Long before Donald Trump clinched the Republican nomination, The Onion co-founder and comedy writer Scott Dikkers penned a guide to living in a country governed by America's first orange president. Of course, now that we're only a few weeks away from the Republican convention, Trump's America: The Complete Loser's Guide is all the more prescient. We sat down with Dikkers to discuss Trump's meteoric rise, his chances in the general election, and the state of satirical news today.
I guess we're a step closer to Trump's America than when you started writing the book. Much closer. We started it in August or September. He had not received a single vote at that point.
Are you surprised by his success? No, I knew it all along. That's why I did the book. There was just never any question to me that he was at least going to get the nomination, and I frankly think he's going to beat Hillary Clinton if she's the nominee. I think he's going all the way.
Why do you think he's going to beat Hillary? Because he's a winner [laughs]. By that, I mean his self-identity as a winner runs so deep in his psyche that he will stop at nothing. You saw how surgical and effective he was at eliminating his other competitors, just slapping them down anytime they even got close to him during the fight for the Republican nomination. He's not going to do anything different with Hillary. She represents the establishment. This is his moment and I think this is really gonna happen.
So do you think that Trump is actually the character that he’s portraying? Or will he get elected and then pivot to the center? Part of me hopes that he’ll be smart and give a thought to his legacy and do some innovative and populist things that actually won’t be crazy or harmful. Everybody assumes he’s just going to do crazy and harmful things, because he’s said so many outlandish things on the campaign trail. And to look into the future and see his legacy and realize, "Well, I don’t want to be remembered as Hitler," you know, "I don’t want to be remembered as this demagogue, this flash in the pan…"
He’s managed his career really well over the past 30 years. He was derided as a buffoon in the 80’s, with great regularity in Spy Magazine, and Apple. He suffered through many ups and downs in his career, and he’s emerged from all of that unscathed. His reputation is stellar, and he was in an incredibly popular figure going into this race. So that’s my hope—on the most optimistic side of my brain, that’s what I’m hoping. On the pessimistic side of my brain, obviously, I see a demagogue and a fascist who is the ruin of America.
But how can Trump win a general election when he, say, tweets a photo of himself eating a taco bowl on Cinco de Mayo with the tagline, "I love Hispanics"? I think the punditry, and I guess I would count myself in that class—the intellectual class of people who follow the news and comment on these things and are sometimes shocked and outraged by the crazy things that Donald Trump does—we are in such a tiny, tiny minority. This is Trump’s brilliance, he understands this. Most people do not follow the news, they don’t care what the news says, they don’t believe a lot of what’s in the news, they have extremely short attention spans, and I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, they are incredibly stupid. They’re the great unwashed.
And that’s his fan base. That’s his fuel, that’s where he’s deriving his power. He turned out a lot of them—Republican participation in the primary elections is way up. Because he’s brought a lot of people out of the woodwork. And I think he’s going to continue to do that. I don’t think he needs traditional coalitions or any of that other stuff. I think he’s going to do such an effective job of slapping Hillary down and competing against her that he’s going to blunt—you know, her support isn’t that enthusiastic as it is. She’s very much just another establishment Democrat, that’s what we always get. There’s not a lot of Hillary fervor.
So he’s going to take full advantage of that leverage and he’s going to slap her down, and he’s going to use all his wiles and all his charms he’s already used to go from being a fringe clown to being the Republican nominee and getting well over a good percent of the Republican vote in his recent states, to squeak one out.
Do you think that the General Election would look different if Sanders were the Democratic nominee? All the polls say that now. I think it would be a really different dynamic, and I think it would be more competitive, because Clinton’s greatest weakness would be eliminated. Clinton’s greatest weakness is that she’s the establishment. And that’s exactly what Trump is running against. But he couldn’t use that against Bernie. So he’d have to go after other things—he’s old, he’s a socialist, he’s Jewish—Trump would go there, into all those, and I just don’t know if that would be as effective.
What about Trump is so compelling to the punditry? Well, we don’t really have a news media anymore in this country. We have an entertainment business. And the news has to compete for advertising dollars just like entertainment programming does, and so they don’t tell us what is important or what we need to know. They tell us what is shocking or exciting or whatever. And Trump is a showman. He knows how to stir up attention. So that’s what they’re going to show us.
