When Called Out in Politics or Comedy, Always Escalate


Vikram Bath

Vikram Bath is the pseudonym of a former business school professor living in the United States with his wife, daughter, and dog. (Dog pictured.) His current interests include amateur philosophy of science, business, and economics. Tweet at him at @vikrambath1.

Related Post Roulette

64 Responses

  1. Avatar Jaybird says:

    One of the observations about Trump that I’m still turning over in my head is that what Trump is doing is a tactic that would, theoretically, be available to any of the “real” politicians up there on the stage.

    The counter-argument is that it only works for Trump because he didn’t have to go through the whole “20 years of being groomed for political office prior to this moment” thing, but, prior to Trump, who was the most bombastic candidate out there? I’m thinking it was Christie. He is (or he was) the closest that the Republicans had to a guy who would be able to answer a question with “that’s baloney!”

    And, until Trump, I would have guessed that he’d be one of the people walking the tightrope between being dangerous to Bush and being his pick for VP.

    But, anyway, the (for lack of a better word) “authenticity” that Trump displays is a tactic that, barring charisma deficits, any given person up on that stage could have used.Report

    • Avatar North in reply to Jaybird says:

      Before any politicritters even consider trying to use the Trumpmentum strategy they must first see a demonstration that it works.

      And no, filling up the media narrative for the slowest political months of the year is not the end goal for your average politicritter.Report

      • Avatar Kolohe in reply to North says:

        ^This. The flip side of the revisionist attempts to paint Trump as something inevitable is ascribing victory conditions to Trump’s campaign that it hasn’t earned yet.Report

    • Avatar DavidTC in reply to Jaybird says:

      One of the observations about Trump that I’m still turning over in my head is that what Trump is doing is a tactic that would, theoretically, be available to any of the “real” politicians up there on the stage.a

      No it isn’t, not if they actually want people to *back their campaign*.

      What Trump is doing only works because he’s rich and thus doesn’t care about seducing rich donors.Report

  2. Avatar North says:

    I refuse to give Trump any serious attention until he wins a couple primary states. This, unfortunately, defenestrates the base premise of this interesting post: If Trump flames out in the first three primary states as I expect him to do then voters are not abandoning the conventional way of doing retail politics and this becomes a non-event.

    Oh, and our Todd has basically predicted this Trump phenomena with his posts on the GOP well in advance of it actually happening, though I grant he didn’t put the name “Trump” to it. I wouldn’t either, I’m too cynical to think that I or my party could be this incredibly lucky.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to North says:

      Monday, February 1: Iowa caucuses
      Tuesday, February 9: New Hampshire
      Saturday, February 20: South Carolina
      Tuesday February 23: Nevada caucuses

      Mark your calendar.

      The narrative (at least in 2008, anyway) was that South Carolina was the first *real* one.Report

      • Avatar North in reply to Jaybird says:

        Jaybird, check in with me on Saturday Feb. 20th. If the Trumpkins have carried a single primary by then I will treat them with some seriousness. If the Trumpkins have carried two or more I’ll be drunk off my ass and celebrating.Report

        • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to North says:


          Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.

          Then again, it would never occur to me to say I was voting for Trump for dada, mayhem, and funzies. All I want to see is Democratic politicians crushing the opposition. I don’t want people to say they are voting for Trump as a prank.Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to North says:

      @north FTR, Your Tod in no way predicted Donald Trump. Did not see him coming at all. At all.Report

      • Avatar greginak in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        A true prophet always denies he is a prophet.Report

      • Avatar North in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        Forgive me, my Tod, but I feel that you observed that the GOP’s red meat tossing and base overindulgence was dangerous and that it would lead to a reckoning sooner rather than later. If Trump wins a Primary or two or launches a third party bid if that isn’t a hair on fire reckoning for the GOP then I don’t know what is.

        Granted, you didn’t forecast his Trumpness himself, but that’s just self preservation: you’d have been committed.Report

        • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to North says:

          It’s true, I think I predicted that the base would become increasingly radicalized — not by ideology, but merely by shock and outrage. I always thought the GOP would find itself on a tiger that would eat its entrails.

