Writing Satire In the Age Of Trump

Cole Bolton
Cole Bolton, the editor-in-chief at 'The Onion,' talks to 'Worldview' host Jerome McDonnell about satirizing the Trump administration. Andrew Gill / WBEZ
Cole Bolton
Cole Bolton, the editor-in-chief at 'The Onion,' talks to 'Worldview' host Jerome McDonnell about satirizing the Trump administration. Andrew Gill / WBEZ

Writing Satire In the Age Of Trump

Last month, the satirical news outlet The Onion published “The Trump Documents,” an ambitious, multimedia undertaking adding up to almost 700 pages of fake leaks from President Trump’s White House.

The Onion‘s editor-in-chief, Cole Bolton, joined Worldview host Jerome McDonnell to talk about “The Trump Documents” and satire in the age of Trump.

Here are some interview highlights.

On challenges of lampooning the Trump administration

Jerome McDonnell: Is it hard to satirize something that is so off-the-charts whacky already?

Cole Bolton: I don’t think it’s particularly hard to satirize what’s going on with Trump or any of the people around him or the decisions they’re making. What’s hard is keeping up with all that’s going on, all that there is to satirize. …

It’s hard to keep pace. We’re very different than a regular news organization in that we’re just not reporting on reality. We’re creating our own realities and then reporting on them, which takes a fair amount of time to do and do well and with an insight, which we hope to provide through our satirical commentary.

On ‘Trump Documents’

Bolton: We came up with that during the first week of the Trump administration. We had just finished up with a big retrospective about Barack Obama and Joe Biden. Joe Biden was a huge character for us for eight years.

McDonnell: Washing his car.

Bolton: Yeah, that’s right. He was washing his Trans Am, shirtless in the White House driveway. Diamond Joe Biden was huge for us. We miss him. We actually brought him back a couple of weeks ago. The DNC chairman found him tossing whole chickens to alligators in the Everglades.

But anyway, we were kind of focused on that and steering our validation for Biden and Obama, and then when it was the first week of the Trump administration, we were like, “Wow, this is four years of just a ton of satire we’re going to have to do.”

And it felt like every article made a really good insight, made a really good point, but, like I was saying, there was so much to make fun of. Our motto at The Onion is “tu stultus es,” which is “you are dumb.” So we try to make fun of everything that we think is dumb, and there was a lot of dumbness to make fun of.

So we felt like each article was just like a little hit, and we wanted to do something that was really big. And it felt like the zeitgeist-y way, like the thing that breaks major news stories nowadays, are document leaks like Wikileaks. And we’re like, “Perfect, we can hit Trump, we can hit his inner circle, we can hit the decisions they’re making, everything in one fell swoop.” So we worked for four months on it.

McDonnell: How many people do something like this if you got 700 pages and four months of chuckling away?

Bolton: It was our entire writing staff and our entire graphics staff, which is about 20 people — about 12 writers and eight graphics editors.

On favorite Trump official to satirize

Bolton: Steve Bannon is probably our favorite one at The Onion. I think we captured a slither of his personality, which seems kind of real in that he’s reclusive. We sort of treat him like he’s some sort of half-dead creature that lives in the depths of a cave that never comes out and sees the light.

And so we’ve done a whole bunch of stories about him. We’ve got Reince Priebus telling everyone in the White House to put the lids on the trash cans so that Bannon couldn’t get into it. And there was Trump addressing his mottled skin for 15 minutes before realizing he wasn’t there.

We just think he’s a really weird, disgusting, creepy creature.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to hear the entire interview.