The fast pace of events under President Trump has some good news and some bad news for the Onion and the rest of the Internet’s satirists. The good news is, there’s a lot of material to work with. The bad? There’s so much material, churning through the news cycle at such a speedy pace, that it becomes tough to interject with a joke.
“We had a ton of great articles about various parts of the campaign, Trump’s personality, and the people around him,” Onion Editor in Chief Cole Bolton said in an interview with The Post on Friday. “But we felt like each one of those is a drop in the bucket.”
So, the Onion is trying something new: Why not flood the Internet with a ton of jokes about the Trump administration, all at once?
The Trump Documents, released by the Onion on Monday, are the satirical newspaper’s fictional version of the Pentagon Papers. It’s about 700 pages of fake executive order drafts, emails and classified “documents” that, collectively, are the Onion’s first big swing at capturing this particular political moment. Bolton calls it a mix of “really hard satire” about the administration, its people and its goals, along with some more traditional Onion-y silliness. It’s all supposed to have the feel of a major leak of classified documents.
The Trump Documents, in a way, are an attempt at finding a way to produce effective work — in the Onion’s case, satire — in a world where expectations have changed. It’s not that Trump is hard to satirize. It’s that there’s too much to satirize.
“We just couldn’t keep up all the time,” Bolton said. “There was just so much to ridicule that it got to be such a drag. I’m sure it’s the same way with regular journalism, just following him all the time would be just tiring.”
The Onion is hoping that by flooding the Internet, it will be able to get readers to pause for a moment and take it all in. It is also planning about two weeks of “coverage” of its project — everything from editorials to a Facebook Live rollout, to tweets featuring individual documents from the massive trove. The coverage will mimic the seriousness of a real newspaper covering a major government leak.
In one document, Trump is arguing with Boeing’s chief executive about the decor for Air Force One. “Whole interior should be marble,” Trump writes in a (fake) email. “Not just floor.” He wants marble walls, marble doors, marble bathroom fixtures, marble seats, with headrests that are adjustable and marble. The chief executive replies that “it’s just not possible to use marble for every element of the plane’s interior.” Trump persists, he emails back a drawing where every part of the plane is labeled “marble.”
There also are fictional memos to Trump from Vice President Pence, which read as if they were written by Cotton Mather. One lists “heretics” in Congress and their suspected crimes (Sen. Elizabeth Warren, for instance, is “head witch”), while another warns the president of a “potential violation” of the first commandment in the Bible.
The Onion also took a stab at imagining one of Trump’s presidential briefings. It looks like one of those paper placemats that children doodle on in family restaurants.
Bolton estimates that a staff of 20 graphics editors and writers spent “thousands” of hours collectively on the project, which began production shortly after Trump’s inauguration. “It’s been my life, it’s been my first 100 days of the Trump administration,” Bolton said.
The hope, he added, is that the Internet will embrace the project as an injection of “humorous catharsis during a very unusual political time,” one that rises above the incremental absurdities of the Internet’s response to these past few months.
There’s another possibility, too: What if people actually believe the Onion documents are real?
One of the strange things about satire on the Internet recently has been how believable it is. For instance, a Twitter humorist photoshopped the ending of a New York Times story recently to make it appear as if Speaker of the House Paul D. Ryan drove away from the White House blaring Papa Roach’s “Last Resort.” The humorist had to later clarify that his tweet was just a joke, after a ton of people believed it was a real thing that happened in 2017. And before Trump’s election, there were hoaxes involving faked emails from the Democratic National Committee, including one that tricked viewers into thinking a Hillary Clinton aide had referred to America’s military as a bunch of “idiot soldiers.”
The Trump Documents, too, look believable, even if the content within them is clearly absurd. Bolton said that his staff spent time tracking down the exact letterheads and fonts to make each document look as authentic as possible. Some pages involve hand-drawn doodles. The rest were printed out after creation and manually re-scanned back into a digital form, to make each image look more like it was really leaked.
“It is on our mind,” Bolton said of the possibility that these documents might trick someone into thinking they’re real. But the Onion’s style has always closely mimicked the news it parodies, and the Trump Documents are no different. “I think the reason that the satire sings is because it mimics, say, The Washington Post so closely. We use really dry AP style writing in our headlines,” he said. “We never wink, we never break character.”
It seems inevitable that someone is going to think something in this massive trove of 700 very authentic looking documents is the real deal, particularly if individual pages are removed from their original context, as tends to happen on the Internet. But Bolton and his team are hoping that the jokes manage to make themselves clear for what they are.
“I hope the satirical stuff resonates with people,” Bolton said. “I think the highest compliment we ever get on our articles — and hopefully on this — is ‘Oh, the Onion nailed it, the Onion captured it perfectly.’ We kind of want it to feel like we captured a moment in the zeitgeist.”