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Does Satire Influence Elections?

In today’s political climate, Congressman Anthony Wiener uploading obscene photos onto Twitter to Governor Chris Christie creating traffic jams by closing a main toll area and now, Donald Trump. Malcom Gladwell, an author who currently writes for the New Yorker, indicates in the Satire Paradox that satire should be taken seriously to create change, but then it wouldn’t be funny.

Gladwell talks about how ineffective satire was for SNL’s sketches throughout the 2008 presidential campaign and notes in the Satire Paradox, “Lord help us if some other, even less qualified and more frightening political figure comes along” (Gladwell).

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Now, Donald Trump is the forty-fifth President of the United States. In 2008, Sarah Palin’s lack of experience and communication skills provided SNL with a trove of political satire sketches.

The satire of Palin gave a glimpse of what was to come should Senator John McCain and his running mate, Sarah Palin succeeded in contrast. During the presidential campaign of 2016, another work of satire by Saturday Night Live (SNL), created a parody of Donald Trump featuring Alec Baldwin. Alec Baldwin’s parody of Donald Trump was accurate.

The characterization of Trump as thin skinned and extremely sensitive provided a glimpse of what was to come if he were to be elected as president of the United States. Satire proved effective to showcase the absurdity of Palin as vice president; however, as the political climate changes, satire loses its usefulness as seen in the 2016 presidential election.

Palins’ inexperience was apparent through Fey’s characterization on SNL which was an effective form of satire. Fey had an easy task mimicking Palin. Fey copied the clothes she wore, her hairstyle and wore identical frames for her eyewear. Throughout Fey’s mockery, she accurately portrayed Palin as unknowledgeable about America’s geography. Fey continued with Palin’s inability to be define the Bush Doctrine which is about the various foreign policy principles.

It is important that leaders are knowledgeable about the country they chose to lead. This made the audience question if Palin was equipped to take over as president should something befall McCain. Palin did not have any foreign policy experience and America questioned whether Palin understood exactly what a vice president does. In 2008 when SNL parodied Sarah Palin during the presidential campaign, it was entertaining, but it also forced Americans to think of who they chose to represent them.

Tina Fey’s “timely impersonations” showed how unqualified Palin was suited for vice president (Esralew). It was hard to forget Palin’s interviews back in 2008. Her lack of knowledge and ignorance is seared in our memories. Although Palin was Governor of Alaska, she was unable to articulate any other experience that qualified her as vice president of the United States, let alone President. Fey’s parody of Palins’ inexperience helps show the importance of public opinion on politics.

According to Gladwell, a month before the election, Tina describes and mimics “Sarah Palin’s crazy accent, ‘it’s a little bit of Fargo.’ She tried to base it on her friend Paula’s Grandma who would say, ‘Oh, this and that and stuff like that'” It lacks specificity because Fey uses terms like “this” and “stuff” to show Palin’s naiveté in how she comes across. The focus remained on Palin, even though Senator McCain was the presidential candidate. The impact of Fey’s parody of Palin drew more criticism of Palin and as a result, many voters abandoned the GOP and voted for Obama.

Sarah Palin’s communication skills were lacking, thus, highlighting her inability to prove that she was, indeed, qualified to become the next vice president of the United States. In her interviews, Palin appeared flummoxed in her responses. Palin had participated in two key interviews with ABC and CBS news outlets which allowed the public to see for themselves how uncomfortable and indecisive she appeared.

She frequently paused throughout the interview as though she was trying to come up with an acceptable response. On September 11, 2008, Sarah Palin was interviewed by Charles Gibson. Gibson asked Palin, “What insight into Russian actions, particularly in the last couple of weeks, does the proximity of the state give you?’ Palin responds, ‘They’re our next-door neighbors and you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska'” (Gibson).

It was apparent that she had not properly prepared for the interview and seemed overwhelmed with the grueling process of the campaign. She was hurting McCain’s chance at the presidency. SNL’s effective satire continued to put a negative light on Palin. Her interviews were cut back and appearances limited. After the Gibson interview, SNL quickly mocked her words and provided the one line that is still associated with Palin today, “I can see Russia from my House!” With the ongoing claims that Russia had interfered with the 2016 Presidential Election, Palin responded in a farcical manner and tweeted, “Russia’s getting out of hand? So, says the defeated.

Not to worry… remember I can keep an eye on them from here” (Mazza). Gladwell seems to think Tina Fey’s mimicry was a failure, but as we knew, “Sarah Palin was not elected as vice president and has not held any public office since 2009” (Blu). SNL’s continued satire of Palin provoked Americans to pay attention. SNL satire was so effective in 2008 that it is still relevant now.

