President Donald Trump likes to think of himself as a statesman, an author, an A-level negotiator, but at heart, he’s one thing: an insult comic. Every day in D.C. is a roast, the insults and belittling nicknames wielded like tiny comedy bullets. And if you haven’t seen enough of the fusillade on Twitter, all you need to do is turn on late night TV.
Television comedy has a strange, symbiotic relationship with the real political world, something between a feedback loop and a funhouse mirror. The Smothers Brothers flirted with the subversive side of the 1960s; the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal of the ’90s was filtered through Jay Leno’s guffawing misogyny. And then, from 1999 through roughly the start of the Trump administration, the prevailing comedy tone was a kind of ironic detachment, perfected by Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show.”
Odds are, even if you barely watched the show, you can still picture the Jon Stewart repertoire: the knowing pop culture references, the sharp satire, the wry take on America at large. His go-to move was perplexity at the absurdity of it all, and the message was detached and a little self-deprecating: If politics was absurd, well, so were we. “You have to remember one thing about the will of the people,” he once said. “It wasn’t that long ago that we were swept away by the Macarena.”
Stewart did make fun of both parties, but his style was fundamentally liberal, says University of Delaware communications professor Dannagal Young: playful, subversive, at once cynical and weirdly optimistic. It was far different, she argues, from the tone of Fox News talk-show hosts, who draw an audience for reasons that are “almost physiological.” Social science research has shown that liberals and conservatives are (on average) wired differently, with social and cultural conservatives personally more attuned to danger, worried about intruders, primed to protect an establishment under threat.
There’s no greater threat to the liberal establishment than Donald Trump. And in the past three years, something about comedy has shifted. In class, Young has her college students diagram late-night jokes and label the incongruities—the hidden arguments that aren’t actually stated in the text. When they come to the May 2018 moment when Samantha Bee, in a rant about immigration on her TBS show “Full Frontal,” called Ivanka Trump a “feckless c—,” the exercise breaks down. The line drew a laugh, but there was nothing to puzzle out. No irony, no distance. She just meant it.
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