Donald Trump was a joke, and a pretty funny one at that.
A year and a half ago, a country, along with a fleet of comedians, laughed as a reality TV star famous for racism, sexism, and firing B-list celebrities announced his candidacy for the highest political office in the United States. We laughed about his tiny hands, we laughed about his crazy hair, we laughed about his taco bowls, and we laughed about his racism, homophobia and misogyny. The whole thing seemed too absurd to be real, and laughter appeared to be the appropriate response. It felt like Donald Trump’s candidacy was a gift from the political comedy gods, sent for our amusement during a tedious election cycle with a seemingly predetermined result. But once the laughter finally quieted down, a greater truth revealed itself: Not everyone was laughing. Now, a year and a half later, a racist, homophobic, misogynist, former reality TV star is next in line for the Presidency, while comedians and audiences alike are left wondering how they let a joke get this far out of hand.
While guest hosting The Daily Show during the summer of 2013, John Oliver wasn’t shy about his feelings towards a potential Donald Trump presidential campaign. “Do it,” he pleaded. “I will personally write you a campaign check now on behalf of this country, which does not want you to be president, but which badly wants you to run.”
Oliver’s sentiments echoed that of the entire political comedy world. To them, Trump was an opportunity too good to pass up. During his final summer of Daily Show episodes, Jon Stewart called Trump “The patron saint of topical comedians who are just running out the clock,” before adding “I love this man.” Stephen Colbert, months away from the premiere of The Late Show, rushed to create online content so that he could get in on the Trump bandwagon. A couple months into the campaign, Saturday Night Live booked Trump to host an episode, and earned huge ratings as a result. Nearly every political comedian jumped right onto the Trump train. Opportunities like this don’t come along very often, and they were not throwing away their shot.
Satirists made this decision despite knowing everything that Trump stood for. He opened his campaign by insulting Mexican-Americans, and then went on to threaten and belittle nearly every minority group, the LGBT community and women. As Trump proposed to ban all Muslims from entering the United States, he could be seen dancing to “Hotline Bling” on Saturday Night Live. As Trump promised to build a wall along the US-Mexico border, Stephen Colbert apologized to him for some “mean comments” Colbert had made in the past. As leaked audio revealed Trump openly boasting about sexual assault, Jimmy Fallon ruffled his hair on live TV to see if it was a wig or not. Again and again, talk show hosts and comedians decided to play nice with Trump, and cash in on the political comedy opportunity of a lifetime, rather than take a stand.
Comedy carries tremendous power within our society. Making jokes about something, or someone, helps normalize the absurd. Donald Trump’s candidacy, and now presidency, is nothing short of absurd. Even as he starting winning states in the Republican primary, comedians still considered Trump more of a joke than a serious political candidate. Late night shows treated each new policy announcement and press conference as an opportunity to score some easy and quick laughs. Trump was lobbing in soft pitches night-in-and-night-out, and comedians seemed content to try and hit each of them out of the park. They didn’t stop to consider the fact their home-runs were helping to normalize the most abnormal of candidates until it was far too late.
Throughout this election season, Donald Trump and political comedians have been caught in a cycle. First, Trump would say something crazy, next comedians would make fun of him for being crazy, and finally audiences would laugh at how crazy Trump is. But Trump wasn’t some celebrity gone off the deep end, he was a candidate for President of the United States. What he was saying might’ve been absurd, but because of the context, it deserved to be taken seriously. Each time a comedian responded to Trump by saying, “This guy is crazy, isn’t he?” rather than taking him and his policies as the commentary of a serious Presidential candidate, they squandered an opportunity to reign in a joke that had gotten way out of control.
Precisely when the political comedy narrative turned is a bit difficult to pin down, but one thing about the timeline is painfully clear in hindsight: It was far too late. Over the past few months, nearly every political comedian has dedicated their respective platforms towards the destruction of their own creation. Seth Meyers, Trevor Noah, John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, and even Saturday Night Live attacked Trump at nearly every turn, attempting to get audiences to realize the absurdity of what they themselves had made normal. It was an abrupt and powerful U-turn, as our political satirists took responsibility and began to fight back, but it didn’t have the impact many hoped it would. After treating Trump like a joke for so long, it was extraordinarily hard for audiences to flip the switch and start thinking of him differently. They’d been taught that the man was a joke, any effort to get viewers to think of him as something else was destined to fail.
That’s why it didn’t matter how many times various comedy “takedowns” were posted on Facebook, or how many public challenges to Trump were made by comics over the past few months. It didn’t matter how many fantastic and absolutely devastating pieces of political commentary were done by the staffs of these different shows. These people did everything in their power to undo the damage caused by their dramatic underestimation of Trump’s chances, and it simply didn’t matter.
Are comedians the only ones responsible for a Trump presidency? Absolutely not. Blaming comics for Donald Trump is a bit like blaming California’s drought on someone who takes 30 minute showers. Are they acting responsibly? Not really. Is the whole thing their fault? Of course not. I’m not fixing the whole system here, just identifying a small problem and offering a simple solution.
A year and a half ago, Trump was the butt of an unquantifiable amount of jokes. It’s hard to think of one candidate who has been on the receiving end of more comedic jabs than Trump. But every time the voters laughed, they let their guard down a little. We thought of Trump as a joke, not as a potential leader. Presidential candidates, no matter how absurd, should never be treated as jokes, otherwise the host of The Celebrity Apprentice could be the next leader of the free world.
That’s not a joke. That’s our new reality.