Note To Internet: Trump Was Not 'Destroyed' By A Tweet
“Comedian Michelle Wolf destroys Trump” read the headline, and as I clicked my heart sang with blessed relief.
Finally, someone had done it: put an end to the vicious, witless, bigoted old sack of donkey leavings.
Imagine my disappointment when I found that Trump hadn’t been destroyed at all: it was merely figurative. Still, figurative destruction was perfectly acceptable: that Michelle Wolf had ruined Trump’s life, crushed his spirit, and sent him scuttling from office in humiliation was undoubtedly cause for celebration.
That’s when I found that the use of the word “destroyed” wasn’t even figurative: Trump was in exactly the position he’d been in before, doing exactly what he had done before, i.e. whatever the hell he wants regardless of consequences.
By “Michelle Wolf destroys Trump”, what the news meant was “Michelle Wolf makes a pretty funny joke at Trump’s expense”.
That’s the trouble with any proclamation that a prominent public figure has been “destroyed” or “owned” or “wrecked” or “annihilated” by a tweet or an article or a comedy sketch: it’s never actually true in any way.
Politicians don’t get destroyed by clever wordplay or impassioned rants: they get destroyed by being chucked out of office. If we’re lucky we can manage this by democratic means. Less fortunate electorates sometimes have to resort to rifles and lampposts. But whatever means we use to stick it to the man, it’s never a joke.
Don’t get me wrong: Wolf’s tweet was a good one, and I applaud her for it. It can, of course, give us a measure of comfort to think of Trump going red in the face and screaming at his aides because Michelle Wolf landed a zinger on him -- it’s nice to know someone we hate is unhappy. And that is of course the purpose of comedy: comfort. In hard times we huddle around comedians as we would a fire for warmth: jokes ease our pain and allow us to feel less alone.
Do they make us think? Sure, very occasionally they do – though mostly what they make us think is, “Ah yes, that’s what I’ve always thought, this comedian must be very wise to agree with me in this way”.
What comedy does not do -- what it cannot do -- is depose presidents, overthrow governments, or change political systems. This isn’t a failing unique to comedy: music, drama, fiction and interpretive dance also lack this ability. As a general principle, art is not a means to political achievement: it’s just the silver lining of being human.
A lot of people might think that the president is hurt by Saturday Night Live sketches -- frankly, it often seems as if Trump himself thinks he’s being hurt by them. But he’s not. If anything, ridicule just makes his supporters love him more, since so much of their love is based on resentment of the mean liberal elite in the first place. SNL making fun of Trump hurts him about as much as it did when it invited him to host the show – something, incidentally, everyone at SNL really wishes we’d forget about.
Of course, SNL’s anti-Trump comedy is fairly crude and obvious -- there are far more sophisticated and funnier comedians attacking the bloated bilebag every day. We should be grateful for them. But we should never allow ourselves to believe they are somehow taking him down. We should never allow ourselves to mistake comfort for progress.
Which is why I’ve always been so very irritated whenever I hear that Trump (or any politician, but these days it tends to be Trump) has been damaged in any way by the devastating wit or insight of some performer. How can you be so stupid, I fume at my fellow humans. How can you be so deluded and complacent? Don’t you realise that while you’re nodding in smug satisfaction at these empty jokes, the forces of evil are simply consolidating their power and laughing up their sleeves at the way your supposed “resistance” is taking your eye off the ball? It drives me MAD.
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But it might be unfair of me to feel that way. Because just as comedy is comfort, the belief that comedy is making a difference is comfort as well. In times like this, it feels like 99 percent of what we think is “hope” is an illusion: but maybe we need those illusions, at least a little bit. It could be that believing in the power of ridicule to effect change is what some of us have to do to prevent ourselves giving in to despair altogether.
After all, what is going to destroy Trump? The spineless Congress? The obsequious media? The tweeting public? Right now you could easily look at the world and see no clear path to improvement. If rejoicing in a tweet from Michelle Wolf and convincing yourself, however briefly, that it’s scored a body blow on the president can stave off hopelessness, perhaps we should let it slide.
I always thought that we can’t confuse the consolations of art with the material realities of politics. But what if that confusion is an inherent part of those consolations? What if I was being too judgmental? Then again, what if right now I’m not being judgmental enough? You see the state Trump has reduced me to?
All I can say with certainty is that our need to find things to laugh at is as strong now as it has been in all of human history -- it’s no surprise that when laughter acts so powerfully upon us, we end up believing that it might act powerfully upon the world in general. Let’s not mistake comfort for progress: but let’s not pretend we don’t need that comfort either.