June 1, 2018 – Once upon a time some people had an epiphany: not everyone shared the same experiences, opportunities or power. In fact some were being ignored, slighted, disadvantaged, mocked, maligned, and typecast because other people’s’ experiences seemed to differ from “ours.” Sensing this violated the “don’t be a dick rule” (more often referred to as the biblical injunction to “do unto others as you’d have them do unto you”), but lacking comprehensive solutions, these people focused much of their energy on words – how we should and how we shouldn’t use them, who can say what and why. And when some other people heard about these new rules and felt like they were infringing on their rights, the pushback was inevitable.
That pushback became labeled ‘political correctness.’
To be the arbiter of what’s fair was to have a certain kind of power. To be labeled as “unfair,” was to have one’s status called into question and potentially one’s power diminished.
Perhaps because it was largely groups on “the left” that took up the cause and because of that ill-conceived name, political correctness became a political grenade. Indeed some people took the core idea too far, way too far, giving ammunition to those on “the right,” who replied with cries of “fuck your feelings” and “snowflake!” Political correctness had unfortunately grown into its name.
And if you were opposed to the word police, there was no better gift than Donald Trump. Along came a candidate for President who spoke his mind, almost purposely with no filter. For every off-color remark that horrified Democrats, Trump’s power grew stronger with his base and many of the barbs were explained away as his “just joking.” But not everyone was laughing.
What many on the left interpreted as gaffs that would doom his campaign, were actually the bedrocks of his popularity. “He talks just like us! Yay! Fuck your feelings!” If you thought a candidate couldn’t make fun of a handicapped reporter or a Gold Star Family without repercussions, you were wrong. (It should be noted that many of his supporters claim that Trump wasn’t actually making fun of the reporter’s disability, which is odd considering this kind of mockery is an example of why they love him, so why not own it?).
“You’ve called women you don’t like ‘fat pigs,’ ‘dogs,’ ‘slobs,’ and ‘disgusting animals’,” Megyn Kelly said to Trump during one of the debates. “You once told a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees.”
“I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct,” Trump rebuked, to great applause. “I’ve been challenged by so many people, I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time either.”
Until Trump, there was a thin and fragile veil of decency which delicately shrouded our public if not private discourse. Of course not everyone abided by it, but there were certain things most people did not and would not say. Some can certainly argue that the veil was bogus to begin with if it in fact stilted people’s ability to authentically express themselves and that they’d rather know what someone is actually thinking than have it sugar-coated for the reason of societal politeness. Trump took that already-stretched veil and obliterated it. Whatever might have been considered “the line,” Trump crossed it, ate it and spit it out. His words and actions trickled down to his disciples like Tomi Lahren and then down further to the common person on the street. A permission had been given to now act and speak differently and seemingly without recourse. Free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty, they were free at last.
President Trump’s audacity with words isn’t something we have previously experienced from The White House. Some say it isn’t presidential – they’re wrong. It may not have been presidential before, but it is now. Trump’s critics have consistently gotten one thing wrong about him – they’ve graded him on the wrong scale. Comparing him or his actions to other politicians is pointless. He’s cut from the cloth of reality television, not Washington. Spoiler alert, people love TV and hate DC. If you spent the campaign cycle thinking “a candidate can’t do that,” you likely were in shock on election night. And if you now think “a President can’t do that,” you still haven’t learned.
There’s a loudness to Trump. It’s bigly (or big league, I honestly still don’t know which.) And for the most part, his “jokes” are never just funny – they’re also mean. (“He is a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured” and so on…). It’s all so overwhelming to some that they seem to short circuit. Normally well-behaved personalities from politics, news and entertainment have gone to Trump’s level. Part exasperation, part a desire to fight fire with fire. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s all headed in the same direction – down.
It’s hard to forget Marco Rubio’s 72 hour attempt to be funny during the campaign when he resorted to telling jokes about the size of Trump’s hands in response to all the “liddle Marco” jabs. It was largely unfunny, and even worse, it was unnatural. Trump had been slinging insults since before Marco was born and Rubio stood no chance.
Anderson Cooper was forced to apologize to Republican pundit Jeffrey Lord after saying that he’d still support Trump if he “took a dump on his desk.”
