There are far more important stories out there right now than Donald Trump’s ridiculous Twitter rant against both the cast of Hamilton and Saturday Night Live‘s ongoing mockery of him. There is, for instance, the fact that Trump — remember, the president-elect — was forced to settle a fraud lawsuit brought by former Trump University dupes to the tune of $25 million. Or the Washington Post investigation which uncovered foreign diplomats lining up to stay at Trump hotels as a means of ingratiating themselves to our soon-to-be Human Conflict-of-Interest-in-Chief. Or the image of Ivanka Trump, who is being handed control of Trump’s business interests, sitting with her father as he meets with the leader of Japan. It hasn’t been two full weeks since the election and the Trump administration is already, predictably, shaping up to be the most ethically bankrupt in our nation’s long history.
All of this is important. All of it goes to show in no uncertain terms that Donald Trump is an insult to everything we purport to stand for as a nation. And yet given that it involves the First Amendment — the opening salvo of all the rights extolled in the Constitution — it feels like there’s something especially, fundamentally abhorrent about Trump’s juvenile yet ominous response to being chided by members of the pop culture elite. Trump has never been able to handle criticism, being a narcissist with rice paper-thin skin, but very soon he’ll be in a position to actively silence — or at the very least, chill considerably — his detractors. If you, for God knows what reason, were still thinking that his new status as the future President of the United States might bolster his impulse control in any way, Trump has a message for you. And it’s of course via Twitter.
You probably know the basics, but they’re ugly no matter how long it’s taken to sink in. Over the weekend, Trump declared war on the cast of Hamilton for having the temerity to — wait for it — respectfully issue a plea to Mike Pence, who caught the show on Friday night. Because the cast of the mammoth hit Broadway show asked Pence for understanding — and because, of course, he can’t let any perceived slight go unanswered or ignored — Trump tore into them on Twitter, calling the cast “rude,” the show “overrated,” and demanding that they all “apologize!” Now set aside that this is the president-elect engaging in a petty Twitter feud with a bunch of stage actors; it speaks volumes about how a President Trump will handle even the tiniest bit of resistance or any request for self-restraint and understanding from those who don’t preface their conversations with a steady stream of subservient hosannas.
Speaking of which, while the cast of Hamilton was surprisingly magnanimous toward Pence, Saturday Night Live continued its satirical assault on Trump, with Alec Baldwin being drafted to again play the president-elect as a dimwitted blowhard who’s suddenly, he realizes, way out of his depth. Trump’s already taken shots at SNL for its skewering of him — despite the fact that he’s hosted the show before — but his reaction to this latest alleged insult is one for the ages, in more ways than one. In response to Saturday night’s sketch, Trump fired off a tweet calling the show “totally one-sided” and “biased,” and demanding “equal time for us.” First of all, who the “us” is he’s talking about here, given that he’s soon to be the President of the United States, is up for debate. But, again, remove the fact that the president-elect is feuding with a television show on Twitter and you have a scary proposition hidden in his outrage.
The entire reason for Trump’s rise and the rise of white paleoconservatism in general lies in the abolishment of the Fairness Doctrine, which guaranteed opposing viewpoints whenever a political opinion is expressed in a broadcast, in an effort to achieve some kind of balance. Ronald Reagan abolished the doctrine in 1986, clearing the way for Fox News and talk radio to basically air bullshit, unchallenged, 24/7. With that in mind, Trump’s request for balance is hilariously rich. (Also, the “equal-time rule” applies only to political candidates anyway.) But there’s something much more sinister at work here. For decades into centuries into millennia, comedy has skewered the political, acting as a kind of cultural check on governmental oppression by pointing and laughing at governments that would oppress. Satire is the voice of the resistance to tyranny and even at its most tepid, during times of relative peace nad prosperity, it’s been 100% necessary to a healthy democracy. That’s why there’s a guarantee of it within the First Amendment.
That free speech clause doesn’t exist to protect language the ruling party approves of. It exists to protect language it expressly doesn’t. But the age of Donald Trump will be, almost certainly, the greatest challenge to the First Amendment this country has ever seen.
Trump can’t take a joke. He can’t take satire. He can’t be the butt of humor because he’s constitutionally and temperamentally incapable of laughing at himself or even allowing others to laugh at him. Now for years this fact about him hasn’t much mattered, since the best he could do to prevent piss-takes involved trying to sue the insolent into submission. But soon he’ll have the entirety of the United States government at his disposal. He’ll have the ability, should he choose to use it, to quash or chill free speech he finds troublesome. And troublesome in Donald Trump’s pea brain means insulting or simply not adequately encomiastic. We’ve seen how Trump reacts to being disparaged or laughed at. We’ve watched the mildest of challenges burrow their way under his orange skin and stay there, festering, until they create eruptions of uncontrollable, relentless lashing out as a reaction. Now imagine what would happen if, when he felt he wasn’t being “treated fairly,” he had the power not to simply whine on Twitter but to snap his fingers and crush that perceived enemy outright — just to teach it a lesson.
Now don’t imagine it. Because it’s about to become all-too-real.
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