Why you should care
Because it’s all fun and games until it’s just plain mean.
Some five months into the Trump administration, I find myself looking back on the day before he was inaugurated as the country’s 45th president.
I was in Washington, D.C., and I felt awful. It was 7 a.m., and I hadn’t had any coffee — something I needed before I could contemplate America’s imminent downfall.
It was the beginning of the spring semester in my senior year of college, and my roommate and I were on our way to the National Mall and decided to veer off near the Kennedy Center to find a cup.
“Hey, look. It’s Watergate,” I said, pointing. My roommate grunted.
We had come to the capital with a group of fellow undergraduate friends to sell copies of a parody inauguration program we’d produced. As satire goes, it was pretty light. We’d aimed for funny rather than biting, including things like “Well Wishes From the A List” (“A Big Mac, one large fry, and an Oreo McFlurry. Yes, that’s all.” — Ben Carson) and a photoshopped picture of Trump pretending the Washington Monument was his penis.
As so often happens with pranks, the line between tomfoolery and meanness had blurred.
I’d contributed little to the project, opting to come along for the trip and ride on the work of my peers. That said, being a college senior, I felt entitled to be cynical about the whole endeavor.
“Who in the world is going to buy this?” I asked my roommate, not really asking. “No one,” he replied.
But we were wrong. Really wrong, it turned out. Within minutes of approaching a crowd and announcing, “Programs, $5!” they started selling — fast. I sold a couple to two fratty-looking guys, and another to a man in a suit. Then, a woman wearing a Trump shirt pulled five crinkly ones from her fanny pack and told me she was looking for a souvenir from her trip. As I pocketed her money, the thrill quickly began to fade.
I spent the next few hours walking around and selling programs, and, without fail, the sea of Trump supporters, even those who said “no thanks,” were unfailingly polite and kind. The more I spoke to them, the nicer they seemed, and the less I wanted to make fun of them. I told myself we weren’t really mocking these people; we were just lampooning the president. But then I thought of that woman, excitedly opening her souvenir to find a picture of the man she’d voted for, and traveled across the country to see, yanking on his trousers to display the Washington Monument.
As so often happens with pranks, the line between tomfoolery and meanness had blurred, and it didn’t feel good. Luckily, that’s when the villain we needed to lift our spirits emerged.
“Don’t fucking buy from them! They’re just a bunch of libtards making fun of Trump!”
Someone had discovered our prank and tracked us down for a refund. She was every caricature of a Trump supporter — and she was furious. But she was also a dose of relief: If we were the smug liberal college kids raising a middle finger from our ivory tower, at least our target was equally cartoonish.
And then her husband walked over and apologized for his wife’s outburst, saying she was just a little upset. He calmly explained that selling something with “official program” emblazoned on the cover with a picture inside of the soon-to-be commander in chief biting his lip at the size of his marble-and-granite member was maybe not the coolest thing to do. He kinda had a point, and we walked away from the encounter feeling a little queasy.
For the rest of the day, we openly sold the programs as jokes. People still bought them. One guy who looked like Santa dressed as a truck driver asked me what sort of jokes they were. I showed him an article called “The Liberal Comfort Corner,” and he chortled out loud. “Motherfucking SJWs,” he said, lapping it up. He even chuckled at the picture of Trump with the Washington Monument.
As night started to fall and the concert on the Mall began, the mood didn’t feel tense or combative; instead, everyone around me looked visibly hopeful. The Piano Guys took the stage and opened with a song called “It’s Gonna Be OK,” and as their voices boomed from the loudspeakers, something stirred inside of me. Maybe it really will be OK! That guy with the Santa beard thought our joke was funny! We’re all just people!
Then Trump took office and everything went to hell so much faster than we thought possible. But still, some of the Donald’s supporters laughed at our humor, and I learned something about not being a jerk to a perfectly nice woman. Maybe there’s common ground to be found. Or not. I’ll report back in four years.