          What I did not see coming was the base turing on the media machine; and that it happened so quickly is still astonishing to me. That I absolutely did not see coming, and still I think it’s the important story coming out of this freak show.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        Just got off the phone with a right-wing friend. He, in turn, is just back from a field trip to D.C. where he hung out with other right-wing folks. His report is that they’re all buying guns and ammunition at a much faster rate than they otherwise would, because they fear that Things Are About To Fall Apart. I told him I thought this was deeply silly. And then I got an earful about how the next apparent President can break ten laws without raising a prosecutorial eyebrow that if he or I even bent one of, we’d be in custody without bail. Makes people think that we live in a lawless nation.

        Sensing the likely ineffectiveness of tu quoque, I declined to question whether he was celebrating contemnor Kim Davis’ lawless conduct and instead reminded him that lefties got a little bit silly and paranoid in the last year or so of Bush’s Presidency, and power was transferred peacefully after all. And asked why it is that Scott Walker was flaming out so badly, which got no explanation, and a tepid-to-dismissive grunt when I mentioned Marco Rubio. I’d have thought he’d have been totally in the bag for Ben Carson, but it turns out no.

        With that said, my slightly demented (if actually quite amusing and you don’t dare underestimate his intelligence) right-wing friend proceeded to excoriate Donald Trump and anyone who thought, for a moment, that Trump was in any meaningful sense of the word a conservative. It was a pleasant conversation, because we needn’t agree on everything to remain friends.Report

      • Avatar DavidTC in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        The reason no one predicted what would happen with Trump is that the conflict was between the rich donor class and the base, and everyone expected that to keep getting worse and worse and the donor class having to keep walking the line of finding candidates that will throw red meat but not meaning it. This would, in turn, make the base angrier and angrier until the system melts down and the base revolts.

        It makes perfect sense, and probably is what would have happened.

        And while we carefully watched and waited for this, everyone just sorta forgot it was possible for a candidate to *completely ignore* the rich donor class if they, themselves, were rich enough.

        Oops. We have all failed at our ‘out of box thinking’ exercise for the decade.Report

  3. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    I just opened up Wikipedia and had it go to a random page1 and I got this

    Malignant narcissism is a psychological syndrome comprising an extreme mix of narcissism, antisocial personality disorder, aggression, and sadism. Often grandiose, and always ready to raise hostility levels, the malignant narcissist undermines organisations in which they are involved, and dehumanize the people with whom they associate. [¶] … malignant narcissism could include aspects of narcissistic personality disorder as well as paranoia. The importance of malignant narcissism and of projection as a defense mechanism has been confirmed in paranoia, as well as “the patient’s vulnerability to malignant narcissistic regression”.

    …and I thought of Teh Donald.

    1 Of course I didn’t do that. I went there quite deliberately.Report

  4. Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

    I gotta agree with North that I don’t think Trump will get far, but not because he is bombastic, but rather because that is all he is.

    What would happen if there was a candidate that bombastic, that aware of stagecraft, and intelligent with a substantive set of policy proposals?

    God forbid the likes of John Stewart should ever run…Report

  5. Avatar Doctor Jay says:

    I like how you point out how what sounds completely spontaneous coming out of Louis CK’s mouth isn’t the slightest bit spontaneous.

    This is, in fact, what’s going on with Trump. He’s spent tons of time doing media over the years. As was so graciously pointed out to me by a fellow commenter, a great deal of that time was in the WWE, which is chock full of raw emotion and one-upsmanship, along with sly satire of racism (see some of Randy Savage’s work).

    I think you are dead on. Trump has put the outrage/misstep machine on overload, perhaps heading for burnout. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. He’s also said some stone-cold racist things, and there wasn’t enough of a wink there for me to believe he was kidding. Or maybe I’m thinking it just isn’t racist enough.

