He may not bring jobs back, but President Donald Trump has created a wealth of material for America’s comedians, humorists and satirists. With the next gaffe or scandal just a tweet away, the challenge is not how to poke fun at the 45th commander in chief and his sidekicks, but how to keep up.
"The issue isn't with us having no way to address it, it's having so much to address," said Cole Bolton in a phone interview.
Bolton is a Vermont native and the editor in chief at the Onion, the popular satire website and self-described "single most powerful and influential organization in human history." On Friday, May 26, Bolton and Onion senior editor Jason Roeder host "An Evening With the Onion" at Burlington City Hall Auditorium. Presented by the Burlington Book Festival, the multimedia presentation will, to borrow the Onion's verbiage, "highlight the Onion's universally revered reportage and delve into an analysis of the policies, personalities, and coming Blood Purges of the Trump Administration." There may also be light snacks.
We spoke with Bolton by phone from Chicago last week and asked him about satire, Trump fatigue, the Onion's Hillary Clinton coverage and his thoughts on a certain local high school nickname.
SEVEN DAYS: So you're a South Burlington High School alum...
COLE BOLTON: That's right! Home of the goddamn, red-blooded, mother-effin' Rebels.
SD: Fuckin' A. If you were to write an Onion article on the Rebels controversy, what would the headline be?
CB: Oh, boy. It's hard to come up with a headline on the spot.
SD: That's not how it works?
CB: No. [laughs.] You've gotta stew over them for a week or so. But it would probably be something like "Grow Up." Well, it would be better than that. But the whole thing is just embarrassing. It was even in the Washington Post.
SD: When you were at SBHS, were you aware of the historical background of the nickname?
CB: I heard stories that the mascot itself used to be a Confederate general, sort of like the [University of Nevada, Las Vegas] Runnin' Rebels have. I'm fine with the change. It seems like a good thing to do. Even if you don't think it's a good thing to [do], it's not a big deal. It's very silly from afar.
SD: Speaking of silly from afar, what is the biggest challenge for the Onion in the age of Trump?
CB: Just keeping up with stuff. There's this thing that people say now without really thinking about it, which is — "Oh, how can the Onion or anyone else do satire when everything Trump does is so absurd that it reads like satire on its own?" — which I don't think is true.
What satire is meant to do is expose absurdity and hypocrisy, intolerance and greed and hate — all of the awful things about the world. Our motto at the Onion is "Tu stultus es," which is Latin for "You are dumb." So, we like to point out stupidity wherever we see it.
We can't use some of the tools. Like, hyperbole is one we can't use with the president, because he speaks in such hyperbolic tones. But there are plenty of other ways to poke at all of these aspects of Trump and the people he surrounds himself with and the things that we consider dumb about them — which could be hypocrisy, intolerance, greed, etc. So the issue is can we keep up with how much there is to make fun of? Which is proving pretty challenging.
SD: How do you address that challenge?
CB: We like our articles and think they hit well. But it felt like they weren't addressing the whole picture because, again, there's so much to make fun of, so much to indict. So we came up with this idea, which was not just to make fun of the Trump Administration but to do a project that felt of the moment. And it seemed the way that the big stories are coming out were these giant document dumps — the Panama Papers, Wikileaks.
So, what we're doing is releasing 700 pages of White House documents that we've come up with over the last few months — executive orders, classified memos, email correspondence. We have daily briefings, Obama's letter that he left on the desk for Trump, recommendations from the EPA. So, it's 700 pages of that, which felt like a cool way to take on so many different facets of the craziness in Washington.
SD: Do you worry about Trump fatigue on the part of readers? And do you guys experience that yourselves?
CB: I can definitely say that we experience that ourselves. I think, like most of America, we thought we had this limited time with Trump last year. And we got tired of writing about him during the campaign. I think most of us thought we wouldn't have to continue writing about him. For many reasons, November 8th wasn't the best day. But for us, it was also staring down four years of writing about this stuff.
We like to mix our comedy up. It's not just political satire all the time. There's silly stuff. But with this administration, the balance has skewed, and it's very reactive to what's going on in the political cycle. And a lot of times we'd rather not write about it, because it goes against our ideals of the things we don't think are dumb, like tolerance, like love, all of those things that are the opposite of stupid things. So, we're tired of writing about this backwardness.
SD: Do you feel pressure to stand out from the flood of political humor and commentary that exists now?
CB: I don't think we feel pressure. There are a couple of other sites that do satire. But I think we stand out from most TV shows, in that most TV shows are purely reactive. We often don't react to the specific thing that happened. We do what we call "world creation": We don't have to write about what actually happened; we can take the essence of what happened and create an entire fake universe around that.
For example, last year during the primary, there were a couple of times when Republicans were having not the best time connecting with women. So, we set up this thing — I think it was "Scott Walker Watches in Horror as Other Candidates Emerge Shaken From Female Experience Simulator." Not many other places can do that.
SD: Paste and a few other outlets accused the Onion of going soft on Hillary Clinton after Univision bought a controlling stake of the company. How do you respond to that criticism?
CB: I think it's absurd. I think they should read all of the things that we wrote about her. I think there's maybe one that could have been construed as soft, and I think it's kind of ridiculous that people got upset about that one.
SD: Which one?
CB: "First Female Senator of New York and Secretary of State Told to Be More Inspirational." I think that's a comment on what women face in the world and what historically they've faced. And to say that we can't comment on that, or that commenting on that, is pro Hillary is absurd to me.
If you look at everything else we did, it was about how her ties to Wall Street and how her positions shifted all the time. I think people should look at the breadth of coverage and all of the times we've called Hillary on just a ton of bullshit. I think we're equal-opportunity bullshit callers. We called bullshit on Obama [for] a bunch on surveillance and drone strikes. Obviously, we call Trump on it. Wherever there's bullshit, we'll call it.
And if some people are seeing bullshit in being called on a patriarchal society that puts obstacles in front of women, I think that's silly and they should have a broader sense of comedy.
SD: At least once a week I see someone on social media post or comment on an Onion article thinking that it's true. Is that a sign of a job well done by you or of rampant idiocy?
CB: I would go more with rampant idiocy. It's definitely not a job well done. What we're trying to do here is point something out. At the heart of all of our satire is a kernel of truth. Especially when it comes to social and political satire, the things that are funny are funny because they're manipulating the truth in some way through a tool of comedy, whether that's hyperbole or displaced focus or anything else. And we want people to see it; we want it to click for them and [for them to] see there's a clever insight that we're making. And if we don't do that, we're not being satirists, we're being tricksters. So, if people are believing it, then we haven't done our jobs. Or they're just spectacular idiots.