This installment explores the cultural legacy of The Simpsons via the rise of alt-media, the rise of the alt-right, and the presidency of Donald Trump.
Click here to read my introduction to the series, which unearths a kernel of nihilism lurking within The Simpsons shorts aired on The Tracey Ullman Show.
1. Being Right Sucks!
Who would blame The Simpsons for predicting a Trump presidency in “Bart to the Future,” an episode that aired in August 2000, before it became a reality in November 2016? No one in their right mind, surely. Countless articles have been written about this uncanny vision, marveling at the odd coincidence, savoring the perverse absurdity, and admiring the keen satirical wit that anticipated it, even if only as a throwaway joke. Donald Trump, Matt Groening told The Guardian, “was of course the most absurd placeholder joke name that we could think of at the time, and that’s still true.” Beyond remarking upon life’s utter absurdity that such a joke would become reality, what more can be said of this freak coincidence?
Despite the title of my essay series, I do not blame The Simpsons. The show itself, however, may feel differently. In recent years, they have released several stand-alone Simpsons shorts caricaturing Trump’s presidency — a venture into timely political commentary that’s otherwise unprecedented for this show. In the following article, I explore why The Simpsons may feel a vague, indefinable sense of guilt over the role they have played in making Trump’s presidency possible. To be clear: The Simpsons did not cause the election of Donald Trump. In 2016, Hillary Clinton, James Comey, Mitch McConnell, and Russia all played much more decisive roles in determining the end result, and history might well have gone a different way had they acted differently. What I want to explore in this article is not direct causation between The Simpsons and the present, but, rather, a deeper sense of historical correlations. The prediction of Trump’s presidency becomes just a little less absurd precisely because of its historical context: the rise of postmodern absurdism in our media-saturated lives. As we shall see, this absurdism is fostered by the proliferation of alt-media, and a new ironically satirical sensibility.
2. Wouldn’t Be The First Time!
In my previous post I argued that The Simpsons gave voice to a new generation oversaturated by non-stop television, yet it is also noteworthy that The Simpsons peaks in cultural ascendancy right as the Internet begins to transform our society so profoundly. The show wielded a sophisticated irony as a way to navigate mass media’s endless appeals to attention and credulity. This proved especially valuable as media began an explosion in sheer quantity of channels and content; as the 1990s shifted into the aughts, mass media and its channels began multiplying rapidly. Thus the rise of satellite radio and cable television was followed by the rise of dial-up and webpages and chats and, eventually, WiFi and blogs and social media and YouTube and Netflix and podcasts and endless apps, etc. So yes, if the television is vital to understanding The Simpsons’ worldview, what becomes essential is not the TV set itself, plopped iconically before the living room couch, but the proliferation of channels, and ever more channels, for these are what continue to scramble us so profoundly.
It is important to remember that The Simpsons itself began as an experiment in the early stages of this media expansion. For decades, television programming was limited to the Big Three channels: ABC, CBS, and NBC. It was only in 1986 that Fox Broadcasting began its own foray into TV-programming to break up this holding pattern, and The Tracey Ullman Show and Married…With Children were among its first primetime offerings. Thus, the proliferation of channels is coded into the very DNA of The Simpsons, not least because Fox programming aspired to cater to edgier, often crasser sensibilities. In a real sense, this expansion was the rise of alt-media, and was propelled by the idea that different networks could broadcast different shows to different audiences. With the expansion beyond the Big Three networks came the expansion in audience and, importantly, in what counted as acceptable for primetime sensibility. The very premise of The Simpsons as a primetime series — a countercultural cartoon about a dysfunctional family — became a reality only because of this radical reconfiguration.
Fox Broadcasting, of course, was created by Rupert Murdoch, and The Simpsons has often expressed an aggressive ambivalence about their association with this deeply conservative media mogul. We can hear this ambivalence, even perhaps a degree of guilt, in one of Bart’s confessions to a therapist in Season 18: “And then I had this dream that my whole family was just cartoon characters and that our success had led to some crazy propaganda network called Fox News.” What Bart alludes to is the early and continued financial success of The Simpsons, which arguably saved Fox from going bankrupt early on, and gave Murdoch the capital to finance, in 1996, the creation of a cable news network that catered exclusively to conservative sensibilities. The Simpsons had already satirized its role in Murdoch’s success in their 11th season: during a fundraiser for the Fox network, Rupert Murdoch thanks Bart Simpson for his pledge of $10,000, exclaiming, “You’ve saved my network!”, to which Bart responds knowingly, “Wouldn’t be the first time.” These moments on The Simpsons make clear a growing awareness that the rise of alt-media, the expansion of channels and sensibilities, is directly related to the rise of right wing media, which mainstreams the splintering of factual objectivity into alternative facts.
