The first satirical portrayal of Hitler on film was in 1940, when Moe Howard lampooned Hitler in the Three Stooges short You Nazty Spy! Later that year, Charlie Chaplin played Adenoid Hynkel in his classic The Great Dictator. At the end of The Great Dictator, Chaplin’s Jewish barber-masquerading-as-Hynkel directly addresses the nation and the movie audience: “Let us fight to free the world – to do away with national barriers – to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance.” Though the speech is long-winded and preachy (typical of Chaplin’s work in talkies), it provides a pretend happy ending to Hitler’s rise to power in Europe, one in which he is arrested by his own troops and replaced by an open-hearted barber (the Stooges short ends with all three getting eaten by lions). During The Great Dictator’s production, the United Kingdom had planned on banning the movie there because it antagonized a foreign power the British government was trying to appease. By the time the movie was released, England and Germany were entirely at war, and the movie was very well-received in the United States and most places in Europe where it was released. Showtime’s Our Cartoon President, a new series spun off from a recurring sketch on Stephen Colbert’s The Late Show, is the latest American television series satirizing Donald Trump by making him a protagonist. Just what effect this series may have on American politics cannot be predicted, but the role and value of this kind of satire is worth examining thoroughly.
The premise of the Late Show sketches, the first of which aired in March 2016, was that Donald Trump had become such a caricature, the only way to represent him was as a cartoon. Cartoon Donald Trump chatted with Colbert about the latest campaign news (this bit ran even after Trump had been elected) and generally aligned with Colbert’s own impressions of Trump. In his first appearance, Colbert even described him as “a slightly less cartoonish version.” In the half hour series, Trump is egotistical, rude, and stupid. The plots can be very sitcommy: in the pilot, Trump must prepare for the State of the Union address while also planning an anniversary present for his wife Melania. He seeks advice from various people in his life and follows Mike Pence’s recommendation that he send Melania out to dinner with Karen Pence for the Trumps’s anniversary, before winning back Melania’s affection by declaring her to be the new national bird of the United States at the State of the Union. The Trump of Our Cartoon President is self-actualized and constantly taking shots at his two idiot sons, Don, Jr. and Eric (who are illustrated a bit like Beavis and Butt-Head). He also watches a tremendous amount of television, asking Melania in bed, “Why are you looking at me? There’s a TV in the room.” The series is informed and detailed, and its canny portrayal of Trump’s television habits remind us that he’s unlikely to ever see this show, and unlikely to take anything away from it if he does.
Trump watches television obsessively, like I do. It’s also well-known that Trump’s reality is almost entirely shaped by Fox News’s programming. By comparison, we can look to President Obama’s viewing habits, and whether the TV he watched helped him develop more progressive views. Robert Thompson, a media scholar who’s famous for getting quoted too often, described President Obama as “the HBO president” for being a fan of The Wire and Entourage (he also watched True Detective and Game of Thrones). Entourage is unquestionably the funnier show to imagine President Obama building his schedule around, but his love of The Wire is worth exploring. As The Wire’s co-creator David Simon has said on multiple occasions, “On a more practical sort of episode-to-episode level, [the series is] an argument against the drug war and the over-policing of the poor. And I thought if it could accomplish anything, maybe it could get an argument started about the drug war.” Not only was President Obama watching The Wire, but he met with David Simon to discuss the series and its themes. And yet the drug war rages on. If an incredibly intelligent and thoughtful man like President Obama could not have been swayed by the persuasive arguments of one of his favorite TV shows (maybe Obama agrees that E and Sloan were destined to be together, idk), it seems foolish to assume that a TV show can make a real difference in the behavior of a president, let alone one as stubborn and willfully ignorant as Trump. (On the other hand, Joe Biden did cite Will & Grace as part of why he came to embrace marriage equality - network TV ftw?)
