A New Test for Reality

Partly inspired by The Trouble with Reality by Brooke Gladstone, which the title pays homage to.

This post doesn’t fit into the Writing for the Masses or Satire Saturday series, but it addresses an issue I’ve grappled with for the past few days.

First, some background: I had seen advertisements for The President Show, a new thirty minute block on Comedy Central that would fill the gap left by the cancellation of The Nightly Show. That’s about all I thought about it, other than the fact that it seemed to rely on crude humor to mock the president and didn’t deserve my attention.

Then, a few nights ago, I found one of the show’s segments on YouTube – and declared it hilarious. It has some cheap shots, but the majority of the comedic weight came from the fact that the Donald Trump impersonator, Anthony Atamanuik, made points too smart and did things too courageous for anyone to believe he was the real president. For example, “Donald Trump” arrives at the Tax Day rallies on April 15 to personally chastise protesters and release his tax returns in the clip below.

To be certain, the clip evokes laughter because Anthony is a professional comedian and delivers well-timed lines. However, the greater irony of the clip is that no one could ever imagine the current president showing up at a protest against him. Yet, the “president” arrived and convinced enough of the audience that some booed him.

In another segment, Anthony discusses his first 100 days with conservative commentator S.E. Cupp, once again receiving the majority of the laughs through his deliveries. However, there are two telling moments when the impersonator makes points too thought out and poignant that parts of the audience laugh.

But do you think it’s because they care about maintaining control in a party system that’s so partisan that it actually counteracts the ability for people to govern?

On its face, the quote above isn’t funny, yet parts of the audience laugh and the guest hesitated because none could imagine the real president saying that. In part, Anthony breaks the fourth wall through showing his own intellect and thoughts. On a broader whole, The President Show challenges our current political reality.

The fake news phenomenon, which allows anyone to question reports and frame negative news as intentionally engineered, presents one threat to shared understanding. But when a fake president drives around DC representing a real man despite the fact that Anthony Atamanuik conducts himself more intelligently, courageously, and charmingly than Donald Trump, where are we left? Can we now choose which version of the president we want to pay attention to?

Impersonators are nothing new, but never before have they had their own show. SNL has plenty of political skits and plenty of fake presidents, but never have they become their own character with the autonomy to leave the set and address citizens as the leader of the free world. The rhetorical situation of the Tax Day rally speech still makes my head spin (even as I’m chuckling).

I’m not trying to exaggerate this show into an apocalyptic threat to reality, but it certainly has impact. When I read headlines about the White House, I imagine Anthony’s character behind the desk. I don’t suddenly feel sympathy, per se, but I do feel more reassured. That may be just as dangerous when it comes to political action.

As one YouTube commentator put it:

This guy should be in the White House and Trump should be on Comedy Central

I am a firm defender of the merits of satire. After all, I write it. Regardless, I believe satire’s dual use of both sides’ arguments presents a unique way for both liberals and conservatives to receive the message and detect areas of middle ground. In the case of The President Show, however, I fear we may follow the path of Brave New World. As I told one friend: “We’ll go down laughing.”

The American public now has two representations of the same man, and while President Trump’s supporters can continue to watch their leader, the more liberal audience will likely choose the character that lampoons his own policies. Meanwhile, the middle ground of common understanding continues to slide further away and chances for action with it.

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