I’m sure that by now you’ve seen the cold open to this past weekend’s Saturday Night Live, but just in case you haven’t: midway through a mock joint interview with Cecily Strong-as-Erin Burnett, Alec Baldwin breaks from his Trump character as he’s hurling a vicious stream of invective, to say he just can’t do this any more. It’s too ugly. And Kate McKinnon-as-Hillary Clinton agrees, and they “abandon” the sketch before going off to frolic with citizens of all political and ethnic stripes in Times Square, and then coming back to the studio to implore us all to vote, and choose the sort of country we want to live in. It’s the most nakedly emotional I’ve seen Saturday Night Live since their first show back after the September 11th attacks – which tells you a lot about this election cycle.
Now, obviously this was all staged (the fact that the pre-taped Times Square bit was scored to Arcade Fire should be something of a clue). But look at Baldwin and McKinnon’s faces – the exhaustion, the disgust, the fear, is real. The desire to abandon this vicious rhetoric is entirely genuine, not a function of the performance at all. These are two of America’s most prominent political satirists, artists at the top of their form – and this election has broken them.
I think that’s how every creative person feels at this point, as they’re trying to deal with all of it. It’s certainly true for me, even in the limited context of this blog you’re reading. I’ve been trying for a week now to come up with a hook for this post, mulling over a whole slew of arguments and conceits, and I can’t. There’s nothing more to be said, nothing that shouldn’t be obvious to even the most casual observer of this democracy. And I don’t have much stomach left to keep engaging with the ugliness coming out of this campaign. And let’s not engage in false equivalencies here – when the orange-stained candidate of one of the major parties engages in racist and sexist rhetoric as easily as breathing, and gleefully whips his crowds into calling for the incarceration and execution of their supposed enemies, it should be clear where the ugliness is coming from, regardless of how you feel about anybody else.
It’s customary to lament, at times like these (though have there ever been times like these?) that satire has been rendered irrelevant. That the narrative of events is so crazy that no work of fiction could top it. While this is true, there’s another, more dangerous way in which art and satire has been rendered irrelevant this time around, primarily by He-Whom-I-Refuse-To-Name. The goal in satire is to construct some sort of fictional argument to get at a deeper truth, to expose the darkest aspect of the subject to ridicule. The hope is that by exposing this truth, we can force some kind of crucial moral realization, like Hamlet using the players to confront his murderous uncle Claudius with his crimes by means of their play, The Mousetrap. But what happens when Claudius is proud of murdering Hamlet’s father? What happens when everybody already knows, and nobody seems to care? What happens when people actively enjoy having the most repellent aspects of their country’s id displayed in such a grotesque fashion? What happens when a third of the population, and possibly (we’ll find out tomorrow) the majority of the electorate, is running around wearing red caps reading “Make Denmark Great Again?”
As I said, I’ve spent a week trying to figure out what to write here today, and wondering if there’s even a point. And I’ve written one election-themed short play this year, and am mulling over another, and am overwhelmed by the futility of it all – of trying to craft a conventional dramatic argument in a time when we seem to no longer have the luxury of artistry. It’s enough to make any artist throw up their hands and run about Times Square – though I live in the Bronx, so I’d have to settle for White Plains Road. But we can’t – a significant portion of my friends genuinely fear for their lives should the country give in to this year-long flirtation with proto-fascism, and they are genuinely right to do so.
So forget the artistry, forget any subtlety. We’ll just go with a direct eleventh-hour plea instead. If you’re reading this, please do everything you can tomorrow to make sure we still have a republic the day after. Don’t let our hard-won civil rights be cast aside, don’t let our basic norms of civil decency be trashed, don’t let the Shining City on the Hill wall itself off from the rest of the world. I don’t ask you to vote for one candidate in particular in order to stop this (though, seriously, c’mon), and I’m not telling you what to do, but whatever it is comfortable for you to do, do it and do it quickly.
With luck, I’ll have more pleasant things to talk about next week.
With any luck.