Do you feel that satire helped create this entertainment media, considering the popularity of The Daily Show and The Onion? It seems like peoples’ thirst is really for the comedic angle and not the straight news. Yeah, over the past few years people have said that young people especially are getting their news more from satire than from traditional news. And I think that’s great, I think that’s fine. Satire communicates the news often accurately, because you can’t tell a joke if the basis of your information is incorrect. So you get the information, you actually understand the news, and they’ve done a lot of polls that’ve polled Daily Show viewers against Fox News viewers and the level of actual, real issues, and in terms of current events, knowing what’s going on, Daily Show viewers polled much higher.
But they’re also critical thinkers and they’re appalled by much of what they see in the system. Just getting the information isn’t enough for them. They want to be entertained as well and that makes sense. I wouldn’t say it’s part of the problem, because satire never put itself up as, "We’re giving you the news." Satire only ever attempted to make a point, and do it with humor. I think in general over the past ten or fifteen years, it has done a great job of that. And maybe it has even started stepping on the toes of the traditional news, the function it serves in society, which I don’t think is a bad thing at all.
What makes good satire? Making a point. Making a really good, interesting point, but doing it with humor. There’s a lot of satire, maybe not now, but certainly in history, that was very dark and almost misanthropic, pointing out the serious human foibles, and it can get really preachy and annoying. The best satire is the stuff that’s really, really funny, just makes you bust a gut laughing. You’re getting an interesting opinion but you’re getting it through the vehicle of a hardy, hardy laugh. Laughter is a healing thing, we all need it. It helps us cope with tragedy.
Who do you think is more fun to jab at, Donald Trump or Ted Cruz? I have not done a lot of jabbing at Ted Cruz. The Onion has been doing a great job with him, making him out to be this pied piper of insects and vermin and, like, a mother spider sort of character. That’s been a lot of fun. But for me, since the beginning of this race, Trump is—I wouldn’t say more fun to go after, but I feel like it’s more important that we go after him. Because I honestly didn’t think that Ted Cruz ever had a chance. He’s just too much of a fringe evangelical candidate. And there’s always going to be that percentage who would vote for that, but I just didn’t think he ever had a chance. Trump, on the other hand, was smart enough to play the system and go far. So I felt like, well, as a satirist, Trump needs to be lampooned. It wasn’t really a sense of, "This will be fun," it was more a sense of responsibility. I felt like, I must do this. I must say all that I can possibly say about Trump.
What are you favorite jokes from the book? I love this book so much. I worked with a great team of people and they wrote a lot of great stuff so it’s hard to find favorites, but I’ll try. One of [my favorites] is in the section where we introduce the reader to the new first family—we’re introduced to the new First Penis, which was an idea that we came up with well before Trump actually introduced his penis at that debate. And the other part of that was introducing the “First Lady Melania Trump” whose signature issue is closing her eyes and pretending that she’s not having sex with Donald Trump. That’s one of my favorites. And then in the more practical sections, I really enjoy the step-by-step guide of how to hang yourself with a signature Trump tie, and when to offer your wife to Trump.
It’s been a bit of rough run for satirists recently now that Jon Stewart’s not doing The Daily Show and Colbert is on The Late Show, but who are you watching, or who should we be watching to keep the news satire cycle alive? I think Colbert and his writers are doing a lot of great current events satire. The Onion can always be counted on for great material. I’m starting to think that news, or fake news, as a vehicle for satire, is kind of on the wane, I see that in the rise of Clickhole, which seems to be generating a little more excitement than the Onion.
There are sites like that, which do mostly crazy, mad-cap, non sequitur humor, which is wonderful. But occasionally they’ll hit a satirical point which I think is great. There’s a blog that I think is the funniest thing right now called LiarTownUSA, which is doing some spectacular satire, but it’s not in the format of fake news. Every new post is a parody of something different. It’s very fresh and very unique and funny and I feel like that’s the direction things are going right now.
Trump's America: The Complete Loser's Guide (Micro-Publishing Media/Blaffo Books, $19.95) is now available for purchase nationwide.