They have just two jobs on Saturday Night Live: to be funny and somehow capture the American zeitgeist. The 2019-20 version of the show has mostly been a letdown on that first mission, although no one has really unlocked the secret of making America laugh when the president is beyond parody. But in these troubled times when a Joker is running Gotham City, SNL’s Melissa Villaseñor managed to nail this weird America moment to the wall.
In a jaunty bossa nova, Villaseñor previewed next month’s Oscars and made us see such diverse Hollywood product as the creepy incel-ish Joker, the violent mobbed-up The Irishman, the bloody-Manson-counterfactual Once Upon A Time ... In Hollywood and, yeah, the appalling snub of Greta Gerwig’s directoral tour de force in Little Women as all about the same thing ...
But the thing that this movie is really about ...
.... is white male rage.
White male rage.
White male rage.
Meanwhile, for the last week I’ve been watching the movie that is President Trump’s Senate impeachment trial, which at its “right matters ...truth matters” best can come off as a stirring “Mr. Schiff Goes to Washington,” but which at times makes the three-plus-hours The Irishman’s Martin Scorcese seem like a minimalist. Then there’s the whimsical farce of Trump’s all-white-male defense team, which on Saturday countered the overwhelming evidence that the president abused his powers for personal gain in the Ukraine matter and continues to cover it up with a brief, two-hour mess that sounded like 300 angry Trump tweets strung together.
The real energy of Team Trump wasn’t to be found up on Capitol Hill, where the rhetorical assault on the corruption of the 45th president is solidifying the public’s majority support to remove this short-fingered vulgarian from the White House. No, this angry, wounded pack of white dudes is flowing toward the well-worn path of least resistance.
They are yelling at women.
Indeed, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stole the spotlight from impeachment — maybe this was the plan? —on Saturday with news of his disastrous interview with NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly, in which the journalist repeatedly pressed Team Trump’s top diplomat on the dodgy ouster of former ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yavonovich and the morale problems that caused at the State Department, and which made Pompeo look bad.
Pompeo’s diplomatic response? According to Kelly, he called the woman journalist into a private room, cursed her out repeatedly, screamed that Americans don’t even care about Ukraine and bizarrely demanded she point out Ukraine on a blank world map. When Kelly reported this — Pompeo had never said his rant was off-the-record — the secretary of state responded not with an apology but with a printed, official second rant that yet again called into question the Trump administration’s commitment to the First Amendment and press freedom and also tried to imply — without evidence and bizarrely, given Kelly’s master’s degree from Cambridge on European affairs — that she couldn’t tell the difference between Ukraine and far-away Bangladesh.
It was white male rage — white male rage! — and it was shocking, and yet it wasn’t the only time this week that a Trump cabinet secretary lost his mind because a woman looked smarter than him. Treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin, at the annual billionaire rock festival known as Davos, lashed out at 17-year-old activist Greta Thunberg for detailing the dire science of climate change and urging a fossil fuel divestment, demanding that "after she goes and studies economics in college, she can come back and explain that to us.” Mnuchin’s outburst (unlike Pompeo, he did semi-apologize) drew a seeming Instagram rebuke from his own wife, the actress Louise Linton, who issued a statement of support for Thunberg that was almost instantly deleted.
Like a Good Wife should.
You have to wonder how much Pompeo and Mnuchin are merely trying to stay in the good graces of their boss, who has made hateful rhetoric and thinly veiled sexism a feature and not a bug of his presidency. There was a stark reminder of that in the midst of Impeachment Week with the leak of a secret 2018 video of the president of the United States dining with the tapers — two future felons with disturbing ties to the Russian mob — and other rich donor types.
A short time after disparaging a black woman who has dared to challenge Trump — Rep. Maxine Waters — as “a low IQ individual” to uproarious laughter, the Ukrainian fixer who’s now indicted and spilling Team Trump secrets, Lev Parnas, claimed to the president that his ambassador Yavonovich was bad-mouthing him back in Kyiv.
It was the only time on the more-than-one-hour tape that Trump loses his cool and channels his inner “Tony Ducks” Corallo: “Get rid of her! Get her out tomorrow. I don’t care. Get her out tomorrow. Take her out. OK? Do it.”
In turning on their critics with their high levels of bad testosterone, the current government is reminding us what brought them to power in the first place — a “Lock her up!” fury over any threat, real or perceived, to more than two centuries of patriarchal power in this country, a white male rage that defies the kind of reason and logic that the Democrats tried to adhere to over 24 long hours in the Senate chambers.
But much like the increasingly dreaded coronavirus, misogyny in American society feels like a virus that keeps getting stronger no matter how hard we work to identify and quarantine it. How else do we explain the upcoming Oscars, where Gerwig and some other top women directors were again snubbed for five male Best Director nominees and where the most-nominated flick is The Joker’s ode to male fragility and anger, or Sunday night’s Grammys, where a woman chief was ousted while charging “rampant sexism,” or the struggle in a New York courtroom to pin down disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein despite allegations from dozens of women, or....?
You know the song ... White male rage. White male rage!
The response to a changing society, in which a #MeToo movement is calling out a culture of sexual harassment and rape, in which a woman can get the most popular votes for president and the notion of unimpeded patriarchy has become morally indefensible, has been to turn up the volume on misogyny ... and authoritarianism, because those two things are inextricably linked. In a piece joining the sexual fascism of Trump to that of other tyrants like the Philippines’ Duterte and Brazil’s Bolsanaro, the Atlantic’s Peter Beinert noted “their efforts to denigrate and subordinate women cemented — for their supporters — the belief that the nation, having been turned upside down, was being turned right-side up.”
Right matters, and truth matters — but America’s frustration is that those dark forces that have been unleashed will matter even more when America votes in November — or maybe even in primaries this winter and spring. White male rage has united the right and made them an immovable force despite their shrinking numbers, and yet it has provoked an equal and opposite reaction on the left, which is fear. Fear that America could successfully elect a woman as president. Fear over whether Democrats should condemn sexist dudes or beg for their votes.
As the slow burn of impeachment smoldered in Washington, the big debate at the Democrats’ Iowa caucus was what to make of a quasi-endorsement for Sen. Bernie Sanders by the insanely popular (especially with young white men) wrestling-and-politics podcaster Joe Rogan, who has a long, sordid history of sexist and racist comments. Democrats, including Sanders himself, can’t seem to decide whether it’s more important to speak against white male rage or to siphon off enough of it to take the White House back from Trump.
It’s no accident that the Democrats’ fear factor has coincided with a major slump in the presidential prospects of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, whose every rise in the polls and every bright new idea to make American society less corrupt and more fair has been met with panic that she’d be “Hillary-ed” if she were to win the nomination.
On Saturday night, the influential Des Moines Register made a courageous endorsement of Warren in the Feb. 3 caucus despite her struggles, hailing both her ideas — “not radical" but "right” — and the idea of putting someone like her in the Oval Office. The paper’s editorial board said: “Warren’s competence, respect for others and status as the nation’s first female president would be a fitting response to the ignorance, sexism and xenophobia of the Trump Oval Office.”
Indeed. The thing about Saturday Night Live, and why I’ve had kind of a love/hate relationship with it ever since I watched its second episode in 1975 in the cynical haze after Vietnam and Watergate, is the embedded notion that we can’t really change what’s wrong with America, but we can laugh at it. But white male rage isn’t just good fodder for a comedy sketch; like any type of bullying, it will melt if enough of us stand up to it. We have exactly that chance in 2020 — if we can learn to brush away our fear. To paraphrase John Lennon, white male rage is over ... if we want it.