But Our Cartoon President’s target audience is obviously not Trump himself. Trump primarily watches cable news, both in real life and on the series itself. The idea of Trump watching an animated series on Showtime is hard to imagine. Trump is famously humorless, and takes some offense to Alec Baldwin’s impression of him on SNL, but doesn’t seem to object too much to being made fun of under certain conditions. In 2011, when he was the subject of a Comedy Central Roast, his rules were:
ALLOWED: Jokes about Trump’s hair ALLOWED: Jokes about Trump’s wife Melania (and his two previous marriages) ALLOWED: Jokes about Trump having sex with models ALLOWED: Jokes about the failure of Trump Steaks, Trump Water, Trump Cologne, and other Trump products ALLOWED: Jokes about Trump’s failed casinos ALLOWED: Jokes about how Trump only became successful thanks to his wealthy father ALLOWED: Jokes about Trump’s weight ALLOWED: Jokes about Trump being attracted to his daughter Ivanka NOT ALLOWED: Any joke that suggests Trump is not actually as wealthy as he claims to be
It’s pretty appalling that someone with a history of sexual assault and a pattern of sexual harassment of minors would be comfortable with jokes about his attraction to his own daughter, but he’s also been making comments himself about it for years. Though he is clearly vain and image-obsessed, Trump relishes opportunities to poke fun at his hair. Jimmy Fallon ruffling Trump’s hair is an iconic image of 2016 precisely because Fallon was making fun of Trump in a way that Trump was entirely comfortable with. If political comedy doesn’t afflict the comfortable, what good is it?
The flip side of this, of course, is the constant homophobic humor comedians employ to try to make prominent homophobes uncomfortable. In this Colbert sketch, Trump and Putin make out, which is a fairly common image in anti-Trump satire. Trump is definitely homophobic enough to be made uncomfortable by being portrayed as queer (reportedly Trump felt that Melissa McCarthy playing Sean Spicer on SNL made Spicer look “weak”), but homophobic jokes at Trump’s expense are still homophobic, and do nothing for the queer people being targeted by his administration. In 2007, after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed that there was no homosexuality in Iran, SNL aired a love song between Andy Samberg and Fred Armisen’s Ahmadinejad (feat. Adam Levine). It’s unknown if Ahmadinejad saw this sketch, but there is little evidence the sketch changed anything in Iran.
Trump supporters are also unlikely to watch the show, though of course a few will. For that audience, Our Cartoon President will probably not reframe Trump’s persona much. That Trump is an abusive blowhard who disrespects women whenever possible is not just widely known: for plenty of people, it is his appeal. What’s more troubling is the way Our Cartoon President lets these people off the hook. Before Trump throws away his State of the Union address, the show cuts to Stephen Miller writing it. Miller is portrayed nude, surrounded by candles, and held to the ceiling by hooks as he mutters a dark incantation and types away at his laptop. It’s a funny image – and this show is full of them – but it also suggests that Miller’s white nationalism is macabre and divorced from Trump’s pragmatism. Stephen Miller’s white nationalism has certainly influenced the White House, but Trump was a white supremacist long before Miller joined the team, and their racist politics are not strange or occultish. They’re shared by everyday white people around the country. Satirizing Trump as a cranky buffoon is appropriate, but it only tells part of the story, and makes it easier for viewers – even ones who voted for Trump – to feel superior to him.
With the focus so heavily on Trump, it’s hard not to project more nuance onto the character than the actual individual has. Particularly in scenes of Trump with his sons, we’re encouraged to side with Trump because Eric and Don Jr. are so stupid, both in real life and on the series itself. But of course so is Trump himself, and neither Eric nor Don Jr. is the president. The Comedy Central series The President Show found a way somewhat around this issue last year, though it’s in a completely different format. The President Show is designed like a talk show, where Anthony Atamanuik as Trump holds an interview each episode with a different opponent of Trump, including Linda Sarsour, Michael Eric Dyson, and DeRay Mckesson. In these interviews, people are given an opportunity to say to Atamanuik what they might say to Trump if face-to-face with him. In these moments, audiences are allowed to breathe air outside the Trump White House, which helps guard against the kind of Stockholm syndrome that seems to affect Republicans in the White House and fans of series with antiheroes at their centers alike.