    Interestingly enough, I went to a show starring internet/geek celebrity Jonathon Coulton. The opener were these two guys that go by the handle Paul and Storm. At one point in their act, they made a joke about a van with a bunch of Mexicans in the back. They were greeted with a stony silence (this was in San Francisco) Their reply was “Aww, c’mon, it’s SATIRE!” More stony silence. They went on, and the rest of the evening was fine.

    I contend that at one level this worked. The joke bombed, and they didn’t insist that it be funny.

    My other takeaway is that the immigrant fever thing had a history in California. When Pete Wilson was governor, his campaigns had a lot of immigrant bashing in them, and talk about not letting them get driver’s licenses and not letting their children attend public schools. That all got washed away with time, but it left me, and the rest of us in the room, with a bad taste for such satire. What they thought was too over the top to be taken literally is exactly the sort of thing that we, as California voters and residents, had to endure.

    So I get the whole “that’s not funny” thing that happens when satire fails. It’s risky, and a comedian has no right to insist that any particular joke is funny. And Louis CK, interestingly enough, doesn’t.

    I’m not sure that I buy that escalating is the only thing that works, though.

    Most of the best live comedians I’ve seen have a process for dealing with a joke that bombs. For instance Eddie Izzard says in one routine, “Never link those two together again” as an aside, while pretending to write on a notepad.

    I saw Bob Hope as a young man. In his routine he told this joke:

    A grasshopper walked into a bar. The bartender said, “Hey, we have a drink named after you!” The grasshopper says, “Oh, Irving?”

    The audience was made up of Boy Scouts from all over the country, and so the joke bombed, since few of us knew that there was a mixed drink called a Grasshopper.

    But for the rest of the show, whenever a joke didn’t get a big enough laugh, he said, “You see, the grasshopper’s name was Irving”. In a sense, he was saying, “I get it, you didn’t find that funny, and I’m ok with that. I’ll find other things that you do find funny.”

    So while yes, the comic is in charge of the room, and the social dominant, that’s not a static situation. Who’s in charge flitters back and forth since the comic is also there to serve the people who paid to see him or her. And the best comics manage that dialectic.Report

    • Avatar El Muneco in reply to Doctor Jay says:

      I had a similar “grasshopper” problem when I was a kid – I didn’t get this one ’til I was out of college (mostly because I’d blanked it out of my memory for a few years):
      “A giraffe walks into a bar. He says ‘The highballs are on me'”.Report

  6. Avatar Saul Degraw says:

    Maybe North is right and sensible heads will prevail but I am worried about Trump still pulling the Overton Window further to the right even if there is still no chance in hell of him being the nominee. The lesson learned from the whole affair will not be “We need to prevent blowhards and clowns like Trump from running things and getting involved.” The lesson learned will be “I am not going to let someone out Trump me again and dog whistles will cease to be dog whistles.” The GOP will more and more become the party of white resentments.

    That being said, Trump is going on his persona and I do think (and others have observed) that Trump’s persona is appealing to people who are frustrated by the political process and don’t understand that the Executive is not an absolute dictator. They think Trump can come in there with his boss bombast and get Congress (and independent foreign nations) to do things just by saying “Do it.” I think there are basically a lot of people out there who want blowhard rule and are mini-blowhards in their own right.Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      How does that Overton Window look on the Continent? Seems to me that European multiparty democracy offers a wider spread of issues and parties and agendas, going both further “right” and further “left” than do the choices available here in the USofA. Somehow, those nations maintain functional democracies.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Yes and no. There does not seem to be a party (as far as I can tell) that talks about the wholesale destruction and/or privitization of the Welfare State in Europe. The European right-wing seems more statist than the American right-wing. They might be more openly anti-Immigration but not by much. The UKIP seems to have been about keeping the welfare state for English people. I can’t find anyone in the UK who calls for the complete end of NHS or the privitization of their universities.

