A month ago, at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, the comedian Michelle Wolf made risqué jokes about Donald Trump. The famously thin-skinned president was absent, mindful no doubt of his humiliation at the hands of president Obama at the 2011 dinner. (That night, the New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik, sitting close by, watched Trump endure his comeuppance – during the height of his racist birther conspiracy – sitting “perfectly still, chin tight, in locked, unmovable rage.”) Wolf’s routine tested the limits of decorum for a formal occasion but she never lost sight of her target and, correctly, saw no need to pull punches from an administration distinguished by its vulgarity. Her monologue – which ended with the line “Flint still doesn’t have clean water” – skewered the Trump White House, mocking its disregard for truth, its petty score-settling, and the president’s ignorance, boorishness and verbal and emotional incontinence.
Sham outrage followed with predictable speed. Within hours the White House Communications Director, Mercedes Schlapp, tweeted: “Women attacking conservative women for their looks and their jobs It’s shameful. #WHCA.” The alleged “attack” was Wolf’s quip that White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders “burns facts, and then she uses the ash to create a perfect smoky eye.” At most the line was a backhanded compliment to Sanders’ cosmetic prowess, but its supposed ad feminam animus made it a right wing talking point for a week.
That incident established a template for two subsequent controversies, both of which took place earlier this week. First, the comedian Roseanne Barr posted a tweet that smeared former senior Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, then the Canadian-born comedian Samantha Bee insulted Ivanka Trump. With their usual alacrity, conservative pundits lit up with outrage, conflating the two incidents and complaining that only a “liberal media” bias could explain why Barr’s gaffe cost her, and her cast, an ABC show while Bee, whose deliberately crude epithet for Ivanka Trump been vetted by her broadcaster, escaped with an apology and a tap on the wrist.
In America’s culture wars, social media can transform the butterfly’s wingbeat of a single gaffe into cyclones of outrage. Given the regularity with which this happens it is often a fool’s errand to sift through the digital residue of any particular outrage. But details matter, especially in the post-truth culture that President Trump has cultivated so assiduously, and it is worth looking at some of the arguments offered in Barr’s defence. Clearly there is a prima facie resemblance between her case and Bee’s, both of which involve a well-known comedian insulting a woman in public life. It is also easy to see why conservatives have tried to say that it is absurd, and typical of liberal pieties about political correctness, to claim that one insult matters more than the other.
A moment’s scrutiny is all that is needed to expose this false equivalence. Barr’s remark – “muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj” – deliberately toyed with racist and xenophobic language, and it invoked stereotypes that have a horrific resonance within American culture. As the comedian Lindy West pointed out in a New York Times op-ed, the Parkland high school gunman reportedly “talked about killing Mexicans, keeping black people in chains and cutting their necks,” while the Santa Fe High School shooter posted photos of himself in Nazi regalia. Even the Toronto van attack killer was part of a misogynistic online group with “roots in white supremacist male entitlement.” By contrast, as Rebecca Traister has pointed, out Bee’s insult involved the ironic appropriation of a misogynistic insult to take Ivanka Trump to task “for swanning around on social media, hugging her son amidst news of children being ripped from their parents by ICE.”
In 2016 the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary selected the compound adjective “post-truth” as their word of the year. It was a prescient choice, hinting at the inexhaustible “gaslighting” which began with Trump’s claims about the crowds at his inauguration and have never ceased. Rather than simply refuting each falsehood, one might instead reflect on the words of Hannah Arendt who wrote scathingly about the totalitarian impulse to undermine truth in the prelude to the Second World War. “The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth,” she observed, “is not that the lie will now be accepted as truth and truth be defamed as a lie, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world – and the category of truth versus falsehood is among the mental means to this end – is being destroyed.”