Lessons from the Trump Era

The Rich Are Not Our Friends

My slow realization that it’s all theater

Melissa McCarthy on Saturday Night Live (NBC), 2/4/17

The 2016 election was the first Presidential election I was old enough to vote in, and throughout that period I found myself caring a lot about what late night comedians had to say about politics. It’s not that I wanted them to tell me what to think; rather, I truly believed that the satire of comedians like Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert and John Oliver would have a tangible effect at swinging voters towards Hillary.

When John Oliver popularized the nickname “Drumpf,” in March of 2016 on a Last Week Tonight segment, I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that I was kind of hyped for it. I downloaded that browser extension that would transform every instance of the word “Trump” that would show up on my screen into “Drumpf,” thinking that I was taking part in something important.

Of course, I quickly realized that the whole “Drumpf” thing was, well, kind of lame. Trump supporters weren’t fazed by it in the slightest, and Trump’s popularity only grew from there. I would continue to watch late night TV, as these comedians would search for new ways to show exactly how terrible Donald Trump actually was. Sometimes the criticism felt stale or weak, but sometimes it legitimately did feel like insightful, biting satire. It was hard for me to imagine someone watching Alec Baldwin’s performance in SNL’s first Presidential Debate parody and not begrudgingly admitting to themselves, “Alright, I guess Trump is pretty terrible.”

We all know how this turned out. Despite a year’s worth of mockery from Hollywood comedians, Trump won. Afterward, I kept watching a lot of these late night political commentary shows, but not because I still had any illusions of their ability to change anyone’s minds.

Rather, I found them to be a source of comfort in the terrifying aftermath of the election. It felt like the country was spiraling towards authoritarianism, and I didn’t feel like the actual mainstream news channels or newspapers were doing an effective job covering it. CNN and MSNBC may have had reputations for being liberal networks, but they still couldn’t refer to Trump’s lies as what they were: lies. In the name of journalistic integrity, they referred to his obvious, knowing bullshit as falsehoods or incorrect statements. It was a breath of fresh air to have people like John Oliver to cut through all of this and just tell his viewers that yeah, Trump’s full of shit. We don’t have to spend hours entertaining his nonsense, we could just call it what it is.

That’s not to say there weren’t moments where I saw a piece of late night satire that felt genuinely effective in terms of reaching out beyond a liberal base. One such piece was Melissa McCarthy’s debut as Sean Spicer on Saturday Night Live. The sketch was a hilarious impersonation of Trump’s first press secretary, rightfully exposing the guy as the hateful, dishonest hack he was while also being genuinely funny even to many Trump supporters. This sketch actually seemed to have an effect on the general public’s view of Sean Spicer; whereas most people don’t care about the White House Press Secretary either way, this sketch threw Spicer into the public consciousness. It made him a laughingstock in a way that actually seemed to hurt the Trump administration.

By July of 2017, Spicer ended up resigning. Like many on the left, I hoped this would be the end of him. He’d knowingly lied on behalf of the most openly corrupt administration in modern American history; obviously he wouldn’t be able to show his face in the spotlight any time soon.

Instead, just a few months later, Spicer made a surprise appearance at the Emmys, rolling out on stage with his podium and talking about the audience size in a good-natured impression of McCarthy’s portrayal of him. It was a planned part of Stephen Colbert’s monologue, and when you watch the clip you can see a lot of the people involved in the famous sketch, from Lorne Michaels to McCarthy herself, laughing along.

There was a lot of talk in the following days about how heartwarming a moment this was. Lots of people talking about how, although they may not have liked Spicer’s politics, they did give him props for being able to laugh at himself in such a public way.

I didn’t think this was a nice moment, however. It felt hollow. The Sean Spicer sketches had been one of the few pieces of genuine, hard-hitting satire on Saturday Night Live, some of the only political content on late night TV where it actually felt like these comedians were saying something real, something important. In McCarthy’s portrayal, I thought I’d detected genuine anger at the harm Spicer had done to our nation in his complete disregard for the truth and his constant attacks on the integrity of the press.

In the end, it was just a joke. There was no righteous anger; the SNL writers just thought it would be funny to portray Spicer that way, just as Colbert thought it’d be neat to have Spicer show up at the Emmys.

Most people didn’t have much of a problem with this; it was mostly seen as a nice act of bipartisanship in an increasingly divided political landscape. I saw it as a slip of the mask. An admission, on the part of those like Stephen Colbert, that as much as they may criticize people like Donald Trump, it’s all only theater to them. They may criticize people on Trump’s team for destroying institutional norms or screwing over the working class, but at the end of the day they’re all still friends.

