UNSW’s Dr Mark Rolfe says satire was historically a way to express emotions such as anger, contempt and fear in safe and cathartic ways.
You only have to look at the popularity of Alec Baldwin’s impersonation of Donald Trump or Jim Carrey’s version of Joe Biden to understand the power of satire in US politics.
But how much power does satire actually have in swaying voters?
UNSW’s Mark Rolfe says a lot of political satire is preaching to the already converted by reinforcing opinions and political identity.
“If you’re an anti-Trump, you’ll find Alec Baldwin’s impression of Trump on Saturday Night Live (SNL) hilarious, and you’ll see the joke,” says Dr Rolfe, an expert in satire and political science from UNSW Arts & Social Sciences.
“But if you’re a Trump-er, you won’t see the joke, and it’ll be awful. And Trump has complained about Baldwin’s impressions of him.”
In the first SNL show – a US sketch comedy and variety program – since the pandemic, nearly eight million Americans tuned in to watch US actors Alec Baldwin and Jim Carrey’s impersonations of Trump and Biden.
It was the show’s highest ratings since 2016.
A very American experience
Dr Rolfe, who is writing a book chapter on satire, says Trump is “a very American experience” with the way he is often portrayed.
He explains Godwin’s Law – a very “facetious concept created in 1990 by a bloke called Mike Godwin”.
“It states that the longer an argument on the internet lasts, the higher the probability that somebody will eventually be called Hitler,” he says.
So, for the last five years a lot of US satire has depicted Trump as a Hitler, as a fascist, says Dr Rolfe. “Though I think it is ridiculous to talk about Trump as another Hitler, as it was to talk about Obama as another Hitler.”
Dr Rolfe says many people are baffled by the lack of historical knowledge among a lot of American comedians. “Their invocations of history are completely absurd. So I’m always wondering about what a lot of people know about history. And it seems like nothing is known,” he says.
“Since WWII, Hitler has been portrayed as an ethical touchstone of an absolute standard of evil.” – Dr Mark Rolfe
He says comparisons to Hitler don’t work because they inflate rather than diminish, deride and ridicule which are more successful rhetorical devices in satire.
Bringing America back
Dr Rolfe calls the current Trump-era “America Redux”.
“All of his stuff is just old fashioned Americanism, old fashioned American authoritarianism. You don’t need to invoke terms like fascism or Hitler, to condemn it,” he says.
He says satirists such as Stephen Colbert are much more effective when saying Trump is not like President Lincoln or George Washington.
“Trump is ultimately not presidential in the line of greats that they’ve seen,” Dr Rolfe says. “So that’s where they get high reinforcing opinions rather than converting people to the cause.
“And context is just as important to persuading an audience,” Dr Rolfe says. “And (satirists use rhetoric) to persuade by reinforcing certain ideas within the audience.”
The US election will be held on November 3 (November 4 in Australia) but vote counting could take days or weeks before the winner is announced.
The next US president will be inaugurated on January 20.
Historical relevance of satire
Dr Rolfe says although the history of satire goes back thousands of years, we only recognise modern forms from 1720s Britain and the two-party political system.
Britain in the 18th century was not a democracy, he says, it was run by elites. “But there was also a very freewheeling political public sphere of discussion, and satire was central to it,” he says.
“And there was a corrupt elite institution with open debate going on. So that’s the place satire has occupied.”
Freedom of expression
He says satire has enabled people to express emotions such as anger, disgust, contempt and fear in really safe and cathartic ways.
In 18th century Britain, he says, they talked about corruption in terms of political decline; from a democracy into a mob rule, or from a tyranny – which had good connotations at first – into a dictatorship.
“So the decline of political regimes was in the back of the minds of many educated people of the 18th century in Britain,” Dr Rolfe says. And so was the theft of public money by “fiddling with the books”, he says.
Dr Rolfe says many countries have clung onto the idea that proper debate can only be rational and unemotional. “But I think satire through the centuries has pointed us to the fact that it is a good way to express public emotions, and not let them resort to, or lead to, violence.”