Garry Trudeau came to town
and of course, it was to talk about Donald Trump.
I’ve written about my efforts to ignore the political fracas during our travel adventure. I don’t believe that I missed much. But all along I wondered (worried) about how I would re-engage as an intelligent member of a civil society. Like coming back to food after a fast; I don’t want to make myself sick on trans fats or click bait.
Some affairs were easy to avoid, but Trump has posed a bit of a challenge. So many people are trying to understand how, why, and what-the-fuck, and they want to talk about it. Even at Esalen, a retreat center with limited-bandwidth internet and a commitment to east-meets-west introspection, Trump was used as an extended example in my workshop to discuss shame and contempt. Seriously, I would have preferred to not be thinking about him while I sat on my yoga mat, but at least there was depth to that conversation. It’s better than making fun of his fingers.
Doonesbury was a staple of my childhood and teenage years, and it was a happy bit of synchronicity that I was able to attend Trudeau’s talk at the White Hart Inn last night. Joanie, Zonker, Mr. Butts, Alex, and Uncle Duke feel like old friends, part of the same gang as Calvin & Hobbes and Opus the existentialist penguin. Last night, Trudeau walked us down memory lane: the Clinton waffle, Newt’s unexploded bomb, the invisible Bush family and W’s many hats.
Donald Trump has been a character in Trudeau’s satirical comic strip for thirty years.
Some things have changed: as Trudeau said last night, he’s been drawing Trump since he had dark hair. More has stayed the same: Trudeau pointed out that we’re still hearing the same phrases that Trump used in the late eighties, and Trudeau believes that Trump’s underlying personality disorder remains constant. Comforting, isn’t it?
Trudeau didn’t disappoint. There were interesting digressions, and his descriptions of the creative process for Tanner ’88 were funny and engaging. I would have liked more of that. But Trudeau’s new book is called YUGE! and the talk was about Trump. Luckily, it also included intelligent commentary on the role of satire. “What’s good for us in comedy is usually bad for the country,” Trudeau acknowledged.
At one point the moderator asked Trudeau something like, “Is it fun?”
I paraphrase Trudeau’s response:
Yes, of course. It’s great fun.
But if you step back … great damage has been done to our civic culture. A lot of journalists are trying to imagine what life after the election looks like, assuming that Trump loses.
What’s the public conversation now? How do we talk about this? Having aroused these people who are moved by these themes, how do we address their issues? These are real problems.
There are other issues the campaign raises as well. Earlier in the evening Trudeau had asserted that the best thing to come out of Trump’s candidacy is the bus tape; that it prompted a national conversation that was long overdue. “It started with Bill Cosby, he said, “but it needed to continue and all sorts of women now talk about …” Trudeau said he’s been talking about this with his wife, Jane Pauley. He’s concluded:
It was like the weather. It wasn’t something you imagined you could do anything about. This is a very important conversation. You and I need to know more about the experiences of the women in our lives that we care about.
Given how appalling Trump’s attitudes and actions towards women are, it’s interesting that both people in last night’s audience who admitted to supporting Trump were women. The audience included maybe 50 people, mostly older, educated, and well-enough-off. We’re in the Litchfield hills of CT. During the Q&A portion towards the end of the event, a woman of about 60 stood up to complain. I summarize:
“People have nobody else to get behind and our country is going right down the tubes,” she said. Her voice cracked with emotion. “We’re making fun of people when we should be looking at what’s going on in the world.”
Trudeau asked, “so you don’t view his candidacy as a big exercise in self regard?”
“I wish we had somebody else as a figurehead,” she replied. “But just because you got stuck with this person doesn’t mean all the platform is bad.”
Trudeau asked if there was anyone else who felt the same way. A woman about my age slowly clapped, and then spoke briefly along the same lines. Essentially, I don’t know what else to do.
There’s that, and there are more angles too. I’m interested in the ways that the Trump persona appeals to people who, I think, envy his lack of a filter and his ability to “succeed.” That’s about internal landscape, not platform. Trudeau said last night, “people who love Trump don’t seem to grasp that he doesn’t love them back.” I don’t think they want his love; they want his life.
But to the point of “how does satire fit into civil society,” Trudeau had this to say to the woman who didn’t want to mock Trump:
I agree that what’s going on in the world is not funny, but the whole point of entertainment, and storytelling, and commentary, and satire is precisely because life is such a bitch, we need that relief.
It’s the like what Heinlein wrote in Stranger in a Strange Land (which, incidentally, is perfect way to describe how it feels to come back to this election after fifteen months on a mountaintop, so to speak): “I’ve found out why people laugh. They laugh because it hurts so much.”
Trudeau talked about when the late night comedy shows went off the air after 9-11, and how important it was when returned. He said that “society doesn’t work if we’re not all doing our jobs.” Throughout human history, there’s always a storyteller who creates meaning, who creates the levity that allows us to deal with the fact that life is a bitch. “My profession is a response to that,” Trudeau said.
Trudeau also posited, “most satirists are not cynical.” I suppose that I’m not either. While I wish it weren’t under such bizarre circumstances as this election, I like that Trudeau’s talk got me a little more excited to deal with this question of how to come back.