject of the gag, a party in the depths of an identity crisis and a presidential candidate far beyond parody, were impervious to the jibe.

You might think Trump has been good for satirists, but the truth may be that satirists have been better to Donald Trump. They keep his name in constant circulation (with some variations), follow his every utterance, and continually stroke his gigantic ego. The jokes, by and large, have been about as wounding as a hug.

Still, Trever Noah, the host of the influential US political comedy The Daily Show, spoke for many this week when he suggested that satire “brings some sanity to the madness”. But does it make any difference?

When Tom Lehrer decided to retire from active satiric service, in 1973, it was because the world had done something he could never top. “Political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize,” he said. His attitude suggests a man of convictions, and one of them is that satire should have an effect.

Lehrer’s forebear Horace coined the satirist’s job description 2,000 years earlier, as “to comment with a smile”. Already satire was getting milder. Ancient Rome liked its comedy vicious, meting out vindictive personal attacks. Horace, who had almost lost his life when he backed the wrong usurper, preferred to avoid politics, using irony and wit to instruct Romans how to behave – safe in the knowledge that he never could. How tight, you wonder, was his smile?

We’ve never lived in a time of more commentary, both bloviating and grinning, and satire has become embedded in its target. It’s surprising, for instance, to find an occasional comment on the superlative Waterford Whispers site that doesn’t recognise the spoof. But from That Was the Week That Was to The Day Today, or The Onion, to its countless imitators, the real joke of fake news has always been as lacerating as it is despairing: the media is indistinguishable from its send-up.

When the Brexit campaign could so effectively dismiss “expert opinion”, or when Trump can remain blissfully untethered to facts, you can understand why some people are more inclined to trust topical satire than they are 24-hour news. But what happens if we begin to laugh things off as they happen?

Comedy can help to work off your antagonisms, providing a reassuring laugh – yes, the world has gone mad, politicians are crooked, people are the worst, but, you, well, you’re okay – rather than leave us with an exposed nerve.

People share viral videos, hilarious and mocking, that howl out their political bugbears, for the benefit of friends who think the same. This isn’t action, though; this is palliative care. Satire might even be a quintessentially Irish mode, another language of fluent indirection for a culture long unable to say things explicitly.

It could be the wry cousin of symbolist poetry, what you say when you can’t say what you mean.

A friend recently suggested that Jonathan Swift’s Drapier’s Letters was a rare example of satire with a genuine effect, written from the perspective of a patriot opposed to the imposition of a new coinage and resulting in a nationwide boycott. (A £300 ransom was offered for exposing Drapier’s true identity, itself an open secret, but nobody turned him in.) Not even Swift, a lone voice of reason in the chaos, could outrun the madness forever.

Satirists have never been slow to send up their own limitations – and what can you do but make a symbolic stand? The great Peter Cook modelled his Establishment Club on “those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the second World War”.

How we will come to see the bountiful satire of our time, rapid in reaction and ceaseless in supply, I couldn’t possibly comment. But as madness goes unchecked it’s getting harder to smile.

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