Mehnaaz Momen’s Political Satire, Postmodern Reality, and the Trump Presidency: Who Are We Laughing At?

Mehnaaz Momen, Associate Professor of Political Science and Public Administration at Texas A&M International University, takes on the worthwhile challenge of analyzing the current political climate in contemporary American society in her new book Political Satire, Postmodern Reality, and the Trump Presidency: Who Are We Laughing At? (Lexington Books, 2019). This is no easy feat, but Momen is not only thorough and nuanced in her analysis, she is also incredibly articulate and forthright in her discussion of how politics and entertainment have fused into one medium over the last thirty to forty years and paved the way for the Trump presidency. Momen examines political satire from its roots in literature and cartoons and how it evolved through television into its current state, which is almost identical to mainstream news. For Momen, this is where political satire becomes problematic because it raises the important question: “If they [political satirists] have succeeded as a major source of political news, what has happened to the real sources of news?” A major strength of this book is its framing. Momen situates political satire within the realm of postmodernism, which further complicates how messages from satire are being received by the audience. Through this perspective, Momen is able to view political satire from a critical standpoint by questioning its role in terms of how effective it actually is in diagnosing and addressing real issues within the political sphere. A central problem she explores involves the goals of political satire which seem more interested in generating laughter in the moment rather than creating a long-lasting impact that encourages and stimulates actual change. In regards to political satire, Momen asks the most pertinent question of all: “Why is it easier to produce satire that evaluates personalities and not systems?”

Momen discusses the history of political satire at length, helping readers to understand how it evolved into its current form. Political satire, by nature, has always existed on the fringes, and served as a mirror, allowing the audience to laugh, but also to engage in self-reflection. For Momen, satire is effective when it makes us laugh, but also causes us to question the deeper implications of what we are laughing at and why. Political satire in the United States became more openly acceptable during the Watergate scandal; Saturday Night Live served as a foundation for how political figures and the news in general could be satirized and has become an influential force in terms of how the American audience encounters and digests politics. It set the stage for other television shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report which have relied heavily on parody and comical interpretations of the news in order to highlight big political issues. Momen sees political satirists like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher, John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah, and Seth Myers as being the staple sources of not only political satire, but actual news as well—which is problematic. As Momen explains:

The function of satire is to reproduce a cognitive space where what cannot be said is uttered and what has been accepted is questioned. Critical thought and self-analysis are important components of satire, which we can judge by contrasting the mainstream media’s presentation of political news and the interpretations offered by satire. If both the real news media and satire offer the same analysis, and satire only showcases a different style, then the critical thinking part gets submerged in laughter.

For example:

There can be multiple sketches about the disaster of the water supply in Flint, Michigan, but in the absence of any in-depth coverage of this very serious problem, the sketches, while they reveal the hypocrisy of politics and make us angry, do not allow us to turn anywhere after our laughter fades away or to use the incipient anger as a tool for real action.

Major political issues can be highlighted, but in order for political satire to be effective, it needs to be able to point the audience to tangible places where they can take action. Ideally, these sources would be actual news outlets. However, because the news no longer functions as news, but rather, news as entertainment, the audience has to rely on satire as a source of real information where the possibilities for engagement are nonexistent. Political satire is now doing two jobs instead of one job, which renders its messages ineffective. At the beginning of the book, Momen clearly states how political satire came to be a real source for news:

The underlying factors that have shaped political satire in its current iteration are comprised of several strands, all of which reached critical mass and a degree of prominence in the 1990s: satire moved from the counterculture to the mainstream; television, which at first had allowed only limited space to political satire, opened itself to satirists seeking new audiences; the conglomeration of media networks made possible the creation of a worldwide audience; the synergistic nexus of globalization, technological advancement, and neoliberalism became clearly discernible; and politics and entertainment became inextricably fused on television.

With all these changes occurring within the last few decades, it also allowed for postmodernism to take root as a means for the audience to interpret the information they were consuming in new ways. She explains:

Irony, parody, and satire are the chosen language of postmodernism, because postmodernism operates within circular paths. As long as problems are deconstructed, hypocrisies identified, paradoxes highlighted, and particular patterns repeated, we can move on to the next issue. At this point we can legitimately ask the question if humor has depoliticized political reasoning. Why are mainstream issues still categorized from the positions of political parties rather than from the ideological prism?

