White House cites satirical column in support of budget

Combat! blog has returned to Missoula, where the weather is suspiciously nice and normalcy resumes. I should warn you that we will only be operational for a short time. On Friday I drive down to Jackson, Wyoming to hang out with Stubble and his girlfriend, and I won’t get back until Tuesday, so this is pretty much the only regular blog post for a week. But how fine it is! Last week, the White House redistributed a column headlined “Trump’s budget makes perfect sense and will fix America, and I will tell you why” in support of its proposed budget. The column, by Washington Post humorist Alexandra Petri, was satire. Petri suspects that they didn’t actually read it but assumed from the headline that it supported their position. In this way, the Trump administration continues to operate as your aunt’s Facebook feed come to life.

Putting aside the mind-boggling news that the White House posted an article on its website and emailed it to millions without taking three minutes to read it, let us consider how little ear for irony a person must have to not suspect satire from that headline. “Perfect sense” and “fix America” are the kind of phrases newspapers like the Washington Post do not print without placing tongues in cheeks. That sort of hyperbole is how contemporary writers signal irony.

But it’s also how less objective sites write headlines. The tones of satire are not so different from the tones of partisan aggregators with “patriot” or “real” in the name. The top Google result for “fix America” is this blandly meritless opinion piece from Human Events.1 Human Events is hardly on the same order as PatriotEmergency.com, but no one would mistake it for a mainstream news source.

If your political views are predicated on the idea that mainstream news sources are biased and dishonest, though, you lose your ear for irony. Probably, the people who collect columns from the internet for White House emails are like President Trump, in that they prefer Breitbart to the New York Times. When you are not used to the tone of legacy news sources like the Washington Post, you are less likely to notice deviations from that tone—even conspicuous ones like the headline on Petri’s column. I can’t prove it, but I think reading Breitbart and the Daily Caller spoils your sense of irony. That’s probably good, since such a sense seems fundamentally incompatible with working in the Trump administration.

Satire relies on the readers’ critical faculties—their ears for hypocrisy, their capacity to not just comprehend sentences but evaluate them as they go. Based on some of the jokes in Petri’s column, she does not trust her readers too far. “With the money we will save on these sad public servants,” she writes of budget cuts, “we will be able to buy lots of GUNS and F-35s and other cool things that go BOOM and POW and PEW PEW PEW.” That’s not satire so much as screaming sarcasm. The heavy-handedness of sentences like these supports the theory that nobody at the White House actually read this item before they distributed it.

But here’s a fun question: How obvious would irony need to be before someone like Sean Spicer or Kellyanne Conway recognized it? These are the people who lined up behind Donald Trump right at the beginning. To what extent could they be the kind of people who hear the humor in straight-faced statements, who laugh when no indicator of joking is offered? And if they don’t engage that faculty, what must their inner lives be like?

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  1. I think Mike Huckabee’s Twitter feed gives an indication of just how obvious the humor needs to be.

  2. “But it’s also how less objective sites write headlines.”
    This is key. The people most engaged in mocking the White House for this blunder are the people who are most engaged sharing the long tail of clickbait. They also like without reading.

    My interpretation of this event is that the White House signals it does understand the difference between satire and screaming sarcasm, and like a good writer, it shows that understanding rather than tell it. That’s why it fulfilled the promise of satire by uncritically sharing something so obviously critical. And we all laughed.

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