In yet another Season 18 episode, Lisa opines about the apparent disconnect between Fox politics vs. Fox programming, which includes The Simpsons: “One thing I’ve always wondered: How can Fox News be so conservative when the Fox Network keeps airing raunchy shows? They don’t fit together!” We know now that Lisa’s analysis is naive. She assumes that the alt-media which airs alternative, provocative content is at odds with the conservative sensibility of alt-news. What she misses is that both are part of the same expansion and fragmentation of media newly premised on affinity and sensibility. It is a radically libertarian reconfiguration of how media connects to us as individuals. In 1996, Murdoch followed in the footsteps of both CNN, a 24-hour news network, and The Rush Limbaugh Show, a conservative radio talkshow, to create a 24-hours news network for conservatives. Eventually, with the creation of websites like Breitbart News and 4chan and 8chan, this same expansionist logic would lead to the rise of the alt-right, the “alternatives” to mainstream conservatism. Is it a mere coincidence that 8chan is more properly “infinite channel,” and caters both to white supremacists and connoisseurs of explicit cartoon content?
3. That’s Absurd!
The historical context of media proliferation goes a long way in explaining the true legacy of The Simpsons, a show that is Millennial just as much as it is Gen X. If you want to understand how Trump builds on Simpsons aesthetics, it is important to understand how The Simpsons contributed to culture in the age of the Internet. For the show’s innovation was not only its playfully cynical, ever-referential irony, but, just as importantly, its rapid-fire joke delivery, which rewarded the audience for processing non-stop content. Dispensing with laugh-tracks and one-liners, The Simpsons prepared our generation for the breakneck speed of online engagements even before the Internet dominated our every waking moment. Consider the opening scenes of “Marge vs. the Monorail,” an iconic episode that presaged the absurdities to come. Flitting from reference to reference, the episode begins by introducing a Flintstones song parody ending in a car crash, then a parody of the Beverly Hills Cop theme as barrels of toxic waste are hidden inside of trees, a radioactive squirrel with laser eyes and amphibious tongue climbing atop a tree with mutant tentacles, a courtroom nod to Silence of the Lambs, and justice being cynically purchased — all within the first two minutes.
Importantly, the show not only delivers its culturally-dense satire at light-speed but also models the ironic detachment necessary for processing such an onslaught. Born of the MTV Generation, which feels “neither highs nor lows,” The Simpsons is also credited with popularizing the word “meh,” our consummate expression of apathetic disinterest. Appearing on the show as early as 1994, this word has subsequently been coopted by countless memes and fan reaction videos, and is arguably the word most representative of the age of the Internet. We — who are inundated by media from every angle, enticed by commercial promises yet let down by their inherent emptiness, and hyper-stimulated to the point of desensitization — now increasingly respond with the catatonic shrug of a mere “meh.” It is a response that withholds as much as it expresses, for it does not indulge in the sharing of excitement, whether pleasure or displeasure, approval or condemnation. It conceals the enthusiasm ever lurking in our experience because, as consumers, enthusiasm is what makes us vulnerable to the world.
The Simpsons — engine of absurdity, model of detachment — reflects a worldview of a populace stimulated into stupor by endless appeals, both commercial and political. The audience of The Simpsons is asked to be sophisticated, to remain detached and suspicious of any such appeals, yet this is easier said than done. For example, as “Marge vs. the Monorail” closes, we are confronted with visual absurdity after visual absurdity— a skyscraper made of popsicle sticks, a giant magnifying glass, and an escalator to nowhere —a sequence clearly satirizing all the “bridges to nowhere” greenlit by an uninformed populace. And although we as viewers are sitting rapt and surprised by these whimsical constructions, we are also allowed to be in on the jokes, so, instead of feeling acutely our own impulsiveness, we can feel coolly superior to the Springfield mob.
This satire on the intelligence of others reveals a very subtle sleight of hand, for The Simpsons might be said to imitate the very hucksterism it foregrounds as dangerous. Like Lyle Lanley, the charming, fast-talking con-artist (and parody of Harold Hill, the charming, fast-talking con-artist in The Music Man), The Simpsons strokes our fragile egos, even as it bulldozes us with fast-moving content. “Oh, I could give you an answer, but the only ones who could understand it would be you and me,” Lanley tells Lisa Simpson, gaining her trust with easy flattery. When we watch The Simpsons, we are similarly flattered, because we are allowed to be in on the joke. When Lanley first appears, he hooks the Springfieldians with a fast line intended to reel them in: “You know, a town with money’s a little like the mule with a spinning wheel… No one knows how he got it and danged if he knows how to use it!” Although Lanley has effectively compared Springfield to an ignorant mule, everyone at the town hall laughs, including Homer, whose bemused repetition of the word “mule” makes clear he has not followed the line to its full implication. We laugh at Homer, whether or not we realize we are Homer. The episode itself is not unlike Lanley’s line about the mule: flashy, convoluted, unexpected, delivered quickly and confidently such that we smile, satisfied with the showman’s wink which signals we are in on the joke. Whether or not we get every joke or reference on The Simpsons, its compulsive winking allows us to feel superior to the dupes we also are.
