Republicans Aren’t Funny

By | 2019-06-13T19:33:07-07:00 June 12th, 2019|
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Editor’s note: This article was first published at The American Spectator and appears in American Greatness by permission.

Conservative intellectuals in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere are gathering to discuss where conservatism stands in the Age of Trump and where it will be after he leaves office. As those deliberations evolve and spill into Republican Party affairs, the leaders better keep one thing in mind: conservatism, now and then, has to be fun, and sometimes funny, too.

William F. Buckley, Jr., made it fun 54 years ago in a free-wheeling run for the mayoralty of New York, his wit dispelling the despair conservatives felt after Barry Goldwater was thrashed by Lyndon Johnson  in 1964. (Buckley titled his platform statement, “Mayor, Anyone?”). Ronald Reagan certainly made people laugh, often at his opponents’ expense: “Republicans celebrate the Fourth of July; Democrats celebrate April 15th.” Laughter helped Arnold Schwarzenegger win California (“Don’t be economic girly-men!”) and, of course, Donald Trump the White House, including jokes about himself (“I never had alcohol, for whatever reason. Can you imagine if I had? What a mess I would be. I would be the worst.”).

It’s a sound liberals hate to hear. They know how important comedy is to public opinion, and they remember that many people preferred George W. Bush to the wooden Al Gore because he’s the one they’d have liked to join for a beer. Besides, they believe, comedy rightly belongs to the Left, from Lenny Bruce and “Laugh-In” to “The Daily Show” and Tina Fey doing Sarah Palin. If conservatives cultivate their own comedians and audiences enjoy them, 2020 and beyond looks less dim than it did last November after the midterms. Democrats have to stop them: there is no such a thing as conservative humor!

“How many feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb?”

“That’s not funny!”

Now the liberal must say, that’s not only not funny, it’s offensive.

So is the bake sale that conservative students mounted at the University of Washington, which charged Asians $1.50, whites $1, African Americans and Hispanics $0.50, and Native Americans nothing for each item. The stunt was a brazen parody prompted by a bill in the state legislature that reinstated affirmative action (voters had outlawed preferential treatment in 1998). University president Ana Mari Cauce, who has exquisitely correct progressive views, wasn’t amused by the kids. She upheld the right to free speech, but issued a sententious letter decrying the “crudity, offensiveness and sheer outrageousness of the message.”

And when Milo Yiannapoulos donned a blond wig and glasses, sat before a camera, called himself “Dr. Christine Blazing Faggot,” and announced, “You might know me from . . . lying to the Senate,” liberal observers assumed that anyone with a scrap of sympathy for survivors of sexual assault would consider it downright repugnant. That kind of malice, they insist, deserves to be scrubbed from social media, as happened to Milo last month. Reporting on the affair, The  Atlantic classified him as a “far-right extremist” who was banned by Facebook because he violated “policies against dangerous individuals and organizations.” They didn’t grant him an ounce of merriment.

President Trump isn’t funny, either, say the 53 percent of Americans who disapprove of his job performance. At the signing of the executive order threatening colleges with the loss of research funds if they fail to safeguard free speech, he regretted the catastrophe of student debt, but paused and told us not to get the wrong idea. “I’ve always been very good with loans,” he declared with a naughty smile. “I love loans. I looooove other people’s money.” All of us in the audience laughed, yes, but, really, it wasn’t funny, not to the reporters in the back, not at all.

President Obama, on the other hand, told a lot of jokes and he appreciated good comedy. As Politico reported in 2015, the Obama Administration went to “unusual” lengths “to cultivate” comedian Jon Stewart, then host of the popular “Daily Show” on Comedy Central. Obama did an hour with comedian Marc Maron on his popular podcast. And when it came time to defend Obamacare, he sat down for a conversation with comedian Zach Galifianakis that was, to be sure, appealingly droll. The YouTube video has collected nearly 26 million views. The Washington Post actually labeled Obama “the first alt-comedy president.”

Liberals and Democrats can enjoy that loose way of parleying; conservatives and Republicans can’t. We have an imbalance of laughter, which the left has created as part of its longstanding culture war tactics. What the Right thinks is comical the Left calls offensive, while the Left makes fun of its adversaries at will. Joe Biden was free to warn voters in a wry, folksy way during the 2012 campaign about Republicans reviving slavery, telling a half-black audience in Virginia, “They’re going to put y’all back in chains.” Hillary Clinton was sure that her “basket of deplorables” remark would count as a witticism, which did indeed get a laugh from the original audience.

