By now, I think most people have seen at least one of the Donald Trump sketches on Saturday Night Live. Alec Baldwin’s impression is excellent; the various impersonations of President Trump’s team (Sean Spicer in particular) are also very good. SNL has been creating impersonations of political leaders for years; yet they have recently reached a new height of popularity since Baldwin first stepped into the limelight wearing his blonde wig.
This is partly due, I think, to President Trump’s unusually pronounced traits and mannerisms which makes him such an excellent subject for impersonation. However, I think it might also be due to the fact that – equally unusually – Trump has actually reacted to the sketches publicly, creating an excellent example of the Streisand Effect. More interestingly, he has criticised them and accused them of being “totally biased”. People who support him have said as much as well – just read the comments below any of SNL’s Youtube videos.
To me, this appears absurd. Not only that, but it displays a way of thinking that I believe is deeply rooted in our society, and one which is highly problematic.
Firstly, the accusations of “bias”. Of course it’s biased – it’s a satire. Satire is not made to provide a balanced overview of current affairs – it is meant to be a deliberate distortion. SNL has no obligation whatsoever to be balanced. Yes, SNL was probably more antagonistic to Donald Trump than it was to Hilary Clinton (though it did make fun of her as well); but so what? It has every right to be so. Why should we expect satirists to provide a balanced view? This is especially absurd considering that the general public doesn’t even expect the mainstream news media to be balanced – I don’t think it is an outlandish argument to suggest that most people choose their news sources based primarily on political stance, not on how potentially ‘balanced’ their reporting is.
Secondly, this becomes even more absurd considering the nature of SNL’s satire. It is ridiculously tame. In the literary world, SNL would be considered to be a prime example of light ‘Horatian’ satire – gentle ribbing, with a constant knowing and inclusive wink. As Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in his Revisionist History podcast, much of the bite of SNL’s satire is blunted by the fact that they often invite the people they are lampooning onto the show. This happened with Hilary Clinton recently during the election. As such, she became part of the joke, laughing along with the crowd, no longer the butt of the satire but a member of the audience. Even if the same treatment was not extended to Donald Trump, the satire of him as a bumbling man-child really is not that vicious.
If you want examples of vicious satire, just look at the literary history. A Modest Proposal, which is possibly the masterpiece of the greatest British satirist Jonathan Swift, involves human babies being bred like cattle for skin and meat. Back in 5th Century Athens, birthplace of democracy, the populist politician Kleon (who draws more than few parallels with Trump) was the pet hate of satirical playwright Aristophanes. In one of his plays, The Knights, Kleon is portrayed as a corrupt, cowardly slave. Throughout the play, he is constantly mocked, defeated in debate and actually physically beaten up – if memory serves correctly, in one modern editing of the play he was dragged out at the close on a meat hook. Furthermore, remember that the actors would be dressed in grotesque, sexually-explicit costumes (humongous phalli everywhere) and that the plays were watched live by the majority of the major citizens of Athens – including Kleon. That is what harsh satire looks like. SNL hardly seems to qualify as satire at all in comparison.
We seem to have lost this bitter ‘Juvenalian’ satire in our media – the closest I can think of is the late Spitting Image over here in the UK, or perhaps Charlie Brooker’s excellent yearly Wipes. In the United States, I can’t think of any bitter mainstream satirists apart perhaps from a few stand-up comedians. This is partly, of course, due to the need for mainstream media to be more sanitised in order to appeal to a broader audience. However, I do wonder if the reaction of President Trump and his supporters to the satire suggests a broader problem in our society that is reflected in our current dearth of critical satire.
This is partly caused by the widespread problem of victimhood culture – it seems common to constantly need to portray ourselves as victims, to blame others for problems and so relinquish responsibility ourselves. This then leads on to the irritating, oft-aired argument that “you can’t say that because it offends me”. This is generally associated with younger left-liberals, safe spaces and the like, but the similar reactions from Trump supporters shows that it is not an issue necessarily of political stance but one that is endemic to society as a whole.
However, it is more to do, I think, with the (related) problem that people seem to be unable, or unwilling, to accept any criticism at all of individuals, ideas or items that they love. Anybody who is savvy regarding video games knows the pitfalls of the “hype-train”. Gamers get obsessed with upcoming titles that are advertised with hugely ambitious promises – if those promises are not fulfilled on release (as they are often not), rather than accept that they were duped, the fans start living in a fantasy world and refuse to accept any criticism of the game whatsoever. Any gamers reading this will probably have No Man’s Sky in mind, which is a classic example of this problem, and one which is still defended by the uber-fans despite its numerous issues.
Strange as it may seem, a very similar parallel can be drawn in politics. A politician makes grand promises and really resonates with certain voters, who become almost deliriously supportive of them. When eventual ‘dirt’ is found on them (as it inevitably is, humans being human after all), the fans often cannot – or choose not to – accept it. They have become emotionally attached to their chosen politician, and so any criticism of them sounds like a criticism of themselves. Of course, this is not helped when other people do criticise them for their choice, even other politicians – remember the whole “bag of deplorables” fiasco?
Exacerbating this issue is the extreme ‘competition mentality’ we seem to have when it comes to politics. Of course politics is a competition; but it is a competition between rival politicians, not between voters; the distinction seems to be lost on most people. Accepting any criticism of our favoured candidates suddenly becomes a symbol of weakness, of giving in, of being defeated. As such, our politicians must always be right, and the opposing politicians must always be wrong, no matter what. The opponent cannot have any correct views because that might be seen as giving in to the enemy!
To me, this appears to be a very poor way of doing politics, and exacerbates divisions by splitting people into mutually hostile camps when really they shouldn’t be so. There is nothing ‘defeatist’ in accepting that your preferred candidate has flaws, and that their opponents might be right on a few issues; doing so allows you to cultivate a more independent and measured opinion. While I think that this is more of an issue in the United States due to its extreme two-party system, the same sort of mindset still exists in other countries – it does in the UK to a large extent, at least. Try defending Nigel Farage or Jeremy Corbyn to somebody opposed to them, and see the reaction!
We need to accept criticism more readily, both of ourselves and our politicians. We should try not to get too attached to those politicians, nor should we expect them to be completely without flaws (within limits, of course) or to be completely right on every issue. Perhaps more importantly, we should probably learn to laugh at ourselves. It is not weak to accept satirical criticism – by contrast, to not do so is a sign of insecurity.