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May 4, 2016

election 2016: making fun

Oh the jokes, where have they gone?

I'm gonna miss these primaries, specifically for the Republican half. Never has there been a more sad-sack hopeless assemblage of deluded types who either thought that the electorate might accidentally nominate them and/or that Jesus called them on the Jesus-phone and said, "Hey run for president!" And this was a field day for people who like to make fun of people who deserve being made fun of. (I am a person that likes to make fun of people who deserve being made fun of.) An embarrassment of riches.

Like Bobby Jindal! My God, the man as governor drives his state of Louisiana into the toilet like he was bobbing for turds and then struts around like he's a common sense answer to a problem that doesn't exist. And the people of Wisconsin might have some very personal, union-busting reasons to hate the guts of the governor who got pranked by a caller pretending to be a Koch brother, but this lazy-eyed walking pile of off-the-rack has the presidential temerity to claim that his bald spot was caused by bumping his head on a cabinet door. Ben Carson, Lord bless him, either in real life or in a self commissioned velvet painting, managed to not make a lick of sense and look disinterested while doing so. And Mike Huckabee, whose principal accomplishment was to put the gruntled back into disgruntled. These were some vile individuals, politicians who believed that leadership required a dogmatic persecution of the poor, freeing the upper class of the responsibility of taxes and intolerance of anyone unwilling to thump a specific translation of the Bible, individuals who deserved scorn and calumny on the basis of their contributions to the species. Consequently, making fun of them was like tee-ball.

Even the moments of lucidity from some of the other candidates, like self-certified ophthalmologist Rand Paul and failed great white hope Jeb Bush, were brief and quickly forgotten as the next debate devolved into dick jokes and school-yard nicknames. And even that was funny! Neither Paul nor Bush is as intrinsically clowny as the eventual nominee, but as every devotee of American comedy knows, it ain't nothing without a straight man. Paul seethed at social media stunts like a man who lost a bet, and Bush was somehow humanized by his slow realization that he was the butt of a joke that he could never head off at the pass. Even the smug bullying of Chris Christie and the sweaty recitations of memorized sound bites by Marco Rubio were not despicable enough to prevent the pathos from overwhelming the Schadenfreude. If I fall down a flight of stairs, it's tragedy, and if you fall down a flight of stairs, it's comedy; when they fell down a flight of stairs it was like one of those episodes of Louie, funny and harrowing at the same time. And George Pataki, what's a George Pataki? The finest political moment of each of these failed candidates was the day they conceded, which for each seemed the most liberating day of their lives. Jesus sure did call them and tell them to run, because come to find out Jesus has a wicked sense of humor. This has been some next-level comedy, with the jokes not just writing themselves, but emailing themselves to you, with the hard words spelled out phonetically.

And now, as of the results of the Indiana primary, the jukebox got unplugged and the chairs are being put up on the tables. A "Day of Reckoning" some have called it, but we had it pretty good, dammit, and when will so many people deserve and receive being made fun of again?


Acknowledged: making fun of political figures is a dated sport, like Rollergames, or Pong. Vitriolic take-downs may date back to Swift and his predecessors, but to spend one's time acting the wag, dispensing scathing bon mots, is a decidedly Dad thing to do. And it's losing, if not has lost, that sweet sweet 19 to 34 demo who, while susceptible to moments of great political fervor so long as something is being occupied or a revolution is being started, don't so much care for the fun-making. Things change, is probably the best scientific explanation why. And at the same time, I, no member of the 19 to 34s, will click over to Daily Kos — which bloomed in that golden age when we all digitally pulled together to back John Kerry to spur him on to defeat and the bereftness that followed — I will click over and be totally embarrassed by the content and tenor thereof. "Sheeple, MSM, derp," are terms of art that did not so well survive the intervening years. It is a different time, and the fashions of the day are fixed points in time that only travel with them who lived it. Even Rachel Maddow, of whom I would speak no ill, can seem a relic of a different age if you squint in the right way.

Twelve years ago, the rise of the Internet commentariat and what we then called "weblogs" and other personalized digital publishing experiments, was the arrival of universal mass communication opportunity. If you could afford a computer and a dial-up ISP (or had a library card), you could write things down that you wanted other people to read for some reason and then get these words out with an ease then-unequaled. And the fact that communities sprang up — whether the first-wave bloggers that became the gatekeepers of the new media industries that arose or the dedicated members of e-groups like Kossacks [sic] and other grassroots collectives — meant that your words were actually being read to surprising extents. Granted, these were all echo boxes (and the intended paradigm of Web 2.0, imploring you to take the conversation to Kinja), and further granted that communities of like-minded had been happening IRL for millennia, but it was intoxicating shit, and intoxicating enough to convince the members that the tens or hundreds of like-minded in your little circle was in fact the entirety of the Western world, and, why, if you all agreed that John Kerry was going to win handily, then by God the polls that say otherwise are outmoded and don't understand the power of social media! (This argument is of course reiterated every half-generation or so.)

And the chosen tone of discourse at that time, during the go-go years of the latter Bush Administration, was sarcasm and irony. These digital citizens had grown up on SNL and been nursed through the 2000 election by that guy from Short Attention Span Theater and a fake TV president played by Martin Sheen. Someone even coined a word to describe the cynical sarcasm and irony applied to public figures and events: snarky. And on the internet the snark was applied liberally, as each little writer could imagine themselves the host of their own little television segment, or 21st Century hybrid of Hunter S. Thompson and Dorothy Fucking Parker, quipping like there was no tomorrow, leaving serious burns in their wake.

