Satire, sarcasm, and (at least attempts at) social commentary in art are so familiar to us today that it is difficult to remember that there is a time at which it was new and unfamiliar. This is one reason why really old attempts at comedy and satire seem startlingly unfunny to modern audiences. The legendary British architect Sir John Vanbrugh, for example, rose to fame not by drawing buildings but by writing the comedy play The Relapse. It featured characters with names like "Sir John Brute" and "Lord Foppington," in addition to a lecherous character named, I shit you not, "Fondlewife." It feels like being hit over the head with a blunt instrument to read it today. But in 1696, when audiences would have very little exposure to any attempts at satire or social criticism, it came across as not only the peak of cleverness but also as a breath of fresh air.
Molière's Tartuffe (1664) is among the more popular examples of this generation of totally ham-fisted satires today, and at least people who consider themselves kinda fans of theater or the classics have probably seen or read it. Tartuffe is a hypocrite, a faux-pious, thieving, wife-stealing fraud whose charms, long story short, lead to an important and successful but dim-witted gentleman named Orgon falling under his spell. No amount of evidence from his children or friends (who see through Tartuffe easily) can convince Orgon that not only is Tartuffe a piece of crap but that, specifically, he is trying very hard to bone Orgon's wife Elmire. In what feels like it might be a climactic scene, Orgon's son tricks Tartuffe into confessing his love ("love") for Elmire. Yet instead of casting Tartuffe, who pitifully and quite insincerely weeps over his own sinfulness, out of the house, Orgon responds by disowning his son and making Tartuffe the beneficiary of his will. You know. Because it is easier to believe that his son and the evidence right before his eyes are lying than to admit that he was wrong all along about Tartuffe.
It isn't until later, when Orgon is hiding under a table upon which Tartuffe mounts and nearly penetrates his wife, that Orgon finally sees the light. And for brevity I won't even get into the second half "box of blackmail letters about traitors" subplot, but let's just say there's an angle that works there too.
We have been playing a very tiresome and disingenuous game for over a year now with the "moderates" in the Republican Party about Trump. They have stuck their head in the sands and plugged their ears and averted their eyes as every obvious red flag was presented for their consideration repeatedly. Hey, this guy is a sociopath. Hey, this guy is a white supremacist. Hey, I know you and I don't agree about a lot of policy things but I would like to think we at least agree that a president who openly wants to be a dictator and who wants nothing more than constant adulation is a bad thing. Hey, I know you really want that 4% tax cut but maybe electing this lunatic is too high a price to pay. Look at all these things he says. Look at all the evidence. Please, just think about this for a moment.
What we got was every excuse on Earth in repetitious quantity. He doesn't mean what he says, he's just trying to get attention. He only says that to shock you. He's a smart man, look at how rich he is. This is just the campaign, he'll behave differently once he's president. Congress will control him. He's not really like that. It'll be fine. It'll be fine. It'll be fine.
The one positive to come out of the last five deeply alarming days for this country is that there is no longer any cover left for conservatives who want to insist that they are Republicans but you know, reasonable ones, not one of those loony Trump people. As we have transitioned from "It's not fair to smear the alt-right as Nazis" to "OK I guess they are actually Nazis after all" so too have we transitioned from pretending that Trump is somehow unserious or ambivalent about his statements of support for them. As hard as it is to believe that adult human beings saw him retweet white supremacists during the campaign convinced themselves that this did not mean he was a white supremacist, those people exist. Maybe they're dumb, maybe they're intelligent people who fooled themselves. I don't know. But we're done with that now. The president says and tweets white supremacist stuff because he believes white supremacist stuff. He calls torch-waving Nazis wearing swastikas and chanting "Jews will not replace us" "fine people" because he doesn't see anything wrong with their viewpoint. It's what he thinks. Period. It isn't a game or an act or a publicity stunt. This is who he is.
The question is, what now? Conservatives who have spent all this time defending and making excuses for him have a choice. You can pull a Bill Kristol and try to salvage some shred of dignity by throwing in the towel and going the "This Nazi is destroying the party I love" route. Or you can continue to support and provide cover for an actual white supremacist, a course of action that does not prove but at least really really strongly suggests that you are, if not a white supremacist yourself, more than willing to let a white supremacist run the country if you think it will benefit you somehow. But the third option of sticking your head in the sand and pretending he's not really a racist or there is no PROOF he's a racist is no longer available to you. This weekend took that away. Unlike what happened in Charlottesville, this really is an issue with two sides now, and the side you choose is going to say a lot about you.