The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Liberal satire is getting dangerously lazy in the Trump era

Placeholder while article actions load

Is Donald Trump funny anymore?

Back in the golden age of Spy magazine, the “short-fingered vulgarian” was a hilarious target for Kurt Andersen’s wit. And throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, candidate Trump looked like a cheesy gift to American humor. “Saturday Night Live” finally felt essential again. The Onion was required clicking. After all, Trump’s crude bragging, his reflexive lying, his boundless narcissism — these are the very vices that satire was designed to exploit.

But once the TV reality star became the commander in chief, you could feel a change in the comic atmosphere. In those early, eerie months, the president spoke of “some very fine people” among the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville. Fascist language we hadn’t heard in this country — “the Enemy of the People” — was back in vogue. We seemed to enter an era anticipated by Emily Dickinson when she wondered how we would feel when glee turned to death:

Would not the fun

Look too expensive!

Would not the jest —

Have crawled too far!

A frost blew across the routines of such comics as Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah. And soon political parody began to feel strained, too. After all, how can an art form that depends on exaggeration compete with a man whose foibles are so pre-exaggerated? Even Alec Baldwin looked bored with his own performance.

In the book industry, one of the most curious responses to President Trump has been the humorous reproduction of his own statements. Robert Sears created a collection of found verse in “The Beautiful Poetry of Donald Trump.” The staff of “The Daily Show” published “The Donald J. Trump Presidential Twitter Library” by curating the president’s tweeted attacks on his enemies and the English language. Other lesser collections make up a cottage industry of recycled presidential bile and vanity.

Stephen Colbert found a new way to needle the president: a children’s book

The latest book arrives next week by the staff of “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.” It’s a faux children’s book titled “Whose Boat Is This Boat?” Produced with remarkable speed, it contains only inane comments Trump actually made when he visited New Bern, N.C., after the town was struck by Hurricane Florence in September.

“Is this your boat?” the president asks a newly homeless couple standing next to a boat that washed up on shore. “Or did it become your boat? Wouldn’t want to cross the ocean in it.” As reporters look confused and victims cover their eyes in despair, the president keeps prattling on: “Do you know whose boat that is? They don’t know whose boat that is.”

With fewer than two dozen pages and just a handful of sentences, this isn’t much of a book. It’s more of an acerbic greeting card for liberals to send each other as they wait for the apocalypse to play out. If it helps, all the proceeds from the book are being donated to hurricane relief organizations.

But despite the good intentions of “Whose Boat Is This Boat,” there’s something unavoidably disappointing about this bit of mockery in print. It’s not just that Hurricane Florence caused more than 50 deaths and left hundreds homeless. It’s that “Whose Boat Is This Boat?” is a lazy piece of satire.

And such laziness implicitly works to the president’s advantage. Simply lacing his silly statements through children’s illustrations presents Trump as a mere buffoon, a dancing bear in a tutu. Such bland humor gently massages our liberal superiority while normalizing the president’s behavior. It contributes to the insidious notion, promulgated by Peggy Noonan and other conservatives, that Trump’s rhetoric is embarrassing but essentially benign. But if this week demonstrates anything, it’s that language is not harmless.

Later this month, we’ll see the inevitable “Goodnight Trump” (Little, Brown), Erich Origen and Gan Golan’s parody based on Margaret Wise Brown’s bedtime classic, “Goodnight Moon.” Ten years ago, that comic duo’s “Goodnight Bush” felt like a sharp jab of political farce. But now, subjecting the Donald to that same worn trope has the opposite effect of suggesting he’s just another in the line of our goofball presidents.

This is not an argument for humorists to hang up their pens or for the end of irony. There’s room for parody under even the most grotesque abuses of authority — as great satirists around the world have demonstrated. But recycling the old punchlines won’t cut it when dealing with a president threatening to degrade the foundations of our democracy. Satire commensurate to our age requires a darker alchemy of wit written with what Mark Twain called “a pen warmed up in hell.” Now that we’re all living in the “American carnage” Trump proclaimed at his inauguration speech, the stakes are higher in this country than they’ve been in many years.

When people are dying, the jokes must kill.

Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts

A note to our readers

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.