But now (following a torrid but memorable lost weekend with smarm), the Way We Talk Now is more straightforward (even though we still frame things with the Way We _____ Now). If the recent past was the age of engaged-but-distanced commentary, now is an age of advocacy, and the imperative voice. Here are five things you should know, and why you should know them! And don't forget the things you didn't know, which is especially alarming in the seventh example! This is largely marketing speak, of course, just so we know who to blame, but it comes from the same place as the intention behind political discourse in social media. It's aspirational instead of bleak, and it's pop instead of punk. It doesn't know; it feels like, which like knowing but it actually matters. And it definitely does not seamlessly mesh with any Swiftian desire to burn it all down, with words.

Could the telling difference be that fun-making is mean-spirited? Because it is mean. There's nothing polite or civil about making fun of people, about wanting the people being made fun of to know that they are being made fun of, to know that there is some aspect of their character that is worthy of derision, to know that (to paraphrase President Sheen or one of the other dudes on that show) good people hate them. Again, there is dissonance between making fun of public figures and joining with your hashtag squad to make a difference.

And if this aspirational element of current discourse is believing that change can be achieved in modern discourse, making fun ain't nothing about that. To make fun of, say, Carly Fiorina because she conflates her business experience with business success will never change a thing. The world will never, never unite to unanimously disapprove of Carly Fiorina or any other odious political figure. Even the fallen, the Richard Nixons and the Roy Cohns, are still revered by their faithful, and history book rehabilitation attempts pop up like brushfires. But, if one can make some fun, be mean, be hurtful, then that's at least something. The bad guys of the world may well never lose and keep all sorts of power over everyone else, but they can never take our spite from us. And if the tears of odious public figures is the best we can attain, then let's do, and if the particular character defects of these monsters can be made more clear to a casual observer, then more the better.


Oddly enough, in thinking about people whose character flaws beg to be made fun of, Donald Trump would have come up even if he were not running for president. He is a walking punchline prism: no matter which way you look at him — his history, his successes, his appetites, his appearance, his vanity, his appetites, etc. — there is a vacuum of redeeming qualities. Even his fingers are little and shifty-looking. And none of this stood in the way of his current success. All of the fun-making in the world did not save us.

In the past the primaries were less a barn-storming preview to the general than they were a considered (but raucous) appeal to the party faithful. A certain number of delegates had to be acquired through fifty states of arcane rules and regulations, as well as considering that no appeal to the faithful could be so doctrinaire as to be used against the candidate in the general. Primaries were not a blunt force exercise.

Then came the Obama campaign in 2008. He certainly was as shrewd at the math of a primary as any eventual nominee, but he also began to take on the sheen of a movement — large, energized crowds, sweeping social media campaigns, memes even! And the result was (regardless of the acrimony he has earned) a two term president. It changed the playing field in discrete ways, but it gave the illusion that in order to be president one mustn't be a solid, stolid candidate, competence incarnate, but instead be a rock star.

Donald J. Trump is that rock star. He was never other than a joke candidate, to those who thought they knew how to predict these things. But in a crowded field, Trump got his orange ass all sorts of free television, by saying controversial/racist/outrageous things that a certain portion of the base wanted to hear. Like a dog-whistle, but for people (i.e., a whistle). And his inability to describe what he would do as president other than be a really fantastic president matched perfectly an electorate's disinterest in hearing anything other than how fantastic a president would be. Reporters expanded their definition of reporting to include counting attendance at rallies and noting the Nielsen ratings of televised debates. Even the tandem of Ted Cruz and John Kasich, respectively the most frankly evil and the most amiable-at-any-casts candidates, could not kitchen sink their way in front of Trump. Voters were leery of Cruz, a man wearing a mask of human flesh made to look like his own face, and Kasich's mouth was always full. Trump may be an asshole, but was is the asshole that a slice of America has been waiting for. He may well be shrewd, but he bullied his way in, with his movement, convinced of some unspecified time that America wasn't great, or something.

A lesson learned is that in having a president like Barack Obama, a person who actually accomplished things, a person who was well aware of cynicism and political utility without ever succumbing to it, and a person who actually sparked a groundswell of support that led to a movement election, was purely an accident of history. There have been (and will be) people of similar character, and there have been (and will be) people of similar appeal, but the odds of someone being both at the same time are like the odds of Leicester City winning the Premiership — it happened and we saw it, but we are not counting on it next year.


But we have more election to go, and now that Donald J. Trump is the presumptive nominee (I still say that he's not the healthiest looking old white dude, but what do I know), we that make fun have a very unique problem.

It's like this. I have a little dog, a Boston terrier. She is awesome of course, but she is also ravenous. She has never been the type of dog for whom you could leave a bowl full of food out, all day long, that she could snack on when she felt peckish. No, the food in that bowl has a lease on life measured in seconds and not minutes. And I've always been curious: if I just opened a 20 pound bag of food and dumped it on the floor and then left the room, would she actually ever stop? Well, naturally she would stop, but would she stop at the point she could eat no more? Could she stop herself, for reasons of discomfort, or even of danger to her own health? Personally, I bet, returning to see how she did, there wouldn't be a whole lot of food left, and a dog that might need a trip to the vet.

It's still six months to the general election, and there's not much that Trump says or does or decides that is not worthy of mocking. We'll have to see if we can handle it better than my little dog.

Posted by mrbrent at 11:41 AM