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Why comedy can’t derail Donald Trump

If we want to stop Trump, Michael Signer argues, we have to take him seriously.


Nayomi Reghay

Internet Culture

Posted on Jan 8, 2016   Updated on May 27, 2021, 9:42 am CDT

Over the course of 2015, Donald Trump has been called many things: a racist, a clown, a blowhard. His anti-Muslim sentiments have drawn comparisons to Hitler, and J.K. Rowling said he was worse than Voldemort.

Yet, despite the name-calling, Trump maintains the loyalty of his supporters. And with his recently acquired access to the RNC’s voter database, he appears better poised than ever to win the Republican nomination for the 2016 election.

Of course, many are fed up with Trump, and with his ability to command our collective attention. Jon Stewart recently donned a wig and allowed Stephen Colbert to smear his face with Cheetos dust to mock Trump while pleading with Congress to extend the Zadroga Act—the joke being that acting like Trump is the only way to get anyone’s attention these days.

Even conservatives have had their fill. One Arizona conservative group, for example, recently mocked Trump in a musical parody video.

But can satire effectively undercut Trump’s crude appeal?

Political theorist, lecturer, and author Michael Signer says absolutely not. “He’s coarsening our politics and dividing and hurting people through insults and invective. He’s also embarrassing America on the world stage, and he’s undermining our culture,” Signer told the Daily Dot.

Trump’s style is so outlandish that he’s exceedingly challenging to parody. What’s worse, he thrives on passion and emotion, so any attack on Trump fueled by outrage may only serve to bolster his supporters.

According to Signer, Trump has all the markings of a demagogue. Demagogues are dangerous political players, ones we cannot counter with mocking or ridicule. In fact, Signer argued, that may only make him stronger.

What exactly is a demagogue? According to Signer, there are four criteria: A demagogue self-identifies as a mirror of the masses, causes great waves of emotion, uses emotion for political benefit, and threatens or breaks the established rules of governance. Demagogues can cause great damage, and Signer said, they already have.

“There’s been a lot of political science analyzing productivity in Congress, and it seems to be in steep decline,” Signer told the Daily Dot. “There are a lot of trends that have led Congress to be so gridlocked, [and it’s] related to the demagogue phenomenon.”

Because demagogues are showmen, they use emotion and passion to sway attention. They create a climate where healthy debate is improbable—if not impossible. “If you have people unable to talk to one another then you cannot achieve anything,” said Signer.

Demagogues can be stopped, but Signer says satire is not the cure. “We need two things to remove the fertile ground for demagogues. You need citizens who care about the quality of their democracy, and you need people in leadership who are stepping up to the plate and, in a very serious way, calling out these lowest common denominators.”

If you really want to stop a demagogue, said Signer, you’ve got to steer focus away from passion, which demagogues thrive on, and back to values, which demagogues threaten to shatter: “You call regular people back to the ways in which the demagogue, taken seriously, violates our norms about what we’re proud of in this country,” he said.

House Speaker Paul Ryan gave Trump the kind of serious attention Signer called for when he responded to Trump’s call to ban Muslims.

Another example of a serious—and, Signer, said highly effective—critique of Trump is Tom Brokaw segment that includes a visit the grave of a Muslim soldier.

“What Tom Brokaw did was really powerful. It was taking [Trump] seriously and it was calling us back to the things, the parts of our rules of governance to what we treasure,” said Signer.

But what of our beloved satire? Is there no room for humor when a demagogue is on the loose?

Signer says comedy can offer us comfort, but it won’t provide a cure. “I enjoy satire and comedy as much as anyone else… And you can engage a lot of people, The Daily Show engaged more millennials than the Nightly News.”

But if we truly want to stop Trump, it’s time to admit he’s more than a joke.

Michael Signer is a lecturer at the University of Virginia and an attorney based in Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of Demagogue: the Fight to Save Democracy from Its Worst Enemies and Becoming Madison: The Extraordinary Origins of the Least Likely Founding Father.

Photo via Donkey Honkey/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Jan 8, 2016, 11:00 am CST