The Tragic Farce

History is Thomas Pynchon. Or so says 2020, evacuating political satire of all antirealist power. You couldn’t have written this story, but if you did, no one would believe it.

We will have to see how the events of this year reconfigure these literary categories. If there is any light behind the eyes of our content kings, it should mean an end to Colbert-style political satire, since Trump is now funnier, in his self-parody, than Colbert at his best, not to mention the pale imitators who have, in the twenty years since, sought to caricature the manners of our elites. The new Borat movie also seems to indicate what a dead end this kind of political hyperbole is, unlikely to ever out-Herod Herod himself.

I would like to understand why fascists must be clowns, why they are always clowns. This is not a new phenomenon, and was addressed by Adorno both in Minima Moralia and his essay “Commitment,”, which criticizes Bertolt Brecht’s play, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui and Charlie Chaplin’s satire The Great Dictator. Both works grasp something real about fascism but in attempting to render it tractable to parody also trivialize it. Writing of Chaplin’s belittling performance, Adorno writes:

It is not that respect for historical scale forbids laughter at house painters, although the use of that term against Hitler was itself a painful exploitation of bourgeois class consciousness. The group which engineered the seizure of power in Germany was also certainly a gang. But the problem is that such elective affinities are not extraterritorial: they are rooted within society itself. This is why the buffoonery of fascism, evoked by Chaplin as well, was at the same time also its ultimate horror. If this is suppressed, and a few sorry exploiters of greengrocers are mocked, where key positions of economic power are actually at issue, the attack misfires. The Great Dictator loses all satirical force, and becomes obscene, when a Jewish girl can bash a line of storm troopers on the head with a pan without being torn to pieces. For the sake of political commitment, political reality is trivialized: which then reduces the political effect.

What’s horrible, Adorno, says is that the fascists are as terrifying as you can imagine, as brutal and as bloodsoaked, but also infinitely stupid. The horror is that you will be killed by fascist clowns with meme patches on their cringe camo, by clowns who, absent their guns, would be pathetic, laughable, but are now as cosmologically mortifying as Pennywise.

You probably see where I’m going with this. It’s just too perfect that the Trump administration is ending the way it has, with an immediate plunge from pathos to bathos, from warpath to whinging, from miniseries to sitcom. I’m thinking in particular of the omni-narrated press conference that Rudy Giuliani held in front of the cargo bay of a landscaping company, mistaken for the Four Seasons Hotel, miles away, in an entirely different part of town, as all the MAGA ghouls must have quickly realized when their limousines began to slow in an unfamiliar part of town. They swallowed the gulp in their throats and posted through it. Unfortunately, at just that moment the media conglomerates who together confirm who is President-elect finalized Biden’s win, stamping the Trump campaign’s doom with the daylit yellow of Fantasy Island Adult Bookstore and a toxic materials warning sign in the background.

Adorno would question my obvious enjoyment of this scene, my narration of it, by asking: what does it hide? What anxieties and morbid symptoms does this laughter appease? Not to deny anyone their relief at not having to live with another four years of Trump, but as the US breaks a record each day for coronavirus, as food banks empty and the encampments grow under every overpass. How to tell both the tragedy and the farce?