        They do have a bigger left wing contingent though.Report

      • Avatar Guy in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Of course the Continental Overton Window is larger; it’s a French window.Report

      • Avatar gingergene in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Do you think there are forces in the US pulling in equal directions? F’rinstance, is Bernie Sanders’ Overton Movement Factor* equal to Trump’s? Or to Ted Cruz’s?

        *Overton Movement Factor** (OMF), defined as [Distance from Political Center] x [Popular Influence]

        **Not to be confused with the Normalized Overton Movement Factor (NOMF), which uses the Effective Political Center in place of the Political Center, where the Effective Political Center is the center point between Average Conservative Opinion and Average Liberal Opinion at the time of calculation. Mathematicians and NYT pundits are collaborating to develop Dynamic NOMF models, but are currently hampered by a lack of processing power as well as difficulties in regression analysis of Trump’s twitter feed.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird in reply to gingergene says:

          They’re going in orthogonal directions, I think.

          I’d be interested in knowing how many have Trump and Bernie as their #1 and #2 (or vice-versa) choices (defined as “would vote for Trump against Hillary” being true at the same time as “would vote for Bernie against Jeb”). My suspicion is that the number is (relatively) high. Like two whole digits high.Report

          • Avatar gingergene in reply to Jaybird says:

            In all seriousness, I think there are multiple axes for the Overton Window: traditional left-right, statist vs. anarchist, establishment vs. anti-establishment (Trump would be the latter, in your estimation, I think?), etc. etc. And individuals need not always move the window in the same direction on every issue. For example, on immigration or menstruation*, Trump is moving it rightward, but on upper income taxes or the refugee status of Syrians, he is moving it leftward.

            Both he and Sanders seem to have anti-establishment element, although Trump more so. I do find it ironic that Sanders, an actual Independent, seems less interested in a third party run than Trump.

            *Ok, not all seriousnessReport

    • Except I don’t think the Overton Window has especially moved to the right on immigration, even within the GOP. What seems to me to be the case is that conventional opinion (both GOP opinion and in some cases national opinion) are being declared Trump-like. Successfully, to a degree, in part due to the toxicity surrounding Trump.Report

    • Avatar North in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      I’m going to join with Will in pushing back on this. I understand that the fear on the left is always that the Right is successfully pulling the Overton window in their direction but in this case I think such fears are badly misplaced. Are Hillary and her party tacking right in response to Trumps waves? No, certainly not. The GOP is but they’re writhing in what’s basically a debilitating fever. For twenty years the GOP politicians have been dousing their base with the political equivalent of weakened viral right wing memes and now those cumulative douses have revived and are roaring through the party’s base. Sure, you can caper around the acceptable rightwing edge of the Overton Window and nudge it in your direction but if you caper too far to the right you repel people and don’t move the window at all; if you go too far right or make too big a splash then the window moves away from you.

      Consider: if Trump or Cruz won the nomination and led their party to a spectacular defeat in the general do you think the GOP would respond to this by tacking further right? I submit that Trump is too ludicrous to move the window. I think that most any Democrats telling pollsters they’re considering voting for Trump are indulging in some project mayhem and will quite contentedly pull the blue lever come the actual voting booth.Report

      • Avatar Peter Moore in reply to North says:

        I think the concern is that the Overton window is widened, rather that shifted. I.e. it adds legitimacy to opinions that up to to now people have been too ashamed to admit out loud.Report

        • Still not seeing it. Christie has caught a lot of hell for recycling something Newt said twenty years ago, and everyone reacts with horror to ending birthright citizenship, which was on the GOP’s party platform in 1996 and is supported by roughly half of the population or more.

          If anything, it looks to me like conventional Republican opinion is being successfully declared Trump-like and out of bounds more than the other way around.Report

      • Avatar DavidTC in reply to North says:

        Sure, you can caper around the acceptable rightwing edge of the Overton Window and nudge it in your direction but if you caper too far to the right you repel people and don’t move the window at all; if you go too far right or make too big a splash then the window moves away from you.

        The risk of moving the window towards a side is what it always has been: The *current* group of young people trying to figure out their political party will use the politics they grew up with, when the window was in the old place. So if they used to be in the ‘center’, or even barely on one side, but the window moved one way, they now look around when picking parties and find themselves barely on the other side.

