Investigative humourist Dan Ilic writes from Los Angeles, California. Cartoon by Jason Chatfield.
Being a satirical comedian in Trump’s America will soon be like being a public servant who chooses to have an email server at home. You should expect to be locked up.
In about 12 months’ time, my job will be outlawed in the USA. I need to get all my Trump jokes out before inauguration day 2017.
In fact I’m fairly certain anyone who dares to be intellectually honest in their work, be they journalists, lawmakers or activists, will be pushed to the edge of civil society and shunned by half the population.
See what Trump has done to me. This election has been like watching Mum and Dad break up and get divorced. I was hoping Mum would get the house. Now I can’t even see her on weekends.
Like more than half of America and most of the world, I just didn’t think that this could happen.
Come election night I was saying to my colleagues, with much relief, that I couldn’t wait to not write jokes about Donald Trump.
Knowing that the forecasts still had Hillary with at least a 70 per cent chance to win, I was really looking forward to someone normal being president, so that once again I would be able to use jokes as weapons.
We had made so many jokes about what a Trump presidency would look like. We even made a sketch about Trump’s First 100 Days, which ends at Day 74 because of the Nuclear Holocaust. We did another where I played Trump’s press secretary, who was a garish authoritarian.
Oh the fun we had.
Last Friday I wrote a sketch where a Klansman comes out as racist, and can finally walk down the street without people staring at the funny clothes that he wears to honour his beliefs. However, by Sunday, there were reports that the KKK were planning a victory parade in North Carolina.
Suddenly my sketch is no longer satire.
With Team Trump, jokes seemed to be nullified the next day. No matter how pointed a joke was, Trump would go about topping yours with something better, funnier, yet sadder in real life.
The only thing that could possibly top everything now would be if Trump installed some high-profile white supremacists in his cabinet, but there’s no way he’d do that. (He has.)
In Adam Curtis’s film Hypernormalisation, Vladimir Putin’s Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Surkov uses a range of confusing tactics drawn from conceptual art to undermine politics. They include funding pro- and anti-government groups and pitting them against each other.
That way Putin can keep the population guessing as to what is happening. As Curtis says: “(Putin’s) aim is to undermine people’s perception of the world so they never know what’s real … It’s a strategy of power that keeps any opposition constantly confused, a ceaseless shape-shifting that is unstoppable because it is indefinable.”
And that’s what we’re experiencing now with Team Trump. Team Trump’s behaviour throughout the election was an endless staccato of insanity. Impossible to read, impossible to analyse. By the time you had an angle on it, the next Trump moment would break and you had to drop what you were working on to catch up with in order to capitalise on the digital conversation.
This so-called “post-fact world” has other repercussions for comedians.
Jokes don’t work like they used to.
For the last 10 years of my career in comedy, advertising and journalism, I’ve deployed jokes as a way to disarm people and make them think differently about an issue. I’ve successfully built comedy video campaigns to galvanise an audience on an issue, then seen action result.
But in the past 18 months I’ve noticed that the rise of the algorithms, fake news and filter bubbles means most jokes will no longer be seen or shared by those whom you’re trying to challenge or whose minds you’re trying to change.
And even if the jokes are fact-checked, those facts can be refuted and ignored, because the audience either won’t see the work in their feeds or will choose to ignore it.
Being ignored is a comedian’s kryptonite.
So rather than building out broad comedy pieces that try to attract big audiences, we find that the pieces that do the best preach to the choir and reinforce attitudes that the audience already has. And since the success of a video is measured by views and shares, a truly controversial statement — or one that is just entertaining but lacks point of view — will be considered a failure.
Part of the job when you work in the digital media space is to find an audience for the story you’re about to write. The traffic is the driver for the story, not the story itself. Gaming content for ratings is nothing new; it’s always been the commercial reality of the media business. Which audiences get exposed to a story is the new thing here.
This is the genius of Team Trump. By pivoting on an hourly basis, Trump ensures that people will consume only the parts of his message that they want. His inconsistency is not a hindrance in 2016, it’s a help.
In an ever-expanding digital media world, niches play to big audiences .The mainstream broadcast and print papers, no matter how partisan they may be, will still give an audience a more balanced view of the world.
But hoping people will abandon their digital devices and emerge from their information ghettos will be like trying to Make America Great Again.
It’s just a misguided sense of nostalgic longing for something that never existed in the first place.