The 2016 election suffered from a plague of misinformation, so it’s strange to realize that some of the year’s best political writing was, technically speaking, fiction.
Among the breakout stars of hard news coverage like NBC’s Katy Tur and the Washington Post‘s David Farenthold, a handful of satirists made their mark during a punishing election cycle that often felt too ridiculous to satirize.
Jeb! The Musical
Arriving at the height of Hamilton fever, Jeb! The Musical skewered the Republican primaries with an expert eye for the major players: Jeb Bush as Hamilton, Donald Trump as his nemesis Aaron Burr, and Florida Voters (“Jeb loves them”) and Florida Interests (“Jeb wants to be with them”) as the dual romantic leads Eliza and Angelica Schuyler.
Trump: How does the pampered brother, son of a George and a Barbara,
Dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot with some Floridians,
By politics and Charles Koch’s donations
Grow up to somehow miss the nomination
Christie: The million-dollar, front runner, engraving gunner
Got no farther by working no harder
By being no smarter
By being a non-starter
By 45, they placed him in charge of a state charter
Cruz: And everyday while votes were being written and cast away across the states
Jeb refused to be a goner;
Inside he was ready to be just like his father
But his brother was the one who the country went and honored
Written by a creative team of 20 people (plus a crowd of contributors), the musical appeared out of nowhere in a Google doc, exhibiting an admirably in-depth knowledge of both Hamilton and the tragicomic subtext of Bush’s failed bid for the presidency.
Seven months later, Jeb! now feels like a parody of a more innocent era in American politics. Luckily, the script includes footnote links to the relevant news stories, in case you’ve forgotten some of the more obscure details of primary season.
Owen Ellickson’s Twitter
The Daily Show and SNL often felt painfully bland and irrelevant this year, arriving late to the mark—or sometimes not at all. Meanwhile on Twitter, comedy writer Owen Ellickson was building a longform story about the chaos behind the scenes of each campaign.
TRUMP: My other idea for the convention: I saw these roided-up guys on TV who tear up phonebooks. Great stuff. I'll need 17 million dollars— Owen Ellickson (@onlxn) July 1, 2016
Ellickson’s election tweets began as Weird Twitter one-liners and quick conversations between the candidates and their lackeys. But as the year wore on, his lengthening Twitter threads evolved distinct characterization and surreal worldbuilding. Woven into the more straightforward jokes about current events, we saw things like Trump revealing his doomsday plans to his long-suffering campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, who consistently referred to her candidate as “it.”
TRUMP: My favorite scenario is Trump TV. Second favorite's Armageddon, last is becoming President. So we gotta thread a needle here.— Owen Ellickson (@onlxn) October 29, 2016
TRUMP: So, that's everything. Also, you both owe me for some recent meals.— Owen Ellickson (@onlxn) October 29, 2016
CONWAY: I have questions about the Armageddon scenario, actually
TRUMP: You remember Roger Ailes? A squid, teeth on the outside--— Owen Ellickson (@onlxn) October 29, 2016
CONWAY: Yes. I murdered him.
TRUMP: OK. Well, he set up a way to end stuff
CONWAY: How exactly will it end the world?— Owen Ellickson (@onlxn) October 29, 2016
TRUMP: It's taken care of.
CONWAY: I'm curious.
TRUMP: C'mon. Isn't it more fun to be surprised?
Ellickson’s election storylines ranged from realistic (House Speaker Paul Ryan‘s helpless exhaustion in the face of Trump’s antics) to hilariously bizarre (the Baldwin brothers as an insular society with Alec Baldwin passing judgment as the “king”), a kind of fast-moving storytelling that could only work on Twitter, in an already Twitter-obsessed election year.
Alexandra Petri in the Washington Post
Alexandra Petri is perhaps the only writer on this list who would explicitly characterize her work as fanfiction, although most fanfic authors don’t have a contract with the Washington Post.
my phone autocorrects "financial" to "fanfic jail" if you want to know exactly how my life is going right now— Alexandra Petri (@petridishes) September 27, 2016
Caught somewhere between the sharp satire of the Onion, the warmth and savviness of the Toast, and the informative nature of The Daily Show, Petri’s column wrung humor out of the darkest days of this interminable election.
Her coverage runs the gamut from fictionalized debate recaps (“The Mansplaining Olympics”) to literary parodies, using popular media narratives to set up punchlines like Hillary Clinton as the adult version of Roald Dahl’s nerd girl heroine Matilda. It’s hard to pick out any one column as a specific highlight, but you can’t help but revel in the absurdity of Petri’s imagined backstory for Melania Trump saying her husband was “led on” by Billy Bush.
“I met him today,” Donald said.
“Who?” But Melania knew that Donald could only possibly mean one person. There had been so many framed pictures of him in the house, working the red carpet like a pro, smiling his megawatt smile. The man with the alliterative name. (Or was it assonant? No, Melania thought, alliterative had been right. Assonant was for vowel sounds.) Billy Bush. How Donald idolized him! How he looked up to him! Just the other day when Donald was doing a few tentative exercises with his chest expander, Melania had whispered to him, “That’s the spirit, Donald! Soon you will have abs like Billy Bush!” And Donald had smiled all over, as though the compliment warmed him from the inside out. He had worked the chest expander until he sweated profusely.
Petri’s work stands out not just because she had the stamina to keep writing like this months on end, but because her humor relies on a kernel of sincerity. On the eve of the election, her latest column explored an alternate timeline where Trump’s life was changed by reading a novel called The Kingfisher as a child: an appropriately strange and heartfelt epilogue to the year.