        And if that’s where they start, politically, they will start to identify *as* that side, and eventually that will be part of their identity.

        Now, of course, the *advantage* of a party moving the window towards themselves is that people stick with a party, so if the window moves and their position is no long mainstream in their patty, they will often get dragged along and change their positions. The problem is, uh, everyone still gets one vote…making their opinions *slightly* more towards one side won’t actually help anything, or at least isn’t a good trade for *losing* a bunch of new voters who come in and pick the other party instead….for their entire life.

        If a party were to move the window towards them for, for a completely random example, 20 years, this could start having serious problems with younger people, the party having lost a lot of people who *could* have been joined that party if they’d left things alone.

        You know, as a hypothetical.Report

  7. Avatar Richard Hershberger says:

    Offensiveness humor only works through a contrast between what people know of you and what is coming out of your mouth. If I am out with friends, and loudly exclaim my undying loyalty to Donald Trump and all he represents, they will tolerantly roll their eyes and change the subject. This works because they have a pretty good idea of how that exclamation matches my real opinions. Stephen Colbert, while not going precisely for offensiveness humor, operates on the same principle. It works because most of his viewers understand the discrepancy between him and his persona. (Reputedly some conservatives love him, not understanding this discrepancy. But that is a different discussion.) Some comedians go all in on offensiveness. Don Rickles was the great master of the form. But it also came through that he wasn’t really like that. (Reputedly he was a teddy bear in real life, and everyone in the business loved him.) If it didn’t, he wouldn’t have been funny. He would simply have come across as a jerk. This was the problem for Andrew Dice Clay. His fans detected that this was just an act, while many non-fans didn’t see it. Sarah Silverman is a more recent example.

    In all of these cases, the audience has context. My friends know me and tolerate my sense of humor. Comedians spend their careers building up both their public personas and the slight wink behind it. Michael Richards ran into trouble because all most people know about him is Kramer. We never imagined that was the real Michael Richards, but we didn’t have any sense of what the real Michael Richards might be. So the racist rant fit as well as anything.

    Which brings us to Twitter. Can I put in here that I really don’t get Twitter? I’m a crotchety old fart. I think that the acme of internet communications was usenet and email lists. It has been downhill since 1995. Facebook mostly bewilders me. But Twitter is designed for people lacking the attention span for Facebook. When you have to work in 140 characters, and any one tweet can be stripped apart to stand on its own, there is little opportunity to build context. So you can’t count on its readers contrasting its content with the real you and taking from this your humorous intent.

    The final strategy is to be so over the top offensive that anyone will understand that this can’t possibly be your real position. This doesn’t work. There are people out there who sincerely believe that what is wrong with the world is there is not enough genocide. And they are all too ready to go on the internet and explain this to anyone who will listen. Sacco’s tweet? Probably intended humorously. But only probably. I don’t know for sure.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Richard Hershberger says:


      I don’t get Twitter either but as a defense a writer (for money!!!) friend of mine pointed me to a study that showed freelancing artists and writers can increase their visibility and fanbase via social media use but it is exhausting.

      Twitter seems to be mainly good for people who need a public profile and/or the young. All the new social media is seemingly not intuitive for people over 30. I’ve heard and read that people over 25 find snapchat confusing as an example including all the buttons.