And before turning to professional comedians, let’s stop conflating their standards for everyone else’s. The comedian’s bar, is not your bar. In a social media world, it’s easy to put Mike Huckabee and Patton Oswalt in the same pot because they’re next to each other in your Twitter feed – we shouldn’t. We should be allowed to expect different things from different parts of society. Comedians are the astronauts of humor – they take risks, push boundaries, and sometimes crash in fiery balls. And for all of that, we thank them for their service.
Kathy Griffin’s now famous photograph with Trump’s decapitated head immediately comes to mind – a stunt for which she apologized then subsequently unapologized. What’s a comedian to do? You need to be as brash as the other side in the hopes of being heard, much less competing. (As an aside, for this reason alone, the Democrats have little chance of challenging Trump in the next election presuming he runs again. Other than Joe Biden who might be wily and whacky enough to stand his ground with him, there’s no one else who can match Trump’s personality. At least for now, credentials don’t matter, and any regular candidate standing next to Trump is immediately overwhelmed and consumed by his persona. Save your hopes for the next political type for 2024 when things might return to normal).
As for Alec Baldwin, I honestly can’t tell if his impression of Trump on SNL is funny anymore. I think it might be, but I’m not really sure. The one thing I am sure about is that Alec’s hatred of Trump comes through every time, and hate isn’t particularly funny, so maybe there’s my answer.
Of course, Michelle Wolf’s routine at the White House Correspondents Dinner ruffled numerous feathers. By the way, that’s her job. To quote Jimmy Kimmel, “Dear “the media” – Michelle Wolf was FUNNY. Hire a juggler next year.” Wolf was incorrectly slammed for making fun of Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ appearance – a thing she factually did not do. She leveled a bunch of hard jokes, not all of which landed, but she did what she was hired to do. And the result, lots of people were offended.
Offended by Kathy Griffin? Alec Baldwin? Michelle Wolf? But wait. Isn’t this where some of you wanted us to be? Wasn’t “being offended” a dirty word? What happened to the cries of “snowflake” and “fuck your feelings!” We can’t have it both ways – that’s hypocrisy and right now both sides are being at least a bit hypocritical. We either want to be better or we don’t. And if the answer is you don’t, you don’t get play the offended card. And if you do, you have to be a part of the solution.
Before the dust had settled from the White House Correspondents dinner, White House official Kelly Sadler reportedly joked “he’s dying anyway” about the ailing John McCain and his possible vote to block the confirmation of Gina Haspel as CIA Director. The report was never clearly addressed by the White House but the allegation can be assumed correct based on Sadler’s apology to McCain’s daughter.
Then someone threw a glass of water on Tomi Lahren in a restaurant.
And then during the same episode of Full Frontal in which she took jabs at Roseanne, Samantha Bee called Ivanka Trump a “feckless cunt.”
And so on.
And so on.
And so on.
Oh, what a lovely war.
My initial reaction to Michelle Wolf’s routine was, “Finally! A liberal who’s willing to take a gun to a gunfight!” But then I remembered that I hadn’t been looking for a gunfight. I wasn’t even particularly looking for a knife fight.
Beyond the moral seesaw, our behavior is undermining our actual goals. Samantha Bee was making valid points about immigration reform – but the resulting headlines weren’t about that, they were about “the c word.” A completely salient argument was neutered by its delivery. It might have been visceral. Even Satisfying. But effective? No. Instead, it became ammunition for her opponents.
“When they go low, we go high,” certainly feels like a long time ago. Sadly it wasn’t. It seems like it’s getting harder and harder to do and the frustration is understandable, “why should we apologize if he never does?” But just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. Was “going high” just wishful thinking? Maybe. Can we all do better? God, I hope so.
It’s easy to pin all of this on Trump, but he didn’t create it – he just revealed in us what was already there. For all our beautiful human abilities for empathy, our tribal nature is winning out. We’ve gone from joking to just being mean. And angry. Forget being funny, is any of this fun anymore? This is apparently who we are, at least for now. But is it who we want to be?
Maybe it’s time for a little more of that “do unto others” stuff…by everyone. But someone’s gotta go first.