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How Do We Laugh about This? Literary Satire in Trump Times

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Part of the American Literature Readings in the 21st Century book series (ALTC)


In his 1995 text Fables of Subversion, Steven Weisenburger draws a useful distinction between two types of satirical modes: on the one hand, traditional or generative, whose choice of a target is independent of the text itself and that, deriving its meaning from specific contexts, assumes a corrective gesture outward that is dependent on implied normative consensual codes; on the other, degenerative satire, which can be seen as more radically oppositional, interrogating and subverting all kinds of codified knowledge, including the text itself, which is exposed as an act of ‘fiction-making’ by frequently using shifting narrative viewpoints, and transtextual interplay with prior texts.Many satirical responses to the disruptive landscapes of ‘Trump times’—mostly in televisual format—have explored the comical and even farcical flow of queues offered by the personal performances of political agents by assuming a corrective, normative rhetoric that presupposes and restates a consensus of values, which it does not attempt to disrupt. This chapter discusses whether literary works that explore the same landscapes invest in more subversive strategies inherited from the postmodern tradition, investing in satirical discourses that eschew the assumptions of social consensus, and focuses its analysis on two recent novels: Gary Shteyngart’s Lake Success (2018) and Mark Doten’s 2019 Trump Sky Alpha (2019).

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  • DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-73858-7_9
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  1. 1.

    Wally examines the allegorical representation of Donald Trump in the British novel Pussy (2017) by Howard Jacobson; he also discusses the literary representations of Brexit, namely in Ali Smith’s 2016 novel Autumn.

  2. 2.

    See for example the collection Alternate Presidents, edited by Mike Resnick, published in 1992, which imagines, for example, Alan Burr defeating Thomas Jefferson in the 1800 election and creating an autocratic dynastic regime and serving for nine terms, Abraham Lincoln losing the election to Stephen A. Douglas in 1860, postponing but not avoiding the Civil War, or Barry Goldwater defeating Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and using nuclear weapons against North Vietnam to win the war.

  3. 3.

    This hypothesis, also cited by Kennedy (2019), is illustrated by Hemon as having explained his traumatic experience in Sarajevo when, just before the armed siege of the city, “the pre-war mind was still busy convincing itself that war is, must be, avoidable, because it simply didn’t make sense—who would want war?” only to realize, once war had started, that his misreading of its likelihood was shaped by a cognitive bias: “My mind refused to accept the possibility that the only life and reality I had known could be so easily annihilated” (Hemon 2017).

  4. 4.

    Hemon had previously articulated this same point when explaining why he had not joined 450 other authors in signing the Open Letter to Our Fellow Americans, posted in Literary Hub, opposing the candidacy of Donald Trump; besides arguing that the best way to defeat Trump was to vote and not to exclude his candidacy, he suggested that Trump’s words “tarnish the comforting picture of American history” which should be questioned, since other American political inequities—namely the post-9/11 era—had not been met (especially by writers) with equal anger (Hemon 2016).

  5. 5.

    For a comprehensive view of European-based interpretations of the Trump election, see Liam Kennedy’s chapter “American Realities: A European Perspective on Trump’s America” (in The Routledge Companion to Transnational American Studies. London: Routledge, 2019: 297–303).

  6. 6.

    Senator Ben Sasse was one of the seven Republican Senators to vote in favor of the second impeachment of Donald Trump for incitement to insurrection in 2021.

  7. 7.

    The ‘Covfefe’ in the title points to an episode on May 31, 2017, when a misspelling by Donald Trump in a tweet against “the constant negative press covfefe” generated a wave of memes, parodies and debates about the significance of language in ‘Trump times.’

  8. 8.

    The first fictional allegory of Trumpism, the satirical novel Pussy by Howard Jacobson, was published in the UK in April 2017.

  9. 9.

    Knight’s approach proposes a view of satire that is more concerned with what satire does than with formal classifications and boundaries.

  10. 10.

    In Olga Grushin’s story “Timothy Miller Got a Puppy,” more concerned with imagining an authoritarian future dominated by the surveillance of possible foreign agents, small details still carry a satirical undertone, as exemplified by the discovery made by children visiting the White House over Christmas that on the Trump Christmas tree the traditional ornaments had been replaced by “small golden men swinging sticks and hundreds of hard white balls” (Grushin 2017).

  11. 11.

    A tentative and clearly incomplete list provided by the Lincoln City Library network includes ninety titles of novels where a real president is at the center of a narrative.

  12. 12.

    The best-known case might be Richard Nixon’s role as the protagonist and narrator in Robert Coover’s The Public Burning (written in 1977 after Watergate) in his capacity as Eisenhower’s Vice President during the 1953 trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

  13. 13.

    This is the case of late talk shows, including NBC’s The Tonight Show, Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, CBS’s The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and the sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live with its highly popular impersonations of Donald Trump by Alec Baldwin, Sean Spicer by Melissa McCarthy and Jeff Sessions by Kate McKinnon; these are obvious examples of this parodic format.

  14. 14.

    This mode of satire is particularly prevalent in contemporary African American literature, for example in the work of Paul Beaty and Percival Everett.

  15. 15.

    The novella uses comedic allegory to depict the chaotic fate of a great ship named Glory whose inhabitants elect a new ignorant and inexperienced captain (over a competent old hand) claiming that they want to shake things up.

  16. 16.

    Henceforth, all parenthetical references to Shteyngart’s Lake Success (2018) are abbreviated as LS.

  17. 17.

    Henceforth, all references to Doten’s Trump Sky Alpha (2019) are abbreviated as TSA.


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Correspondence to Teresa Botelho .

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Botelho, T. (2022). How Do We Laugh about This? Literary Satire in Trump Times. In: Resano, D. (eds) American Literature in the Era of Trumpism. American Literature Readings in the 21st Century. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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