Alex Jones is the latest extremist to claim what he does is "satire."
On Monday night's episode of the Late Show, Stephen Colbert donned a varsity-style USA jacket, lowered his voice about three octaves, and told the audience he was a skeleton wrapped in angry meat. His performance as "Tuck Bedford"––the fictional host of "Brain Fight"––killed on two levels. First, it was a timely and obvious dig at Alex Jones, whose lawyer had just claimed the Infowars host was actually a performance artist. Then there was the obvious nod to the fact that Colbert himself became famous by portraying a right-wing pundit who at one point blurred the lines between fiction and reality.
It's sometimes difficult to remember that when The Colbert Report first came out, its host was so convincing, and the concept was so novel, that some interviewees didn't know what they were signing up for. While Sasha Baren Cohen benefitted from ambushing unsuspecting subjects as Ali G, his successor Colbert was able to famously own some early guests who didn't think that he would ask serious questions.
Last year, author Lee Siegel claimed in the Columbia Journalism Review that Colbert's brand of punditry paved the way for the fake news of today. But Colbert's winks were always obvious, and his core audience always understood his meaning. The most successful conspiracy-mongers working in America today have a different strategy entirely—they say whatever they want, and if they're called on it, they can always claim they were joking. Call it the "Colbert Defense." It's the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card and a way for people who cross the line to never have to take responsibility for their actions.
A particularly blatant example of this came this week during Alex Jones's custody battle with his ex-wife, who claimed Jones was an unfit father because of the insane things he said on his popular radio program, Infowars. In response, Jones's lawyer said the host was just "playing a character," albeit a character who shared the real Alex Jones's name, occupation, and general outlook on life.
Jones is far from the first rabble-rouser to fall back on the Colbert Defense. We first got a whiff of this back in 2011, when Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain gave a speech in Tennessee calling for an Mexican border fence that was "20 feet hight with barbed wire" and "electrified." The crowd cheered loudly as he also suggested it would be able to kill Mexicans. After people got pissed, Cain backtracked on Meet the Press, claiming that his comments were just a joke and that "America [needed] to get a sense of humor."
Cain wouldn't be the last right-winger to complain about being taken too literally. During an extremely ill-considered appearance on Colbert, FOX News diatribe machine Bill O'Reilly was asked who would win in a fight between him and fellow FOX host Sean Hannity. "I'm effete. I'm not a tough guy," he said. "This is all an act." Colbert responded with a meta commentary on things to come: "If you're an act, then what am I?"
Since then, political commentary has become increasingly like pro wrestling—except no one breaks kayfabe. And though Colbert's audience was largely liberals who wanted to laugh at the right-wing blowhards the comedian was satirizing, O'Reilly and Jones are playing "characters" that appeal to people who mostly share their views.
This can get very confusing. Rush Limbaugh has been relying on sensationalism and bombast for decades, but almost no one would question whether he believes what he says. In 2008, Glenn Beck moved over from CNN to FOX News and made a splash for being even more provocative. In constantly railing against progressivism a "cancer," he basically invented the kind of punditry that birthed stars like Milo Yiannopoulos, who would later use the same word repeatedly to describe feminism.
Notably, Beck went on full-blown apology tour after realizing he helped create Donald Trump. "I could excuse it, to some degree—I won't—but I could excuse some of it by saying that I was trying to, in some ways, accomplish what Jon Stewart can accomplish: draw huge crowds, make points and then encourage you to do your own homework," he told the New York Times. That fits the pattern of right wingers distancing themselves from their most hateful rhetoric. After Yiannopoulos got fired from his job at Breitbart for appearing to defend pederasty, he claimed that his schtick was a joke.
"The videos do not show what people say they show," he said in a Facebook statement. "I did joke about giving better head as a result of clerical sexual abuse committed against me when I was a teen. If I choose to deal in an edgy way on an internet livestream with a crime I was the victim of that's my prerogative. It's no different to gallows humor from AIDS sufferers."
It's doubtful that many people turn to Yiannopoulos or Jones for satire. Certainly the guy who showed up at a DC pizza restaurant with a gun to "investigate" the pizzagate conspiracy that Infowars helped spread didn't think he was watching a comedy program. (Jones later apologized for his coverage of the nonsensical theory.)
Of course, it's one thing if the average Infowars listener doesn't know if he or she is being sold entertainment or news. It's much more terrifying when the president of the United States (himself a Jones fan) is playing the same game where it's unclear how seriously or literally we're supposed to take him. During a campaign event in July, Trump suggested that Russian hackers should go looking for Hillary Clinton's deleted emails, then after an outcry claimed he was being sarcastic.
Maybe he was. But sarcasm and politics don't mix well, and not everyone is equipped with the same joke radar. Colbert, for one, knew this. In a 2006 interview on 60 Minutes, he was asked if his kids watched his show. "Kids can't understand irony or sarcasm," he told Morley Safer. Maybe neither can Jones's audience?
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