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“Political entertainment” is an oxymoron at this moment in the Trump era

We were promised great art in response to President Trump, but so far, TV and movies have struggled to rise to this political moment—from SNL to “BlacKkKlansman” to the upcoming “The Oath.”

“Political entertainment” is an oxymoron at this moment in the Trump era
[Photo: Will Heath/NBC]

What a time to be almost alive.

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That’s my mantra, as a pop-culture reporter in the age of Trump, floating through each week in a state of near-catatonic constant consumption. First, I devour a mountain of vegetables—the news unfolding in a reverse-chronological cascade—then I wolf down a second mountain of dessert, perhaps an embargoed screener for an upcoming Netflix series.

My plate is never clean, and I always feel dirty. Because too often now the vegetables and dessert blend together in a thick, mushy paste.

The president is, among other things, a former game-show host and reality-TV star. He may speak like someone with a third-grade reading level who is currently sundowning, but he was savvy enough to intuit that politics and entertainment were already blended together and that it made incredible business sense to make them indistinguishable from each other. Political news now encompasses sitcom silliness when Trump himself or one of his goons does something farcically stupid. It’s high-stakes drama pretty much the rest of the time.

We are all used to this now. It’s become The Way It Is, even as part of the drama focuses on the fight to make it Any Other Way. But as politics has become more like entertainment, what did political entertainment become?

We were promised great art in the Trump era, at a time when nobody knew what the era would look like. The first wave we got did not inspire much confidence. Spielberg rushed The Post into production, to assure everyone that newspapers will save us all. Michael Moore went on Broadway for some reason. As inspired as Anthony Atamanuik’s performance as Donald Trump was on The President Show–and how oddly predictive that show ended up being–it was hard to get excited to watch more of the president at the end of a long day. That’s the reason why I can’t say for sure whether Stephen Colbert’s Our Cartoon President even exists.

Those involved with making our nation’s supply of art regularly responded to politics with award-show speechifying, which was suddenly rendered redundant when the Emmys hosted Sean Spicer in 2017, a moment where Hollywood seemed to agree with the MAGA philosophy that nothing matters and this is all a game.

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There was also a scramble to make shows designed to appeal to the supposed silent majority—the most obvious being Roseanne, which imploded spectacularly when its creator proved only too well to share the same values as the show’s mega-MAGA demo. But the spirit that inspired the revival still persists. In the spring of 2017, ABC canceled Last Man Standing, a low-rated, long-in-the-tooth sitcom where Tim Allen plays a disgruntled vlogger. After a pronounced outcry of  “liberal conspiracy!” swept the internet, though, Fox made a bet that it would win some resentment viewers by bringing the show back. As of last Friday’s debut–which soundly trounced Murphy Brown, the yang to Roseanne’s yin–in the ratings, the bet appears to have paid off.

Late-night TV has settled into a comfortable groove of hit-or-miss jokes about the outrages of the day–basically what late-night talk shows have always been–only more pointed in proportion with how outrageous the outrage, and occasionally dead serious. Recently, though, these shows have found creative success by acknowledging on-air how necessarily different their creators have to approach them now, considering the new breakneck pace of things.

The failure of SNL-style satire and Yeezy-style trolling

Saturday Night Live has more freedom in its format for commenting on news of the day, but too often that freedom is squandered. The show is still capable of producing sharp jabs that nail their target, like the faux-ad for Ivanka Trump’s perfume, Complicit. But all too often SNL is content to fall back on high-profile surprise guests reenacting a big moment from the week. Sure, it was a brilliant choice to immortalize Sean Spicer as Melissa McCarthy, but nobody needed the jokeless spectacle of Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro as Michael Cohen and Robert Mueller, channeling their Meet the Parents characters.

The tragedy of this approach is that it’s an effort to mimic the cultural success of Tina Fey’s role in taking down Sarah Palin a decade ago–a phenomenon that no longer seems possible.

Over the weekend, for instance, SNL recruited Matt Damon to play fratty, embattled SCOTUS nominee Brett Kavanaugh. The writers did an incredible job of boiling down every gobsmacking aspect of last Thursday’s historic hearing into a marathon, 13-minute cold open. They fully captured Kavanaugh’s alternately hostile and weepy command performance, along with the obsequious demeanor of the judiciary committee. Damon was funny in the role too, despite the fact that it may have been inappropriate to cast him in the first place, considering his past comments about the #MeToo movement. The clip has already been widely circulated and has cemented Kavanaugh’s reputation as a national joke. But that status will have zero impact on whether he is confirmed or not.

There’s no longer the possibility that a “gotcha” moment like Katie Couric’s famous Sarah Palin interview, or the subsequent Tina Fey impression that codified the joke, could happen now. The closest we’ve gotten to a “gotcha” lately is Sacha Baron Cohen’s show, Who Is America?, which got one lower-level politician in serious trouble, but otherwise didn’t leave much impact. Donald Trump’s election disproved the idea that being widely regarded as an obscene punchline could keep one out of higher office. The fact that Kavanaugh turned himself into a dank meme with his bizarre behavior and obvious lies isn’t disqualifying; it’s further reason to push him through. After all, if Kavanaugh does get through, the joke will be on the libs. And if you’re a member of the spite-fueled GOP that elected Trump, what more fitting way could there be to kick off a majority-conservative SCOTUS?

