Politics

Sharpie-gate Proves We Are Living in a Real-Life ‘Onion’ Article

What is dead may never die, they say. Except for parody. Trump killed parody.
September 6, 2019
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This is a thing that happened. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The Trump presidency has presented a broad array of unique challenges but it’s arguable that the fine art of comedy has been hardest hit (at least, after the farmers). Most political comedy is parody, which is rooted in exaggeration. What on earth can The Daily Show or Saturday Night Live dream up that’s more ridiculous or more outrageous than the real thing?

Never has this been more viscerally true than with President Trump’s one-man war against Hurricane Dorian this week—or rather, against Hurricane Dorian’s flight path, which he erroneously stated would devastate Alabama in a Sunday tweet, prompting a hurried “don’t panic” rebuttal from the National Weather Service in Birmingham and a round of online mockery. Never one to suffer a dunking lightly, Trump has spent the rest of his week rooting around for weather maps that appear to prove him right and the LYING FAKE NEWS wrong, culminating in an Oval Office appearance Wednesday at which he displayed an official forecast chart on which—we are not joking—someone had edited Alabama into the blast zone with a Sharpie marker.

None of us can improve upon this magical moment; it is holy high art. Politicos like to sound off solemnly about how this or that momentary spat will be judged by history. Ordinarily this is pure bloviation—history will forget practically all our squabbles—but any writeup of the early 21st century that fails to mention Sharpiegate won’t be worth the paper it’s printed on. As Trump moments go, this is practically a Wonder of the World.

But if this kind of thing is bad for humorists, it can be bad for pundits too. As the president’s interminable war with the Fake News drags on, it’s become clear that our media is poorly equipped to handle stories where the appropriate takeaway is obvious. The professional takester is supposed to trim away the useless gristle of the news to reveal the juicy meat concealed within—and further, to do so in a wholly original and non-derivative way. That approach works well when the news is complicated—a big new policy proposal to break down and chew over, say. It works less well for stories whose morals are plainly visible to the naked eye—and these are the stories that seem to occupy more of the news. The takeaway from the Sharpie story is obvious: “the president is a media-addled old fool who can’t be trusted to read a map, let alone operate our nuclear arsenal.” How are 500 columnists supposed to pad that out to 800 words?

The unfortunate result has been that much anti-Trump punditry is simply boring. If the humorists have trouble improving on the joke, we’re the folks tasked with the unenviable task of explaining it. You could read a thousand takes on Sharpiegate, but not a single one of them would approach the near-transcendental, anything-is-possible high you got the first time you saw Trump whip out that lunatic map.

One happy sort has escaped this malaise. In 2019, the last exciting gig in American punditry has become that of the die-hard Trump defender, the plucky individual charged with massaging each gibbering batshit presidential utterance into a narrative in which the cool, collected president wins triumph after triumph over his foes. Here, after all, is work for a master of the craft.

Down this pundit sits at his computer, eager to begin the day’s work; he cracks his knuckles and peruses the day’s headlines, sees the Trump controversy du jour and smiles. Any fool with an Internet connection could toss off 12 reasons in two minutes why the latest scandal is insane, intolerable behavior. But to bring off the opposite impression is a heroic endeavor: The writer must draw on every ounce of his historical and literary acuity, must have any halfway comparable failure of any of Trump’s foes from the past 50-odd years immediately within his grasp, must leave no rhetorical device uninterrogated in his quest to demonstrate that, actually, it’s Trump’s enemies who look stupid here.

The result is practically always worth reading, if only for sheer entertainment value. Donald Trump isn’t an intolerably immoral man—he’s flawed like King David! He isn’t ad-libbing foreign policy decisions according to whim—he’s taking on the Washington establishment and showing humane leadership! He isn’t a dolt who thinks the point of the Constitution is to let him do whatever he wants—he’s the Constitution’s bravest defender against hordes of adversaries! Reading these takes is like watching a circus performer swallow swords—it doesn’t accomplish any actual purpose and is probably a terrible idea, but you’re captivated by the slightly grotesque act of virtuosity on display.

It’s thus disappointing to see that, in the wake of Sharpiegate, so few of Trump’s defenders have stepped up to the plate to take a whack, opting instead for low-effort whataboutism and the more boring and quotidian “strategic silence” route of trying to get people to pay attention to something else. But I’m still holding out hope that the takes are merely still in development. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Andrew Egger

Andrew Egger was a senior writer at The Bulwark.