Writing Satire in the Age of Trump

Back in 2010, I published The Perils of Praline, or the Amorous Adventures of a Southern Gentleman in Hollywood, which was basically the silliest, sexiest book I could think up. It also included a hefty dose of satire, both political and cultural. Over the years fans have asked if I was going to write a sequel. For a long time, I answered maybe. I had originally planned to write two more of the books, the second set in Las Vegas for which I had notes, and the third to be set in Washington. Other projects kept taking precedence and eventually I began answering the question of a sequel with no. Then last summer, I was asked the question again and I said, “No” but then reflected and added, “Unless, of course, Trump wins. Then I may have to.” Of course, I thought this was incredibly unlikely and forgot all about it.

Then, the election happened. Like a lot of the country I was truly shocked and in the subsequent weeks depressed. In fact, I had trouble writing anything since I was so focused on the disaster that had just happened. Until, I remembered that conversation and thought, “Why not? Why not write another Praline book?” and so I began working on Praline Goes to Washington, or the Erotic Misdeeds of a Newly Native Californian in our Nation’s Capitol.

Satire is the art of making comedy by heightening reality to the level of absurdity, in the process exposing the hypocrisy and imagined intentions of individuals or types of individuals. That’s my definition. Miriam Webster’s definition is simpler and, at the same time, less clear: “a literary work holding up human vices and follies to ridicule or scorn.” What I found interesting about writing a satire contemporaneously to the events I was satirizing is that, in this case, Trump and his new administration would either match or exceed the over-the-top heightened reality I was creating. A couple of times, after I’d written something I thought completely absurd it would appear on the news.

In the new book, instead of getting into the whole Russia thing I brought back the tiny (and fictional) principality of Malvania. Helmut Dump’s wife, Melanoma, is Malvanian and so Malvania spreads a lot of fake news to help his campaign. When I wrote that, I knew that Russia has likely involved in the hacking of the DNC and the subsequent distribution to Wikileaks. That they were also involved in spreading fake news stories did not come to light (or at least to my attention) until well after I had had Malvania do exactly that.

Another weird and incredibly disturbing coincidence is that in my book, Helmut Dump is quoted as saying, “Don’t listen to what I say, listen to what I mean.” Later, Dump’s assistant Keely Angst in an interview says, “You shouldn’t listen to what Mr. Dump says. You should listen to what I say he says. And I’m telling you the president-elect did not say any of the things you heard him say.” Both of these moments are eerily similar to something Kellyanne Conway said when she accused the media, “You always want to go by what’s come out of his mouth rather than look at what’s in his heart.”

Some of my friends have worried that I might face legal action over the book. Satire is protected speech under the first amendment. No president in our history has gone un-satirized. It comes with the territory. There is a libel case that the Trumps are pursuing, but it’s in England where the libel laws are looser (and more to Trump’s liking) and the case is about the reporting of events that may or may not have happened as true. Satire is not journalism. None of what I’ve written is true or presented as true. I don’t have any information that we’re not all reading in the news every day.

And speaking of the news, oh-my-God. Every day it becomes more and more bizarre. I have to say it’s a challenge to write satire when those you’re satirizing keep becoming increasingly over-the-top themselves. Suddenly, the most absurd things I could think of are part of the news cycle. And every day it becomes more and more apparent that the people leading our country are more dangerous than any caricature I, or anyone else, could write. I wish that none of this was true. I wish they we still lived in a time when Chevy Chase’s big joke about Gerald Ford was that he was clumsy, or when we joked about Jimmy Carter’s Southern accent and what he might be lusting about in his heart. Gradually, we’ve moved into a time when we have to joke about politicians who are mean, corrupt, ill-prepared, traitorous and dangerously erratic. That can be a hard thing to make jokes about. But I think we have to. No matter how bad things get, laughter will lighten our load.

And finally, I know that some people might say that satire doesn’t serve a purpose, that it’s nothing more than preaching to the choir. It’s true that I don’t expect a lot of people who voted for Donald Trump to pick up my book and miraculously change their minds. But the thing is, I think the choir does need to be preached to, at least occasionally, if only to remember why they’re singing.