      I wonder if it is because under 30 year olds grew up constantly being told that they were their own brand and they had to be out there with exposure and broadcasting/selling themselves.Report

      • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Our home business looked into trying to build a social-media profile, and what we concluded was that it wasn’t going to go anywhere unless we had someone working full-time on the job.Report

    • I L-O-A-T-H-E twitter. Anything worth saying and sharing with the world probably deserves more than 140 characters and a fishing picture.Report

  8. Avatar Damon says:

    Trump Trump
    Trump Trump Trump Trump
    Trump Trump Trump Trump Trump Trump

    Best election season evarrrrrrrReport

    • Avatar North in reply to Damon says:

      Not yet, right now all he’s done is make it the best pre-primary season evarrrrr… check in with me on Feb. 20th.Report

      • Avatar Damon in reply to North says:

        Well, I’m including the primaries in the totality of the election season, but I do hope he moves into the next few rounds. Watching “liberals” and “conservatives” and the press react to this is so entertaining.Report

        • Avatar North in reply to Damon says:

          Liberals reaction? Has it been anything other than moustache twirling glee? I suppose there’s the humorless contingent that actually gets mad about the nonsense he says and there’s the irrational contingent that actually thinks “If he gets nominated then that means we’ll have him as the President! We’re doomed!!1!!11ONEONE!!”Report

          • Avatar gingergene in reply to North says:

            Those two people should just chill out and go get a beer together.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird in reply to North says:

            I see him as being similar to e e cummings.

            Sure, e e cummings was a genius poet who was able to write breathtaking poems that captured all sorts of aching even as he eschewed what had been, up until that point, traditional practices. He changed everything.

            And then he was followed by the people who looked at his stuff and said “I could do that” and then tried to do that and poetry sucks now. His pretenders were so uniformly awful that, if you didn’t know his context, you might be tempted to hate his stuff at first glance.

            Trump is merely Trump.

            It’s his bastard children that are being birthed all around us even as we sleep that have me consumed with dread.Report

            • Avatar Chris in reply to Jaybird says:

              People loved Trump when he was merely firing people on television. Now that he wants to fire missiles on television, people are horrified by his personality.

              I suppose we have our priorities in order. At the very least, before our capitalists get to fire our missiles, they have to adopt the correct posture.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Chris says:

                Favorable/Unfavorable numbers.

                Read these and then try to sleep dreamlessly tonight:

                Trump: 38.7/54.1 (favorable is going up, unfavorable is going down)
                Bush: 33.3/50.6 (both are going up, unfavorable is going up faster than favorable, it seems)
                Clinton: 41.1/52.3 (our first, and only, entrant with favorables in the 40’s! favorable is going down, unfavorable is going up)
                Sanders: 35.7/33.5 (our first entrant with a higher favorable than unfavorable, both numbers are going up at what seem to be the same rate)Report

              • Avatar North in reply to Jaybird says:

                It’s early September. Check in with me on poll numbers in December.Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to Jaybird says:

                If only I could bring myself to like Sanders.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to Chris says:

                He’s a far better person than Trump but I remain skeptical that he can pull enough from all sectors of the Party to win outside of the liberal white states.Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to North says:

                The clearest message from the numbers Jay posted is that people don’t know who Sanders is (his numbers don’t add up to 70%, while Bush is over 80, with Trump and Clinton over 90). He has behind him a portion (perhaps the bulk, though not the entirety) of Obama’s enthusiastic progressive base from ’08, and then some disaffected middle-of-the-road Democratic voters who don’t particularly like Clinton (and why would they?). In other words, what he shares with Trump and even Carson is that his current numbers reflect the “bored and vaguely disaffected” constituency, which will mostly turn around and get in line when pencil meets ballot, or finger meets touch screen (though Biden would be a different story, I assume).

                Sanders may be as good as it is possible for a major American politician to be, but to me that says less about Sanders and more about the American system.Report

            • Avatar North in reply to Jaybird says:

              Triumph has many Fathers, Jay me lad, defeat is an orphan. If Trump goes down to defeat whether in the primary or against the Democratic Party nominee, then Trumpism will have no children.Report

  9. Avatar Stillwater says:

    Donald Trump’s candidacy is a referendum on our current system of choosing candidates based on which ones make the fewest verbal missteps.

    Well, I like REALLY disagree. If Trump’s candidacy is a referendum on anything, it’s that the conservative base is so fed up with bullshit politics and bullshit politicians that they’ll support … well … Trump!, as a candidate. Granted, a lot of those folks anger seems to me to be constructed and misplaced. But whevs.Report