There’s been a lot of criticism of Hollywood actors from conservatives, particularly in the Trump era. They will say these actresses and actors have no understanding of real world concerns, and as a result they should stay away from talking politics. While leftists tended to hold a similar distrust towards these kinds of out-of-touch Trump-bashing celebrities, it’s really only been in 2020 that liberals have started to turn on them too.

After all, 2020 was the year that really exposed just how self-obsessed and out-of-touch so many of our beloved celebrities actually are. From Ellen’s fall from grace, to that godawful Imagine video, it’s become clearer now than ever that the problems the ultra-rich face are nothing at all like the problems 99% of Americans face, and most of these celebrities are completely unwilling or incapable of handling this with any kind of grace or self-awareness.

Some celebrities managed to make it through 2020 with their reputations in tact (mainly, Dolly Parton), but for the most part, it’s becoming increasingly undeniable that despite these people’s kind words and their criticisms of people like Trump, ultimately they don’t really care or know much about any of our problems.

The increasing disillusionment a lot of liberals have with celebrities is a good sign, though, because our willingness to let these celebrities speak on our behalf has not helped as much as we’d thought. The reason so many people associate criticisms of Trump with out-of-touch elitism is because so many of the most visible Trump-bashers are out-of-touch elites. And in an environment where so many Trump supporters feel excluded or disrespected, why on Earth would we think having multi-millionaires like Amy Schumer or Patton Oswalt calling them racist idiots would be a good idea?

Liberals cozied up to these celebrities because we believed they were on our side. After all, most of them had the sense to not like Trump, and many of them genuinely do seem to lean left on social issues, which deserves some commendation. This doesn’t change the fact that they will never be genuine allies when it comes to issues like income inequality. You can see this in the way shows like Saturday Night Live regularly misrepresent Bernie’s policy goals or their failure to criticize people like Jeff Bezos in any substantial way.

There will always be a conflict of interest there, and even when there isn’t there will pretty much always be an empathy gap. The writers of shows like Saturday Night Live don’t know what it’s like to be struggling financially like so many Trump supporters, liberals and leftists currently are. Much like the journalism industry, the vast majority of SNL writers come from Ivy League schools, and their coverage of class will always be skewed, incomplete or ineffective.

That doesn’t mean rich people can’t be an overall net positive for the world. Dolly Parton’s been quietly doing cool shit for the past fifty years, and some mainstream comedians like John Oliver and John Stewart do genuinely seem to care a lot about the issues they talk about and will often go out of their way to materially improve the world around them. These people are few and far between, however, and no matter how kind they might seem to be, we should never fall into the trap of idolizing them.

One of the more sobering moments of the Trump Presidency came after he’d lost his re-election, when a video came out of Kamala Harris fistbumping Lindsay Graham on the senate floor.

Again, a lot of media pundits and moderates referred to this as a nice display of bipartisanship, but again it felt like another slip of the mask. Didn’t Kamala believe that people like Graham were a threat to our democracy? Didn’t she say that Trump was a uniquely poisonous candidate, and that those like Graham who supported her lies were being immoral and authoritarian? Then why is she fist-bumping this guy who wasn’t even publicly admitting that she and Biden had won the election?

It’s hard to look at this clip and interpret it as anything other than a confirmation that this is all just a game to these people. They may publicly disparage each other, but face-to-face they’re all good friends, no matter how evil they claim the other party is.

Moments like these are a reminder that although the rich may say the right lines and signal good intentions, we can’t just sit back and trust them to do the right thing. That’s what a lot of liberals did in the Obama years, and that’s why so little was achieved and why Republicans were able to successfully portray Democrats as the party of elitists, despite the fact that their policies are so much more harmful to the working class and their candidate for President was a New York billionaire.

The Trump presidency may be coming to an end, but there are valuable lessons those on the left need to learn from it as we go into the Biden era. If we want to achieve substantial left-wing goals, we need to protest and push back against these Democrats just as much as we protested against people like Trump. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris may be a massive step up from the Trump administration, but much like Gal Gadot or Stephen Colbert, they are not really our friends. They aren’t going to meaningfully improve anything unless we make them. The activism needs to continue long after Biden officially takes office.

I am a cautionary tale for others. Follow my newsletter: https://mattblack.substack.com Follow me on twitter: https://twitter.com/matttblack42

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