Originally published at Lambda Literary

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5 responses to “Writing Satire in the Age of Trump

  1. Dear Marshall, I wholeheartedly enjoyed The Perils of Praline, and I think satire is important, but why only now – when all the world is already Trump-bashing and even in European newspapers it has become socially acceptable to criticize and ridicule the US president, and even to publicly think about his assassination!!
    I’m from Austria, and I look at all this from a certain distance and my thoughts are: Where were the protesters, the Women’s marches, the criticism, the outcry when Bush took away your (the US citizen’s) civil rights and Obama ordered the drone murders? When Obama waged war the whole time he was in office? When Obama went after whistleblowersl (as I heard more than any other president before him)? When Obama spent more money on nuclear weapons than all the other presidents before him together? When Obama didn’t hold his promise to close Guantanamo?
    My question to you: Did you ever think then to write a Praline satire featuring the US president? And when not, why?
    PS Did you watch Trump’s last press conference, the whole thing until the end? I did, and the most important thing I took from it, was that he doesn’t want war, with Russia or other countries. And that’s a good thing in a US president who would have the power to start WWIII. I wonder why the press never speaks about that? Maybe because the companies who own the press also profit from war? 🙂

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    • Wow, thanks for the comment. There’s a lot there. There are things that Obama did that I, and other Democrats, did not agree with…until Trump our foreign policy has been almost the same under both parties so it gets a lot less focus in the US. Given the choices we had, I think Obama in the foreign arena was better than Bush and better than we would have had under a Republican. But it was the difference between getting kicked in the shins and punched in the stomach. Neither is fun. Trump though is a whole new ball of wax since populism is anti-globalization, isolationist and bizarrely nationalistic. I didn’t watch Trump’s press conference, I can’t watch the man. I do read about everything he does, though. What we know for certain is that most of what he says are lies. Be careful about believing that he doesn’t want war… it’s either a lie or it means he’ll allow Putin to have anything he wants. As long as they’re making the right deals with Exxon, I can see the Trump administration letting Russia have all of Europe.

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      • Thank you for your answer! Please do also not believe the things your press is publishing. I think, the problem is, that no-one really watches his press conferences and speeches (apart from his supporters). So, even if you can’t stand him (I agree he doesn’t look as smart as Obama and doesn’t dance as well, but is this really important?) just LISTEN, even if it is once. I watched his press conference and then read and heard what was published about it in US and European press. And I thought: Did they hear the same press conference I heard? Because they twisted his statements and quoted out of context. And the good news they dismissed altogether. So, if Trump states that the press lies (and it does, not only in US, but also in Europe. It is so obvious if you know the facts and compare it with the news), I have to agree with him.

        I really loved Nick’s thoughts about politics in the eighties in your Boystown books, and I assume they are yours, too. So do you really think that the Clinton clan makes better presidents (after browsing Hillary’s leaked – not hacked! – emails)? Hillary would be a nice topic for satire. 😉

        I appreciate you as a brilliant writer, and the Boystown books are my alltime favorites, so I hope you won’t hold my comments against me.
        Best regards, Gabriele

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      • I’m certainly skeptical of our press and cross reference all the time to ascertain what the actual facts are. They are primarily motivated by profit, so the most important thing for them to do is keep the public interested. They did a dreadful job during the 2016 campaign, the best situation for them was a tight, exciting race and they did everything they could to get that–including treating Trump with far too much respect. I think they expected HRC to win in the end, so it wouldn’t matter but… well, wait, she did win. She just wasn’t selected. I do think their reporting has improved since the election and they’re now holding Trump more accountable for the things he’s doing – which are generally despicable. Donald Trump is like a used car salesmen. The spiel is often very good, but it has nothing to do with the contract you’re going to sign or the car you’re going to get. I’ve paid a lot of attention to the Clintons and read a lot about them. The whole ridiculous email server “scandal” is a result of Judicial Watch doing FOIA requests in order to find some — the same people who paid Paula Jones to pursue her trumped up case against Bill Clinton in the 1990s. I have no idea why you say that the emails from her campaign were “leaked- not hacked!” They were hacked then leaked from what I’m reading. And from everything I’ve read there’s nothing really there except some embarrassment… Trump goes on and on about how she had the questions to the debate like it’s against the law but my God the man breaks three actual laws every morning before breakfast. (and, since we don’t have his campaign emails we don’t know that he didn’t also have the questions) I wouldn’t trust Wikileaks for even a moment… they say they just “dump” information but we have no idea if it’s curated or or even faked. (and I’m not going to hold this against you… your comments have actually been more reasonable than American Trump supporters who seem to live in upside down world.)

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