The audience has to be receptive for satire to be effective; however, in 2016, during the Trump and Clinton presidential campaign, voters weren’t responding to the satire. Some conservatives do not watch SNL because the show has a liberal approach to politics. SNL used to be bi-partisan, now it is mostly liberal, thus, proving that satire was ineffective for Trump’s campaign. Throughout the course of the campaign, SNL had abundance of material to work with.

The numerous interviews, speeches and remarks made it unbelievably easy for SNL to satirize Trump. He was accurately depicted as the narcissist misogynist that he is. According to Baldwin, “with Trump, we pretty much just re-created what he does, we maybe just put a bit more chili pepper in there to spice it up” (McGurk). Baldwin keyed in on Trump’s weaknesses and locked in on his sensitivity.

Trump is sensitive about how much money he has and how smart he is. “He constantly mentions that he has gone to the best schools and that he attended Wharton Business School” (Balz). The SNL skits were hilarious. One sketch involved a campaign ad entitled, Racists for Donald Trump which was in two parts. The first part showed Middle America praising him and the second part showed the same people elaborating their message with white supremacist labels, clothing and writing. America was entertained, but his right-wing conservative support base dug in and continued to rally for Trump.

Trump won the presidency because he was the lesser of two evils. To his support base, Trump represents change, but there is a cost to that change. “People were fully aware of his lack of values, divisiveness, his bigotry and history of abusing people,” but America did not care and it has been at a great cost (Balz). America is ridiculed and no longer the leader of the free world. In 2015, hundreds had protested Donald Trump’s appearance on SNL. It was learned that Trump “vetoed some of the sketches. He did this in order not to anger his support base in Iowa” who most likely were conservatives (D’Addario).

In response to SNL’s continued mockery of Trump, he engaged his conservative support base through Twitter, informing them of SNL’s bias. Unfortunately, SNL allowed Trump to manipulate the scripted opening, as a result, “the episode was considered among the most sedative in the history of SNL” (D’Addario). SNL took control and parodied Trump the remainder of the campaign on their own terms to no avail. Satire was ineffective due to the fact that Trump vetoed some of the opening remarks.

As for Trump being thin skinned, he was extremely sensitive about SNL’s portrayal of him, so he took the low road and of course, continued to tweet his dislike throughout the campaign. Trump’s tweets were key in increasing his support base and this contributed to the failure of satire. As SNL continues to soothe America with Alec Baldwin’s parody of Trump, Baldwin continues to be “liberal America’s ‘consoler-in-chief'” (McGurk).

Ultimately, the political climate has changed and so, satire has to find a more effective way to engage viewers of all comedic media outlets. Satire can be both effective and ineffective, it depends on the climate. Gladwell believes that satire needs to hit hard and make an impact, he wants it to cause social change, but then it would lose humor. “Satire Paradox tells us that comedians are truth tellers, they zero in on issues we should not ignore” (Gladwell). In the end, “Satire allows you to say almost anything. That’s where the truth is spoken to power in our society. When you sugar-coat a bitter truth with humor, it makes the medicine go down” (Gladwell).

Works Cited

  • ump won: The insiders tell their story,” The Washington Post, November 9, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/politics/2016-election/how-donald-trump-won-the-inside-story/
  • Blu, Addison, “Malcolm Gladwell Doesn’t Understand Satire,” Medium.com, January 17, 2017, https://medium.com/@AddisonBlu/malcolm-gladwell-doesnt-understand-satire-26545a13e509
  • D’Addario, Daniel, “Donald Trump played it safe on Saturday Night Live,” Time, November 8, 2015, http://time.com/4103978/donald-trump-saturday-night-live-review/
  • Esralew, Sarah, “The Influence of Parodies on Mental Models: Exploring the Tina Fey-Sarah Palin Phenomenon,” Communication Quarterly 60, no. 3 (2012), 338–352, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01463373.2012.688791?src=recsys& journalCode=rcqu20
  • Gibson, Charles, “Charlie Gibson Interviews GOP Vice Presidential Candidate Sarah Palin,” ABC News, November 23, 2009, https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/Vote2008/full-transcript-gibson-interviews-sarah-palin/story?id=9159105
  • Gladwell, Malcom, “The Satire Paradox,” The Revisionist History, August 18, 2016, http://revisionisthistory.com/episodes/10-the-satire-paradox
  • Mazza, Ed, “Sarah Palin Can Still See Russia, Promises To Keep An Eye On Them,” Huffington Post, December 12, 2016, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/sarah-palin-russia-joke_us_584e3fe1e4b0e05aded4724f
  • McGurk, Stuart, “Alec Baldwin: ‘What you see with Trump is how Hitler got elected,'” GQ Magazine, October 1, 2018, https://www.gq-magazine.co.uk/article/alec-baldwin-snl-trump-interview