Trump and Melania are portrayed on Our Cartoon President as having a semifunctional relationship that includes communication, which seems a bit unrealistic, but fine. That a story could revolve around their domestic issues, as the pilot does, seems a bit of a misstep, and harkens back to the insubstantial satire of Comedy Central’s That’s My Bush! seventeen years ago. That series was intended to satirize network sitcoms more than the Bush administration, and was a pretty poor attempt at either. Though it was canceled before 9/11, it’s clear that creators Matt and Trey lack the courage it would have taken to make fun of Bush in this format as he began hurtling America toward endless war. In the case of The President Show, there’s an almost complementary attitude – that the show could end at any moment because so could Trump’s presidency. The President Show lasted 20 episodes and a Christmas special in 2017, and Trump remains. Even though the introduction to each episode began by describing Trump as the “45th and final President of the United States,” the show never seemed to quite accept that Trump might stay president for longer than six months.
Promoting his new book of paintings of people he’s disfigured, George W. Bush chatted with Jimmy Kimmel recently about Will Ferrell’s impression of him during the 2000 presidential campaign and much of his time in office. First, Bush insists that he rarely watches enough television to have kept up with jokes at his expense. That Bush was so disconnected from what actual people thought about his administration is plausible. But Bush also jokes around with Kimmel about his various missteps and malapropisms, telling an anecdote about thinking that he’d said “strategery” first, not Ferrell-as-Bush. Will Ferrell’s impression of Bush was one of, like the popular understanding of Bush’s persona, an immature jackass struggling to be taken seriously. This seems somewhat true of Bush, but it also made a somewhat cuddly and goofy figure out of someone who believed that God wanted him to kill people in the Middle East. George W. Bush was president for eight years and has had his image somewhat rehabilitated in recent years; it would be hard to point to any anti-Bush satire that in any way ameliorated the carnage Bush inflicted on the world.
There’s one recent Trump satire that is worth reconsidering, though. The now-famous image of Kathy Griffin holding Trump’s bloody head cannot be said to have changed the Trump administration’s policies, but it’s unquestionably genuinely dangerous art. Griffin faced real consequences for posing with a model of Trump’s bloodied head. Her comedy tour was canceled, she was dropped from CNN’s New Year’s Eve event, she was investigated by the Secret Service, and she lost endorsements and friends. The photo was apparently upsetting enough to the Trump administration that they claimed Trump’s youngest son thought it was real. To make hard-hitting satire in the Trump era, perhaps satirists should consider this the baseline. The team behind Our Cartoon President can likely make funnier material than this picture, but can they make something that provokes that strong a response from their targets?
For the show’s audience who fully hates Trump, it may be enough of a comfort to have the opportunity to laugh at his expense. More and more, one feels gaslit by the enormous number of people who think that Trump is a good president who knows what he’s doing. The President Show’s Anthony Atamanuik said his satire is “about providing relief from the emotional stress of having Trump in office.” To spend a half hour a week laughing at a Trump caricature getting into scrapes around the White House is valuable and worthwhile for that audience. Our Cartoon President definitely has its share of clever jokes (Trump retells the story of his winning the election CONSTANTLY, and Melania complains that Karen Pence “told me her favorite designer is Cracker Barrel gift shop,” for example) that reward closely following the news out of the White House. But viewers must also remember that Trump is very much not a cartoon. The Trump outside of Our Cartoon President is destroying families daily and taking our planet’s health past the point of no return. Everything that Trump does is absurd, but making fun of him can only go so far. As Charlie Chaplin wrote in his 1964 autobiography, “Had I known of the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, I could not have made The Great Dictator; I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis.” We know what’s happening in this country right now. It’s worth considering whether we can make fun of homicidal insanity.
Harry Waksberg is a writer and lazeabout based in Riverside, CA. He is the creator and writer of the web series Doing Good.