Donald Trump’s popularity seems unharmed by his lack of experience, integrity or policies. Even repeating the “textbook definition of a racist comment” in public in a way that his own party disavows hasn’t stopped him from reaching 85% approval ratings among Republican voters. So how does Hillary Clinton counter the smears (that Bill is a rapist), the vacuousness (we should not honor the national debt) and the lies (Don King endorses him) without being perceived as boringly earnest or “shrill”?
By being funny.
It doesn’t come as naturally to Hillary as it does to Barack Obama, who sometimes seems like he’s successfully auditioning for a post-presidential Key, Peele & Bam show, but she has it in her repertoire. Though she did it more to impress the kids than to win national polls, her SNL bar talk sketch with Kate McKinnon succeeded in showing that she wasn’t humorless. But self-deprecation isn’t the way to 270 electoral seats.
It’s all very well to say that she doesn’t care what Trump thinks, but there’s no better way to show, rather than tell, that she’s not bothered by his mudslinging, misogyny and miscomprehension of major policy issues than to poke fun at him. A couple of zingers per speech with a whole battery saved up for the debates will be worth a whole manual of policy positions.
With Trump as the GOP candidate, the presidential election is no longer about substance; it’s about persuasion and about how people happen to be feeling. No one who cares about America thinks Trump is a national strategist or an administrator — he’s just a forceful billionaire who projects the image of a winner.
As any kid knows, the way to beat a bully is by laughter. Not mean laughter (“I’ve been coloring my hair a lot longer than him”) — even with a self-conscious nod, that’s stooping to his level — but “I don’t care” laughter (“He’s more obsessed with me than I am with him”) and policy laughter (something a little sharper than “As history shows us, nothing brings two countries together like a wall”).
Given the de facto demise of “The Daily Show” and the lack of effect that John Oliver’s excoriations of Trump had in February and March, there isn’t really any point in hoping that Jon Stewart will ride in to do some election specials. Instead, Hillary might choose to build on the recent successes of Amy Schumer, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Samantha Bee — just to name a few white women with their own comedies.
Sisters are doing it for themselves. And by “it” I mean taking charge of TV, making fun of bullies and getting presumptively nominated to presidential candidate. But a wise feminist friend of mine noted that, despite her appearances on SNL or Jimmy Fallon, Hillary just doesn’t come across as funny. When she’s relaxed she does have a good sense of humor, but campaigning to be the first female president of America is, well, not exactly relaxing.
So, though Clinton could use a few zingers, she should keep her gravitas and outsource the comedy to her Veep. How about a Midwesterner with impeccable political sense who was an original writer for SNL? Al Franken might demur, but he’d capture the Jewish vote that’s been driving Bernie, undermine the shifting stances of a bully and represent the white folk of flyover America.
Bill Scher mooted it over in Politico a couple of weeks ago. Franken is progressive enough for Mother Jones, successful enough to turn his first 312-vote recount victory into a 10-point success in the otherwise Democrat-gloomy 2014 midterms and the nomination to fill his vacancy would be made by a Democratic governor.
Obama pushed out his “Audacity of Hope” to aid his 2008 campaign and I’m sure there would be an audience for a special Trump edition of Franken’s classic, “Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot.” (“Donald Trump Is a Thin-Skinned Weenie”?) Generating free publicity could also be crucial for the Democrats and, let’s face it, Franken is a lot more watchable than Clinton.
So now that she’s beaten the 74-year-old Jewish curmudgeon, perhaps it’s time to hire on the 65-year-old Jewish comedian. Plus, it’s a matter of pride in the Clinton household: If Bill can get elected for two terms with an Al, why not Hill?
Dan Friedman is the director of content and communications at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. Formerly the executive editor and whisky correspondent of the Forward, he is the author of an illuminating (and excellent value) book about Tears for Fears, the 80s emo rock band.