So did Stephen Colbert when he characterized Donald Trump’s mouth as Vladimir Putin’s “cock-holster”; and Michelle Wolf, too, who in her speech at the 2018 White House Correspondents Dinner wondered what to call Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who was sitting nearby: “Like, what’s Uncle Tom but for white women who disappoint other white women?”; and Samantha Bee as well, who called Ivanka Trump a “feckless c—,” eliciting squeals of delight from the crowd.

None of those comics lost their platforms. Conservatives protested, a few liberals took some temporary distance from the speaker, the clip circulated widely, and it all passed over. Colbert continues his sarcasm every weeknight, and Bee still has 514,000 followers on Twitter. Milo has none—Twitter removed him three years ago. She’s “funny,” he’s not.

Nor is Paul Joseph Watson, another proclaimed hatemonger banned from Facebook and Instagram. His videos taunt and flout the sacred cows of “wokeness” and he has 1.6 million YouTube subscribers, but he gets no credit for wit. He created the “Creepy Uncle Joe” video in November 2017, which showed the former-vice president getting too touchy-feely with girls, inserting “COMPLETELY NORMAL” at telling moments and used camera slowdowns and close-ups to sensationalize Biden’s clinginess. The video has logged 2.4 million views and just as many guffaws, but the media judge such creations despicable, not a mode of Juvenalian satire as a Salon article did in justifying Jon Stewart’s anti-Republican obscenities.

Do Republican politicians and conservative commentators still not get it? Are they still unaware that this is all a set-up, conservatives-as-stunted and liberals-as-hip? As with all things cultural, the Left is way ahead of the Right on this matter. The censors who ousted Milo and Watson certainly understand. The more they paint those coarse performers as unfunny and odious, the less their performances will damage the progressive brand. So will the words of those conservatives who aren’t offensive and belligerent but are, liberals say, un-funny in a different way: uptight, repressed, literal-minded, and straight-laced. In either case, liberals reserve the joys of comedy for themselves. And the arrows of comedy, too.

For example: Fifty years ago, when anti-war protesters marched on the Pentagon, one group led by Allen Ginsberg and Abbie Hoffman, both of them experienced political performance artists, set about holding hands and chanting pagan prayers while The Fugs played in an effort to levitate the building—yes, to raise it three feet in the air (they actually secured a permit to do so). It was a ceremonial theater of the absurd whose stagy pointlessness had a satirical purpose: to treat the Pentagon itself as a site of absurdity. People normally assumed that inside the building were shrewd men devising plans of high geopolitical seriousness, but with these goofy protesters outside the image of noble patriotism dimmed. That was the point—to discredit the military, and there were no comics in 1967 to fight back. John Wayne’s patriotic 1968 film “The Green Berets” didn’t have a lot of irony.

Cheap or not, satire is a weapon, and it’s one that Democrats monopolize. They want to pigeon-hole Republicans as Puritanical Pat Robertson or Evil Dick Cheney, repressively humorless or villainously humorless. They have exercised that caricature secure in the expectation that Republicans won’t turn it upon them. When Whoopi Goldberg spoke at a fundraiser in 2004 for John Kerry and John Edwards (both of them were in the audience), she said this about the sitting president: “We should keep Bush where he belongs”—here she paused and pointed at her genitals—“not in the White House.” Even though the Kerry campaign had asked to see her remarks in advance, Goldberg refused. She described her response to that request and explained her reasoning: “I Xeroxed my behind and I folded it up in an envelope and I sent it back with a big kiss mark on it because we’re Democrats—we’re not afraid to laugh.” She was right. It didn’t hurt her career at all.

Establishment Republicans have learned to play along with their assigned role as prigs. They are most definitely afraid to laugh. They seem to be in a competition of earnestness. Did John Kasich tell a joke in 2016 and make it work? Did Jeb Bush ever evoke a belly laugh? How much of Jeff Flake’s sincerity did we have to take? One might assume their oh-so-concerned aura stems from an inner conviction, or from their readiness to assume the grave duties of leadership. In truth, they are under the sway of a liberal censure that strikes whenever they veer into a politically-incorrect mode.

They play this brand of sobriety because they fear the stigma liberals have attached to them: “Republicans don’t care about poor people, sick people, minorities, women, immigrants . . .” They must show that they care, that they feel their pain, which means that they must eliminate all sardonic edges from their words and visages. This is, of course, to strip them of a crucial firearm in the field of political battle. Saul Alinsky, a brilliant tactician, would approve.

Americans who lean right have been begging for their representatives to deride politically correct norms for a long time. People want to laugh; it brings relief as the straitjacket of liberal decorum is loosened. But establishment Republicans won’t do it. Left-wing scolds from Hollywood to the Washington Post to Silicon Valley have them cowed. Remember the attack ad from 2012 showing a Paul Ryan look-alike wheeling grandma off the cliff? It was so bizarrely melodramatic that it really was kind of funny. Ryan’s standard rejoinder to such lampoons, though, was the wholly unfunny Boy Scout persona, a hapless claim of innocence that was no defense against liberal raillery.

