Politics is a joke, and that might be what’s keeping us sane

I admit: I laughed more than once. By the time I saw President Trump’s half-written, abruptly abandoned tweet — “Despite the negative press covfefe” — on Wednesday morning, Central European Time, it had been up for several hours. The #covfefe hashtag was already trending; Twitter was heaving with jokes. My personal favorites were the mock serious “Media elites make fun of #covfefe instead of trying to understand it” and the simple “it’s a cry for helfe.” The thing somehow stopped being funny by the afternoon, though there was a moment of ironic drama when the president’s spokesman, Sean Spicer, tried to suggest that “covfefe” was not a typo: “The president and a small group of people know exactly what he meant.” Was that a joke, too? Unclear.
All in all, it was a meaningless episode, though one that is important to mark and remember. For we are now living at a truly exceptional time in history: This is the golden age of parody. Has there ever been anything like it? Memes, jokes, GIFs and comic strips have never been so easy to make and send. Political and cultural figures have never been so easy to mock. Nobody is safe: Not the pope, not the queen, not long-dead writers and statesmen. Something about the nature of the Internet and of social media — the ironic distance they create from reality, the rewards and “likes” they give to the best jokes — makes this possible.

Anyone can be resurrected and given a parody Twitter handle; anyone can be caricatured and made to offer mocking comments, via a white thought bubble, on current events. Any book or any idea can be parodied, too, and most of them have been. I would guess that most younger people are more likely to have seen parodies of Shakespeare plays than to have seen actual Shakespeare plays.

Nobody has thought much yet about the potential psychological impact, positive or negative, of the 24-hour parody factory that now surrounds so much of everything else that we read. The political impact, on the other hand, is already with us. Parody candidates have long been a feature of politics — the Official Monster Raving Loony Party is a beloved part of British political life, especially because its candidates reliably show up on election night in wacky costumes. But now some of the jokers are getting real votes.

In Serbia, the third-place presidential candidate in April was a 25-year-old comedian who wore white suits and a topknot, called himself “Beli” (which means “white” in Serbian) and drove around the country shouting fake populist slogans into a megaphone. (“If you want to live like counts, vote for Beli!”) He also made parody videos, including one that mocked local folk-pop dance music and another in which he rode a white horse and gave out candy to children. His target was corrupt Serbian politics-as-usual, and he got 10 percent of the vote.

At least Beli was clear that he was a parody, and clear about what he was mocking and why. The same can’t be said of the Five Star Movement (M5S), the Italian joke party led by comedian Beppe Grillo. M5S says it is post-ideological, which sometimes seems to mean nothing except that it thrives in an Internet world of half-truths and untruths and jokes, though sometimes those have real-world effects. Among other things, the party pushes conspiracy theories: Thanks to its advocacy, fewer Italian children were vaccinated last year, and Italy had its worst measles epidemic in decades. The party still seems unclear where it stands on most issues, and it might wind up with the largest number of seats in the next Italian Parliament.

There are other versions in other countries. Iceland’s Pirate Party hovers somewhere between parody and a serious argument for direct democracy. Kukiz ’15, a party led by an aging Polish rock musician, attracts people from the very far right to the very far left to the very confused. It’s hard to generalize about these parties — some are clever and (beneath the surface) quite serious, while others seem dangerously vague, or even just dangerous. But they are all born of the same mood that produced the #covfefe controversy, and indeed the mood that produced President Trump.

And this mood is spreading, though I can’t tell you toward what end. The world of Internet parody makes fun of the pompous, laughs at frauds and taunts the corrupt. At the same time, it sneers at the sincere and well-meaning, and it positively mocks idealism and idealists of all kinds. It distracts from more important issues. It draws attention from things that matter. But maybe it keeps us sane as well.

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