Here, Momen brings up a few interesting points. She cites postmodernism as a form that allows comedy to flourish as it employs its signature elements (irony, parody, and satire) in order to present political topics to its audience. As a result, major political issues are only viewed in the moment. There is no follow-up; there is no in-depth discussion. As a result, even if the audience is getting real news from political satirists, it does not give them the means to enact serious change. Instead, it normalizes political corruption and strips politics of its true function, which is to address and ideally solve social issues. In short, it takes the politics out of politics. As Momen also points out, political satire is not framed from any ideological standpoint, which makes it even more problematic because the audience is only seeing politics within the framework of a two-party system, which further limits political participation for a vast number of citizens who are not seen as citizens at all, but instead, customers or consumers.

Not only is the audience viewed from a consumerist perspective, so is satire itself. Momen discusses this issue at length:

Satire on television, however, relied on institutions and investments which were not conducive to satirists’ natural compulsions, such as defying social conventions and shocking people. The presentation of satire on television was determined by extrinsic factors, particularly the expansion, suitability, and retention of audiences. Instead of the hypercriticality intrinsic to satire, which exposes the hypocrisy and layered meanings of social and political transactions, the entertaining element assumed dominance.

What is rarely, if ever, acknowledged by those in the media is the fact that satire has become a consumable commodity; it is now an accepted and very popular part of mainstream entertainment. As a result, political satire has lost its ability to encourage any real change within American society. As Momen notes, “The owners of networks who make key decisions, their calculations about prospective viewers, and their political convictions all play an important role in shaping the content displayed on television.” This fact can be extended to political satire, which is supposed to shed light on societal and systemic issues. Since it is merely a form of entertainment, it cannot fulfill its primary role as a critical beacon. Momen gives an example of how ineffective the landmark sketch-comedy program Saturday Night Live has become in its attempt to satirize major issues:

SNL had planned a skit in 1998 focused on the deregulation of media ownership and the concentration of corporate power. General Electric, the owner of the NBC network, was mentioned in the skit as one of the powerful corporate giants which owns most media conglomerates. That skit was removed for not being funny enough, but the real reason was the dissatisfaction of GE officials.

Additionally, postmodernism becomes problematic in this deregulated, globalized, neoliberal world where multiple narratives reign supreme without any real purpose other than to compartmentalize and fragmentize the audience into niche groups that never have to interact with each other. Postmodernism also creates the ideal environment for satirists like Stephen Colbert to engage in a brilliant parody of Bill O’Reilly, but it does not take into account political implications underneath such parodies. Momen argues that a postmodern sensibility helped bring about Donald Trump, who already understood the rules of entertainment and employed them to great effect in order to gain a large amount of support from disenfranchised groups of people who the liberal media made fun of, never took seriously, or ignored. She gives an example of a postmodern moment that occurred at the culmination of the 2016 election:

Another example of the collision of the worlds became apparent when Colbert, the master of alternative reality, had to deal with the 2016 election result on live television and was shocked to find out that the winner was Trump. His agony was real, yet he had to continue performing on his show, while we the audience witnessed both the election result, which was real evidence of entertainment taking over politics, and its representation, Colbert watching helplessly as his brand of entertainment was being ruined by real politics.

The collision of the worlds is the moment where the entertainment/performance aspect of political satire had to account for the real life victory of Donald Trump. This is where the audience can see reality merging with unreality and the way it signals the ineffectiveness of political satire to perform any other function beyond being merely funny and entertaining.

In this book, Momen does an excellent job connecting political satire to postmodernism, but she does an even better job connecting postmodernism to Donald Trump and his policies. She intelligently explains how the fusion between politics and entertainment, which became visibly apparent during the Reagan presidency and peaked during the Bush the second presidency, and how the lack of serious criticism during the Obama presidency led to the election of Donald Trump. She successfully situates Trump within the neoliberal dynamic of how politics and entertainment function in the postmodern landscape and how all of these elements created a climate where he could excel as a politician in contemporary American society:

We cannot forget that Trump himself is the product of a setup where performative skill overshadows politics. Trump may be the first fully postmodern president, his accession to power having been made possible by a transformation which contains both the old-school and the postmodern structure. The concepts of alternate reality, to which he adheres, and fake news, which he assails, are his weapons not only to delegitimize the media but also to reach out to his supporters.

