Astonishing but true: in the fall of 2016, the United States was struck by an outbreak of clown sightings. The first sighting was reported in Wisconsin that August, and over the following months sightings were reported in every state in the nation, along with D.C. and Puerto Rico. Some of the clowns were engaged in seemingly innocuous behavior—walking around or waving—while others stared creepily at passersby. Some attempted to lure people into nearby woods or unmarked vans. Others roamed around neighborhoods banging on windows and knocking on doors. Schools went on lockdown as clowns threatened to kidnap students and commit mass shootings. In a suburb of Los Angeles, a clown armed with a knife approached a man on a porch before being frightened off by a gunshot. In Florida, a pair of clowns with an axe and a bat chased after pedestrians. In New Jersey, a child was chased down an alley by a clown with a sword. On a trail in Colorado, a clown hit a man over the head with a bottle of whiskey. At the time, I was living in a city in Michigan. I was very much keeping informed about the situation. Hiking to the library once a week with a backpack full of books, I would occasionally glance behind me, keeping a lookout for people in whiteface and red wigs. In Michigan alone, a clown had terrorized a group of schoolchildren at a bus stop, a clown had been seen stalking a college campus, a clown had been seen lurking behind an ice cream shop, a clown had been seen lurking in an empty car wash, a clown had been spotted hiding behind a tree, a clown had been spotted walking alone at night down a rural highway, clowns had been spotted prowling near a supermarket with a hammer, a clown with a knife had attacked a child in a yard before disappearing, and clowns had chased a pair of teenagers down a street late at night in a flat-out sprint.
That November the United States held a presidential election. And abruptly, that November, the clown sightings ended. As if the clowns had only ever come for a single purpose: to herald the rise of a clown president.
Satire is the use of exaggeration, irony, absurdity, or humor to expose “human vices and follies.”
Consider, if you will, the lineup of characters appointed to cabinet positions by the current administration. For secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, a billionaire whose wealth has pitifully dubious origins (there’s a reason that there’s a bar called The Pyramid Scheme in Amway’s hometown) who had a history of animosity toward public schools, who would go on to refer to historically black colleges as “real pioneers when it comes to school choice,” and whose lengthy resume as a fake Christian now includes her repeated efforts to cut federal funding for the Special Olympics. For secretary of housing and urban development, Ben Carson, a retired surgeon with literally no experience in housing and urban development, who promptly embarked on a lavish redecoration of his new office just as funding cuts were being proposed to programs for the poor and the homeless, and who even after two years on the job was still so ignorant on the subject of housing and urban development that when a congressperson asked him about the term “REO” he assumed that the congressperson must be referring to an Oreo cookie. Rick Perry, a notorious meathead who as a presidential candidate had once pledged that if elected president he would eliminate the department of energy, would now serve as secretary of energy. For administrator of the environmental protection agency, Scott Pruitt, a puppet owned by the fossil fuel industry, and later Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist and officer of the Washington Coal Club, the very villains from whom the environmental protection agency had been created to protect the environment. David Bernhardt, Steve Mnuchin, Wilbur Ross. This isn’t a bad administration. This isn’t even a terrible administration. The clown in the White House has created a bona fide kakistocracy, handpicking the worst possible person for each position, as if to make a mockery of the very notion of government.
I’ve been wondering something lately. Satire, as a genre of literature, has had periods of decline and periods of flourishing. But what is the state of satire when the State is satire?
Use of the term “clown” is not meant to imply that Donald Trump is a harmless entertainer. Like the clowns that appeared in the fall of 2016, sometimes he engages in behavior that is seemingly innocuous; sometimes his behavior is creepy; sometimes his behavior is frightening; and sometimes his behavior is violent. He regularly misspells words, has forgotten the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” has forgotten the words to “God Bless America,” has forgotten how to close an umbrella, has claimed that Americans need an ID to buy groceries, has claimed that wind turbines cause cancer, has claimed that the Continental Army “took over the airports” during the Revolutionary War, has referred to 9/11 as “7-Eleven,” has falsified a hurricane map with a marker, has repeatedly lied about the size of the crowd at his inauguration, has repeatedly lied about the size of his hands, has repeatedly lied about the size of his penis, has been laughed at by the United Nations General Assembly, has praised foreign dictators, once tweeted a quote attributed to himself that was actually a quote by Benito Mussolini, has referred to predominately black nations as “shithole countries,” has referred to white supremacists as “very fine people,” has publicly mocked a disabled journalist, has bragged about committing sexual assault, has locked innocent children in cages, has threatened political opponents with violence, and has encouraged government shutdowns. He is a laughingstock; he is a fool; he is a fraud; he is a narcissist; he is a crybaby; he is a loser; he is a xenophobe; he is an Islamophobe; he is a racist; he is a misogynist; he is an ableist; he is a bully; he is a liar. None of that is secret.
I remember the classroom in Michigan—worn carpet, windows that fogged in cold weather —where, as a teenager, I studied literature. I remember the teacher—a brown mustache, a wool sweater over a shirt and tie—who taught us about satire. We had just finished reading 1984.
