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What Hasan Minhaj's Fall Tells Us About Truthtelling Comedy
Let's take a comedy break from the world on fire
It’s been a month from hell. Genocidal attacks, war, dead children, aggressive anti-Semitism, a doddering senile president dodging accountability thanks to chaos on Capitol Hill… so I figured we could use an Election Day counterprogramming break. So here’s my latest podcast on why it matters that Hasan Minhaj told a bunch of lies to reveal his emotional truth, and why exposure of that fact by The New Yorker ultimately denied him the Daily Show throne he craved. Subscribe as always on any of the podcasting services — and let me know what you think of the new monologue format I’ve been using this month.
Why The Iowa Endorsement Matters
Iowa governor Kim Reynolds endorsed Florida governor Ron DeSantis yesterday. While endorsements don’t typically matter, this one could be the exception — both because of what it says about the Republican Party, and what it says about Donald Trump.
When DeSantis decided to take the plunge into the presidential race, Team Trump has tried to depict him primarily as one of two things. First, they framed him as a fraud — a faux conservative establishment type, a Jeb Bush acolyte beloved by the donor class, a secret neocon with zero charisma. But this wishcasting line of attack largely failed, because only diehard, too-online Trump supporters or people with the memory of a goldfish could really buy this line given DeSantis’s sterling résumé in Florida and his record of battles with Democrats. In fact, most Trump supporters still have DeSantis as their second choice, and most DeSantis supporters have Trump as theirs.
So instead, Team Trump shifted to emphasizing a different message: winnability. They openly compared DeSantis to Scott Walker — a candidate who looked great on paper but failed on the national stage — a frame echoed by the national media. Sure, conservatives, you may have liked his Covid policies, but in reality DeSantis is another too severe Paul Ryan, too fiscally conservative to win; and those battles with Disney, the “don’t say gay” bill, the six-week abortion ban — the media will use all those things to make him toxic. He may be fine for Florida but he’s a national loser. This appeals to Republican voters who want desperately to take back the White House, and has cemented with them the idea that they’re allowed to like DeSantis, they just won’t win with him.
(Note: this is the line of attack from the campaign, which shouldn’t be confused with the candidate, who as per usual deploys all methods of attack at all times, zigging and zagging from one line to another. And of course be sure to stress that he’s short, and lying about it with his cowboy boots.)
After initially pledging neutrality, the Reynolds endorsement is one more sign that while the Trump messaging has worked to drive DeSantis’s numbers down, they still haven’t knocked him out. And what line is Reynolds using in her announcement interview with NBC and the Des Moines Register? It’s all about winning.
“I cannot believe how it has declined over just the short time under President Biden. And we’re resilient. We’ll be able to come back from this. But if we don’t win this next election, we’re done,” Reynolds told the Register. “I believe he’s the candidate that can win. And we also not only need somebody that can win, but we need somebody that has the skill and the resolve, which he clearly does, to reverse the madness that we see happening across this country.”
And as for Trump? “I don’t think he can win,” Reynolds said. “He’s not the same person.”
In 2016, Iowa rejected Trump in dramatic fashion, and the timing of the Reynolds endorsement — she has an approval rating among Republican voters there above 80 percent — seems bent on giving DeSantis his best shot to do it again. It also is one more sign that the repeated effort by Trump supporting Republicans to drive DeSantis out of the race (and, to a lesser degree, Haley) before the voting starts hasn’t worked.
The campaign communications shop has been all in on this idea. For months, Trump’s team sent out one email blast after another with the subject line “KISS OF DEATH,” a countdown toward an October date they chose as a cutoff point for DeSantis’s challenger campaign. If you aren’t fortunate enough to receive them, the typical flavor of these missives can be found in an October 19 edition, which declared “KISS OF DEATH COUNTDOWN: 5 Days Left” and mocked the governor for the announcement of a small local park in Manatee County, which local citizens had voted to name after him.
“What’s unclear about Ron’s new ‘teeny’-sized park — whether or not he’s tall enough to go on any of the rides!” wrote Trump spokesperson Steven Cheung, before claiming the day as a “tipping point” for the campaign and mocking “DeSanctus rapid response director Christina Pooshaw,” “Nikki ‘Birdbrain’ Haley,” and adding “someone should check for a pulse on the DeSanctimonious campaign.”
It’s amazing the degree to which this D-list insult comedy, which can stumble into entertaining moments on stage, just doesn’t play in email form. I recommend the best path to finding humor in them is by reading them in the voice of McBain from his classic movie, Let’s Get Silly:
In response to the Reynolds endorsement, Team Trump deployed their pollster, Tony Fabrizio, to dump on the ramifications of Reynolds’s choice and to offer a prebuttal should influential social conservative Bob Vander Plaats join her:
A Monday memo from Tony Fabrizio — the pollster for Make America Great Again Inc., a super PAC backing Donald Trump — told donors and supporters of the former president that Bob Vander Plaats, president and CEO of The Family Leader, “has no significant impact on (the) Iowa caucuses.”
Fabrizio wrote that polling he conducted in September indicated an endorsement from Vander Plaats, which has yet to materialize, would have “negligible” impact, and his image was “mixed” among caucusgoers who were aware of him.
The memo was distributed the same day Reynolds appeared at a rally to endorse DeSantis, a major coup as his campaign seeks momentum against Trump in Iowa.
“While the DeSantis camp will try and spin that a Vander Plaats endorsement will revive their sputtering and shrinking campaign, cold hard data tells a much different story,” Fabrizio wrote.
(For the record, candidates endorsed by Vander Plaats won Iowa in 2008, 2012 and 2016.)