Donald Trump is the only political figure in American history to have successfully transcended the media and rendered them completely useless. They are unable to deal with his personality or his politics and have not been able to figure out a way to diminish his influence. The reason the media has failed in this regard is because they fail to understand the fact that they created the environment that brought his presidency into existence. Here is an example that involves First Lady Melania Trump:

After strong reaction from citizens who marched and closed down ICE offices in a few cities, Trump reluctantly signed an executive order that would allow the children to be jailed along with their parents. The most galling image of this controversy, along with weeping children held in cages, has been First Lady Melania Trump’s jacket, which she wore to visit one of the child detention camps. The words “I don’t really care, do u?” were inscribed on the back of the jacket.

Momen goes on to explain:

But satirists missed an opportunity to draw the connection between the disclaimer on the jacket and the origin of the phrase, “Me ne frego” (I don’t care), which was proudly proclaimed by Mussolini’s dedicated special forces. The jacket was from the Spanish retailer Zara, which has a history of producing clothing with controversial messages like the yellow star, or the proclamation “White is the new black.” If the role of satire is to shine a light upon what is hidden, this was a rare occasion to do so in an era when nothing is concealed anymore. The jacket was a shiny object which captured everyone’s attention, but the experts, who were supposed to deconstruct the meaning and make it evocative in relation to cultural codes, engaged in superficial laughter by treating the episode as child’s play and moved on to the next scandal.

What is even more telling about this incident is the way Momen frames it in the book. She includes an image of Melania Trump wearing the jacket, but as a Twitter post from Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Her post is a link from slate.com (showing the image of Melania in the jacket) along with the comment “It’s endless with these morons.” It has already been established that Melania Trump’s jacket is situated within the realm of fascism; however, it is also important to take note of how this image is being presented, absent of any context. It is being relayed by Louis-Dreyfus, whose Twitter profile picture shows her wearing nice glasses and a fashionable hat. Her hair is salon perfect and her face is blemish- and wrinkle-free. Louis-Dreyfus is a celebrity, best-known for her role as Elaine on Seinfeld (a show Momen discusses at length as being an apolitical show for an apolitical audience) and for her starring role as a fictional vice president on Veep. Louis-Dreyfus represents glossy privilege and upper-class lifestyle feminism. By calling Melania Trump and those in her political group “morons,” she unintentionally calls herself out. As a result, the real issue, the plight of immigrants, is diminished and rendered invisible. Louis-Dreyfus is a good example of neoliberal sensibilities promoted by the same media empire that is unable to deal with the Trump presidency and its horrific policies, and continually fails to evaluate or effectively communicate the real issues at hand, which go beyond Melania Trump’s jacket. In this example, Trump and Louis-Dreyfus are two sides of the same coin and the coin is valueless when compared to the very real issue of immigration in its current and problematic state.

Momen’s book excels at putting the pieces together to show how Trump’s presidency is the result of neoliberalism, globalization, and the deregulation and consolidation of media corporations since the 1980s which fused entertainment with politics, and created a brand of satire that only operates at the surface level. She makes it explicitly clear that “Even when political satire arms us with new insights, that information cannot be utilized in an environment where politics has been taken over by big money and the voters’ role in the political process keeps shrinking in the neoliberal economy.” Momen points out repeatedly in this book that citizens are not seen as citizens, but as customers and consumers. As such, they are removed from the real world of politics and function only as an audience that is passive in every sense of the word. Much of the political satire that came before the Trump presidency and continues to be produced by the most visible and popular satirists feels hollow and ineffective. This is because the satire that is being produced does not probe systemic issues. It focuses on isolated figures and incidents; it operates moment to moment in order to generate laughter without any way for the viewing public to effect real change. This brings Momen to her most important and poignant statement: “The changes in economic reality can only be brought about with policy changes.”

Above all else, Political Satire, Postmodern Reality, and the Trump Presidency: Who Are We Laughing At? encourages a return to the real world of politics that is both serious and offers opportunities for citizens to seek out tangible changes through engagement with policy. It starts with citizens being citizens rather than customers and consumers; it starts with citizens taking an active role in educating themselves about the types of policies politicians put forth and how those policies impact real lives and the system that supports them. In the end, this is what makes Momen’s book so valuable, especially in today’s climate: in order to move away from what Trump and neoliberalism represent, there has to be a shift away from relying on political satire to do the heavy work it was never meant to do and placing political power in the hands of the citizenry where it belongs so that social change can take place.

November 18, 2019