I was led to believe that satire is the greatest weapon we have against an oppressive regime.
Today, however, we are faced with a special breed of tyrant: a clown president who embodies the absolute worst follies and vices of humanity to preposterously exaggerated degrees.
Can satire be satirized?
Or is a satirical government inherently invulnerable to satirization?
The winter after the clown was elected, I spent an evening huddled under a blanket, scrolling through different social media websites, specifically looking for video clips about recent news events. I found that nearly every video clip that had been shared originated not from a true news program, but rather from a program that offered news satire. Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Seth Meyers, Jimmy Fallon. SNL’s Weekend Update.
From indoors, it is difficult to tell the difference between falling snow and nuclear fallout.
Are satirical television programs the greatest weapon we have against a clown president?
Or are satirical television programs what made his presidency possible?
Donald Trump, after hosting fourteen seasons of The Apprentice, is currently president of the United States. Omarosa Manigault Newman, who also played a role on The Apprentice, was later hired as a director of communications for the White House, and after being fired took a gig on Celebrity Big Brother. After briefly serving as director of communications for the White House, Anthony Scaramucci also played a role on a season of Celebrity Big Brother. Sean Spicer, former press secretary for the White House, now sashays for a living on Dancing with the Stars. Former governor Rick Perry performed on a season of Dancing with the Stars, too, before being appointed secretary of energy. After serving for eight years as a governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger accepted a role as the host of The Apprentice, replacing Donald Trump.
I used to worry about the revolving door between government and K Street. Now I worry about the revolving door between government and reality TV.
The name is perhaps misleading: “reality TV,” rather than being a form of realism, has always been a satirization of it.
I’ve spent the past ten years working on a collection of satirical science fiction stories called Why Visit America. I was drawn to the project out of a love of dystopian satires: The Handmaid’s Tale, Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange, BioShock. “A Modest Proposal.”
I wonder now, though, how to categorize the stories in the book. When reality has become satirical, does “realist” literature become the true satire, while “satire” becomes the truly realist literature?
Today, what could be funnier—what could possibly seem more intentionally ironic and absurd—than a story like Jhumpa Lahiri’s “A Temporary Matter”? Reading the story for the first time during the Obama administration, I found the story to be heartbreaking. Yet reading the story now, I laugh aloud at the seemingly exaggerated quality of the humdrum plot. Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” now seems ludicrously sincere. Ernest Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River,” comically mundane.
I’m drawn to these stories lately, reading late into the night by the light of a lamp, as if the pages contain the secret to defeating the clown.
A stab at some realism:
His father never loved him. His mother never loved him. His chauffeur didn’t like him. His chef didn’t like him. His siblings avoided him. His neighbors ignored him. He never had even a single real friend. He grew up surrounded by empty space—the house he was raised in had twenty-three rooms. As soon as he was old enough to understand anything, he understood anything he would accomplish in life he would accomplish because his parents were wealthy. He was incompetent. A disappointment. Never an honor roll student, too much of a coward ever to enlist as a soldier. He hated himself. He was so desperate to be loved and to be liked that he would have sacrificed his own soul just to be noticed. And so he did. Secretly, he created a character—somebody who was entertaining, somebody who got attention—and gradually, like a parasite, the character that he was playing consumed the real Donald Trump. A persona replaced the person.
I can’t be the only person to have wondered about Donald Trump’s Twitter handle—did he add the “real” before his name out of insecurity about how fake he is?
A fake tan. Fake hair. A fake personality. A fake reputation. A fake parent. A fake friend. Yet another fake Christian.
“‘But he has nothing on at all!’ said a little child at last.”
In the story of the emperor’s new clothes, the people of a kingdom pretend not to notice that the emperor is naked. But this is not that story. This is the story of the president’s empty suit. The story of a nation who elected an empty suit as a president—no person inside, only a persona—and suffered for many years under the rages and the whims of the empty suit, which secretly hated the people for being real. Satire incarnate.
Winesburg, Ohio, Sherwood Anderson’s seminal work of American realism, was dedicated to the author’s mother, “whose keen observations on the life about her first awoke in me the hunger to see beneath the surface of lives.”
I look around me, and beneath the surface of every life in this country, I find traumas inflicted by a satirical government.
“I don’t really care, do u?”
A serious question: if the “real” Donald Trump were to tweet a modest proposal suggesting that the children of the poor be sold as food to the rich—for, of course, the economic benefits—would any person on this planet think that he was joking?
The earth is flat. Climate change isn’t real. Vaccines are dangerous. Crystals can heal. Elvis Presley is still alive. Justin Bieber is a shapeshifting lizard. The government of a reality-TV president got hacked by a whistleblower named Reality Winner.
Read Matthew Baker’s story “Why Visit America” in our Fall 2019 issue.
Matthew Baker is author of the story collection Hybrid Creatures and the children’s novel Key Of X, originally published as If You Find This. His stories have appeared in publications such as The Paris Review, American Short Fiction, One Story, Electric Literature, and Conjunctions, and in anthologies including Best of the Net and Best Small Fictions.