Indeed, the show’s satirical power proves all the stronger when it implicates itself and its audience in this dynamic — when it satirizes, for example, its own embeddedness within the market forces of hyper-commercialized entertainment. Like Lyle Lanley, who leaves out a secret notebook detailing his scheme to get-rich-quick off of Springfield, the show revels in exposing its own ulterior motives; “I don’t know why I leave this lying around!” Lanley remarks unconvincingly. Far from diminishing its pull on us, this self-deflating maneuver brandishes the very keenness of the show’s intelligence, which cuts itself just as sharply as it cuts others. Far from turning us off, we as consumers get to feel superior to empty commercialism, even as we also, as if inevitably, participate in it.
Oddly enough, this has proved to be a very effective commercial strategy. During its peak as well as in its early decline, as The Simpsons writers reached for zanier and zanier premises, the show managed to forge, with uncanny prescience, a frenetic, ever-winking, self-deflating absurdism that, even today, persists as a dominant paradigm in programming and advertising. The posture of detached, know-it-all irony has proven to be well adapted for consumer processing of non-stop content. Commercial brands like Old Spice, Allstate, and Geico have all embraced self-aware absurdism in their marketing campaigns to great effect, not to mention shows like The Family Guy, Rick and Morty, and anything aired on Adult Swim. Thanks in no small part to the success of The Simpsons, we live in an age of self-aware absurdism that is now hyper-commercialized.
How does The Simpsons’ commercial success relate to Trump’s presidency? The answer is: the aesthetics of absurdism. One can argue that, in an appreciable sense, Trump shares Simpson DNA. “Bart To The Future”-writer Dan Greaney admits that “The Simpsons has always kind of embraced the over-the-top side of American culture” and Trump was “just the fulfillment of that.” Trump is the consummate huckster that The Simpsons warns against and imitates: he is the snake-oil salesman, the Lyle Lanley, the Harold Hill. Back in 2000, a bunch of writers sat around a table and pitched ideas for the most absurd presidency; Donald Trump was picked because, as Greaney explains, “That just seemed like the logical last stop before hitting bottom. It was pitched because it was consistent with the vision of America going insane.” Fifteen years later, when Trump announced his candidacy, his staff must have gathered around a similar table. The very same traits that seemed patently dystopian to the Simpsons writers — amoral corporate celebrity joker narcissist — were now being pitched as real strengths by Trump’s electioneers. For the Simpsons writers, a President Trump meant an indictment of American sanity. For these electioneers, a President Trump could be packaged as a trolling indictment of the whole damn system. The candidate and his image didn’t change, just how to spin the absurdity. The Simpsons did not predict a Trump presidency so much as herald the fractured age in which such an absurdity makes real political sense.
What’s more, Trump’s trolling of the establishment can be seen as a sinister shadow of Simpsons satire. The Simpsons initially rises as an “alternative,” countercultural force because it coolly satirizes the institutions of its day — education, politics, religion, and mass media. Even as it skewers the greed of commercialized mass media, it was always winking at its audience to gratify their sense of superiority as media consumers. As the show became more and more popular, and more and more influential, The Simpsons became the mainstream that it began critiquing, but has never let off criticizing itself or mainstream entertainment in general. More and more shows profit from cultivating a similar style of self-deprecation, and commercial advertisements now out themselves as an absurd waste of time, with the hopes of winning over those audiences who enjoy being in on the joke. The Simpsons themselves, recently bought by Disney, released a video in which Homer expresses his eagerness to “salute our new corporate overlords.” Are they being cynical or are they being honest? We live in a society where the distinction matters less and less.
Just a few years ago, and in a similar manner, Donald Trump ran an unlikely alt-campaign premised on satirizing the political establishment, and doing his best to mock the self-seriousness of the other candidates. While The Simpsons and fake news spots like The Daily Show have proved that satirical parody can be a powerful commercial strategy, Donald Trump’s win suggests that it can be an effective political strategy as well. Yet even now that he has become president, and has effectively assumed the power of the establishment he railed against, Trump still maintains his satirical stance against the establishment; at times he even criticizes his own office and administration, because he is always winking at his audience, asking that they understand him as president, yes, but also, as something new: as our first alt-president. We now live in the strangest of ages where establishment institutions profess their utter moral bankruptcy, yet wink as they continue to wield power. In this way, both President Trump and The Simpsons can be seen as symptoms of the same cultural crisis.
Prof. Harold Hill in The Music Man, unlike Lyle Lanley, warns River City of a coming trouble, stirring up fears of social degeneration. Hill makes the citizens anxious about cultural contamination, asking the mothers of their vulnerable sons, “Are certain words creeping into his conversation?” While his aim was to swindle the town, we could have perhaps benefited from at least some of his caution. For, in a sense, the technological explosion of media that transformed our society has proven to be an unexpected source of trouble, trouble, trouble, trouble. Given the gravity of this crisis, we would do well to re-examine our longstanding infatuation with ironical, know-it-all smugness — which we still use to cope with the everyday absurdities everywhere around us — for this slips so easily into cynicism.