Recall, too, the story of Mitt Romney many years before sticking his dog on the roof of the family car for a 12-hour ride home, which evoked hundreds of jokes during the campaign, including one by President Obama himself at the 2012 White House Correspondents’ Dinner.  Romney’s answer when asked by Diane Sawyer if he would do it again wasn’t, “Heck, yes! That dog was never happier than when he had the wind in his face! I could never take him out in the car without him sticking his head out the window and begging me to drive faster, faster!” No, he said, instead, “Certainly not with the attention it’s received.”

This is the actual context for the indignation provoked by the new comics of the right: Milo, Steven Crowder, Paul Joseph Watson, Mark Dice,  . . . and Donald Trump himself. From the very beginning of the campaign, Trump realized that Romney and Ryan’s brand of solemnity doesn’t overcome liberal mockery, especially when that solemnity issues from the mouths of D.C. politicians who have absolutely no claim to victim status. Romney-Ryan lost, Trump won, but establishment Republicans haven’t learned the lesson. They didn’t register how much fun people had at Trump’s rallies, or how much his jibes (“fake news,” “Pocahontas”) countered the jibes they’d endured for so long (“Teabaggers,” “wingnuts,” . . .). Trump’s success in spite of all the times the media declared him done—for instance, after Trump in South Carolina called the Iraq invasion a disaster—proved that a significant voting bloc was waiting to be inspired by a leader who could make them laugh. Ordinary citizens felt the bliss of candor when Trump groaned in 2015, “I am so tired of this politically-correct crap!”

But establishment Republicans still wince at his sallies. They still want to display how respectable and civil they are. Romney said in 2012 that the Obama campaign aimed “to minimize me as an individual, to make me a bad person, an unacceptable person.” And yet Senator Romney just voted against a judicial nominee because the nominee “made particularly disparaging comments about President Obama” while the man was running for office in 2011.

We are in an arms race of political banter. Without the weapons of parody, jest, and artful invective, conservatives can’t win—and liberals know it. That’s why they cast conservative humor as offensive, for instance, Diamond and Silk as “unsafe to the community” (Mark Zuckerberg later called that judgment an error). And that’s why President Trump came to the defense of right-wing figures banned from Facebook.  He knows the value of raillery, and he recognizes the duplicitous game the Left has been playing and winning: propriety-for-thee and edginess-for-me.

Republican leaders should treat these sometimes racy but highly popular political satirists in the same way President Obama treated Jon Stewart. The impact of “Saturday Night Live” and “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” on the polls should not be underestimated (Colbert brings in 4 million viewers a night).

Republicans rightly abhor the bad language of Milo, et. al., but wrongly shun them for that reason. Those bawdy wits are, in fact, the best force against the heated social justice warriors flocking to Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). If Hillary Clinton can share a stage one week before the election with Jay-Z, whose lyrics include:

You wanna know what’s more important than throwin’ away money at a       

strip club? Credit

You ever wonder why Jewish people own all the property in America?

This how they did it . . .

and the NBC News report on the event notes only that Clinton was able to bring out “star power” for her final push, then Republicans should be able to sit down with conservative YouTube stars and ask why so many young Americans love them. If they don’t, they surrender the entire territory of edginess so much prized by the young to the Left. The results speak for themselves. Last November, the youth vote went 2-to-1 for Democrats.

Besides, liberals decry President Trump’s un-presidential vulgarity not because of their high-minded image of the presidency. They do it because he has stolen some of their weaponry. Democrats have hemmed in Republicans with politically correct etiquette while maintaining a squad of comic culture warriors eager to jeer and demean conservatives the moment they wield comedy as political critique. Trump won’t cooperate. He has taken the antic advantage away from the Left, the first national Republican figure to do so in a long time, and liberals hate him for that. Oh, they make jokes about him, but the jokes they come up with aren’t very clever and they’re so predictable that they aren’t funny, either. They really aren’t.

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About the Author:

Mark Bauerlein
Mark Bauerlein is a senior editor at First Things and professor of English at Emory University, where he has taught since earning his Ph.D. in English at UCLA in 1989. For two years (2003-2005) he served as director of the Office of Research and Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts. His books include Literary Criticism: An Autopsy, The Pragmatic Mind: Explorations in the Psychology of Belief, and The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future. His essays have appeared in PMLA, Partisan Review, Wilson Quarterly, Commentary, and New Criterion, and his commentaries and reviews in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Boston Globe, The Guardian, Chronicle of Higher Education, and other national periodicals.