None of this indicates that Donald Trump isn’t still the odds-on favorite for the GOP nomination — he obviously is. But the focus on the importance of winning above all else from the DeSantis-Reynolds announcement represents the most important attack they can level against the former president to Republican primary voters. Those New York Times/Siena poll numbers that had Democrats worried all depend on Trump avoiding conviction — and if that doesn’t happen, even if it’s unfair, even if you believe he’s a victim of the system, the numbers change dramatically. Whatever type of Republican primary voter you are, the ones DeSantis needs to pull away from Trump are the ones who don’t want to nominate a loser just because they love him.
Frustration in Biden Camp Over Polls, Dissent
All told, Biden’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee spent roughly $7 million on positive TV ads this year, according to the ad tracking firm AdImpact, along with less than $100,000 on contrast ads that name Trump. Those numbers did not capture all ads, including digital and Spanish-language ones that attack Trump or Republicans in general. But the larger trend was indisputable.
The president’s team made a calculation earlier this year to prioritize bolstering Biden’s image versus attacking Trump’s in paid advertising, according to White House aides, a number of Democratic strategists and a top Biden campaign donor. Among the reasons: They figured the ex-president’s GOP primary rivals would do much of the work of roughing him up for them.
That bet has so far not paid off. Trump has largely skated through the primary without being attacked by his opponents. And Biden’s numbers have not budged…
In particular, Democrats are torn over the administration’s decision to brand the economic recovery as a result of “Bidenomics.” Officials have yet to figure out a way to allay Americans’ frustration over rising prices, even after months of evidence that inflation has cooled. And there is growing fear that the sales job may never work.
Pick a metaphor: President Joe Biden’s re-election campaign is a “five-alarm fire.” It’s a cardiac case in need of a “defibrillator.” Or a lemming on course to “slowly march into the sea and drown.”
All come from Democratic strategists whose low-boil frustrations with Biden’s candidacy erupted over the weekend amid a spate of bleak polling numbers. No less a party mastermind than David Axelrod, architect of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, suggested in a social media post that Biden consider dropping out of the race and letting someone more electable take his place as the Democratic presidential nominee.
The 2024 presidential election looks increasingly like it will be a rematch of four years ago, and Democrats are more and more worried that the outcome may not swing their way this time. Yet at this point, they're stuck with Biden — whether they like it or not.
Biden has given no indication he is interested in dropping out. Nor does his campaign team seem to be sweating the New York Times/Siena College poll that showed him losing to Republican Donald Trump in five of the six swing states that he captured in his 2020 victory.
Troubling signs for Democrats jump out from the poll. The party’s bedrock constituency, Black voters, appears to be eroding. In 2020, Black voters favored Biden over Trump by a margin of 78 percentage points. In the new survey, Biden’s margin had dropped to 49 points.
Democratic pollster Terrance Woodbury said when he hears from young and Black voters in focus groups, they feel frustrated by foreign aid instead of domestic spending, and it's important for Biden to explain why these foreign investments are necessary.
"'We don’t have money for student loans, but we’ve got money to send to Ukraine.' 'We don’t have money to invest in schools, but we have money to send to the Middle East,'" Woodbury said. "It is less about a position either way and more about, 'Stop investing there until you have taken care of home first.'"
The Iranian Miscalculation
Most news and commentary describes the war in Gaza as the latest brutal episode in the conflict between Israelis and Arabs. That is one dimension, but from the perspective of world-power politics, it isn’t the most important. What really matters in the Middle East is the battle between Iran, increasingly backed by Russia and China, and the loose and uneasy group of anti-Iranian powers that includes Israel and the American-backed Arab states.
There is much about the Gaza war that we still don’t know: how long it will last, what the death toll will be, how many hostages can be rescued or returned, and how successful Israel will be in its declared objective of destroying Hamas.
But so far, from a global perspective, the most important fact is that Iran isn’t getting what it wanted from the war. Iran’s objective in arming, training and encouraging Hamas wasn’t solely to cause Israel pain. The real goal was to disrupt the gradual deepening of the strategic ties between Israel and its most important Arab neighbors…
We don’t yet know how closely Iran was involved in the planning and timing of last month’s attacks, but it’s clearer what the mullahs hoped the attacks would accomplish. At one level, Iran wanted to remind everyone how savage and powerful the country and its proxies have become. Terror serves Iranian state interests.
Beyond that, Tehran hoped to disrupt the emerging anti-Iran bloc in the Middle East. The idea was that Hamas’s dramatic attacks would electrify public opinion in the region against Israel, the U.S. and the Arab rulers willing to work with them. This, Tehran hoped, would drive a wedge between the Arabs and Israelis as Arab rulers sought to placate their angry publics by abandoning any plans to work closely with Israel.
So far, this plan has failed. Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have all signaled that they intend, once the storm has passed, to go on working with Jerusalem for a safer, more stable Middle East. Worse from Iran’s point of view, the Arabs are committing to a revived form of Palestinian governance that can exclude Iran’s proxies from both the West Bank and Gaza.
This isn’t because the conservative Arab states love Israel or the U.S. It is because their survival requires checking Tehran.
Items of Interest
“I want to tell you something about addiction: no matter who it is or what substance that person is hooked on, loneliness is at its root. For whatever reason — and I have no theory as to why — there are those of us who feel isolated in this world, as if everyone else has some secret formula for getting along, for fitting in, and no one ever let us in on it. That loneliness resides deep inside us, at our core, and no matter how many people try to help us, no matter how many friends reach out, support us, show up for us, it never entirely goes away. It’s vast and shadowy, and also part of who we are. Something happens when we discover a drug, or alcohol — suddenly we have a companion holding our hand, propping us up, making us feel like we fit in, like we can be part of the club. It’s there for us in the empty hours when it seems like no one else is.”