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The musical guest on the episode of SNL that annihilated Kavanaugh was Kanye West, an artist who has lost the plot in the Trump era. West has long thrived creatively by making controversial statements that turn fans against him–and then winning them back with stone-cold classic bops. Even as Trump merely loomed on the horizon in 2016, though, Kanye’s statements began to go beyond the usual level of controversial and into the realm of unforgivable. Tweeting “Bill Cosby innocent!!!!” isn’t the same thing as interrupting Taylor Swift’s MTV award acceptance speech. It’s repulsive. You might even call it deplorable. Luckily, the album that followed, The Life of Pablo, was hot enough to make fans try not to think about the Cosby tweet.

That seems so long ago now.

Kanye West’s latest offering, Ye, was farted out over two weeks earlier this summer and quickly disappeared. Can you name one song from it? You probably cannot. The album release happened in the eye of the hurricane that’s been Kanye’s true artwork this year, his transition into full-blown MAGA scumbag. His tweets now are filled with alt-right talking points not worth repeating here, and he has publicly aligned himself with the movement’s heroes like Candace Owens and Charlie Kirk. Whether this is all part of a long-con performance art piece about prejudices or hats or whatever, Kanye West’s professed love of Trump and Trumpism has so overshadowed his art as to render that art beside the point. As if to prove as much, the two songs he performed on SNL this weekend were just warm-ups for his true viral moment on the show, an off-air Trump rant that landed online courtesy of Chris Rock’s Instagram Story.

If Kanye is using Trump to shock for the sake of shock, he wouldn’t be alone. An upcoming episode of Family Guy will reportedly feature the president hitting on the Griffins’ teenage daughter, Meg. While there’s nothing wrong with wanting to highlight Trump’s proclivities–it’s amazing how seldom his reported penchant for barging in on undressed teenage girls is brought up–having him prey on Meg Griffin is crude and artless. What purpose does it serve to create a fantasy version of slightly worse disgusting behavior than the kind Trump actually exhibited? The show might as well just avoid taking him on altogether . . . if South Park hadn’t decided to go that route last year, to diminishing ratings and relevance.

Taking the oath at the movies

Because movies generally take longer to turn around than TV shows, Trump-triggered movies only really began hitting theaters this year. (There were four of them at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival alone.)

Michael Moore traded the Broadway stage for his camera again to make Fahrenheit 11/9, a documentary that succeeds by focusing less on Trump than on the forces that got him elected and the forces that may defeat him yet. Over the summer, there were several movies that weren’t directly about Trump but still reflective of him. Armando Iannucci’s Death of Stalin wasn’t necessarily inspired by Trump, but as a rebuke of dictatorships, it can’t help but come across as a warning shot. Sicario: Day of the Soldado escalates the drug war at the U.S./Mexico border into the realm of terrorism, and there are echoes of tiki-torch racism in The First Purge.

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Of all the recent films, Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman is perhaps the most vital. As if it weren’t clear enough that the events of the film position Trump’s election as a grand victory for racists everywhere, a coda at the end recounts Heather Heyer’s murder by a neo Nazi in Charlottesville in August 2017, and the president’s equivocating reaction. The movie feels designed to fan the flames of its viewers’ never-dormant fury.

Later this month, Ike Barinholtz’s directorial debut, The Oath, will mark the most explicitly topical comedy of the Trump era. It takes place in an America where a Trump analog has triggered creeping fascism. At the start of the film, this president demands all citizens sign an oath of patriotic loyalty, and the action takes place around Thanksgiving, which is the deadline for signing. Barinholtz’s character and his wife, played by Tiffany Haddish, are hosting his politically mixed family for the holiday. Before the film turns into something of a thriller in its third act, it serves as a compelling snapshot of our rigidly divided era. It also makes the always-welcome point that it’s entirely possible to be on the right side of history and be kind of a dick about it.

In December, Adam McKay’s film about Dick Cheney, Vice, will almost certainly find something to say about our current predicament, and hovering far in the distance is The Apprentice, the first of what I imagine will be a robust series of movies about Donald Trump’s actual life (which I will hopefully never see). Any random one of the memoirs, tell-alls, and investigative books about the Trump White House which are released seemingly every week could be an HBO series.

As a consequence of news breaking so often and so thoroughly that it feels like our brains have broken with it, any movie about the Trump era made during the Trump era has a strong chance of feeling dated or incorrect by the time it comes out. Who would want to see Iannucci’s proposed Trump Truman Show movie, after all, if it premiered the day after Trump is impeached? (Okay, I probably still would.)

People will continue to create art inspired by Trump right now, though, because for many of them it will be almost easier to do so than not. You write what you know, and if what you know is experiencing life in a political Hell World, it almost can’t not come across.

Hopefully, though, the future of entertainment in Trumpland will be less about the world we live in than the world we aspire to. Obviously it’s a bad thing that nothing matters anymore, as we are constantly reminding ourselves, but if nothing matters, then it also means that there are no longer any limits.

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