Being a satirist is an enormous responsibility. First you have to pretend to know the difference between satire, parody and irony. You also have to spend time trying to prove that you attack liberals just as much as conservatives even though you know you really don’t. Also, you have to make sure people don’t miss your sarcasm, lest they think you mean the opposite of what you did. Though that might be an ironist.
Still, I believed that writing satire was worth all that, because it was a noble pursuit. Not as noble as actually doing something, but in comparison to all the other things you can do alone at a computer in the middle of the night while drinking–pretty noble. Now, though, I wonder. Spy, the humor magazine I worshipped as a teenager, targeted Donald Trump incessantly in the ’80s and ’90s: sending him 13¢ checks to see if he’d cash them, which he did; putting him on the cover as a baby with the headline “Wa-a-a-a-h! Little Donald–Unhappy at Last”; Photoshopping him both as a bearded hobo and as a man wearing only a barrel in an article documenting his business losses; and constantly calling him “the short-fingered vulgarian.” Sure, three decades later, that nickname led to a presidential debate in which one of the topics was a candidate’s penis size, which is a pretty amazing joke payoff. But otherwise Spy lost spectacularly, sputtering to its death at the age of 12 in 1998, five years after the founders had already given up. Trump, meanwhile, is the leading Republican presidential candidate, the most discussed human on the planet and seemingly the only thing Mitt Romney has ever worried about.
“We tried to kill baby Hitler, and we failed,” Spy co-founder Kurt Andersen admitted to me. “I think, What role did I have in this? We didn’t create him. But Spy served as an early sparring partner. He got used to bad press and ridicule in a way that the Ted Cruzes are new to. I may have to pay the price for that when I get to heaven’s gate.” I don’t think Andersen has to worry, since, from what I’ve gathered of his feud with the Pope, President Trump is going to get rid of heaven, which is for cheek-turning losers.
I hadn’t even considered that satire can do harm. Though even that seems to overstate its power. The only effect Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal had was making high school students read it. In Jon Stewart’s penultimate Daily Show, he noted that all his enemies–Fox News, ISIS, big banks, racism–were stronger than before he took them on. Then he picked up a skull, to which he soliloquized, “Hath my efforts all been for naught? As I shuffle off this basic cable coil, must I discover my years of evisceration have embettered nothing? Sixteen years of barbs and jeers spurred none to greatness.” Though ironically, after that parody, everyone realized that Shakespeare sucks.
Andersen told me he never thought that satire had much effect. “It’s a way to bring attention in the all-entertainment-all-the-time world we live in to people who wouldn’t otherwise see it. Plus, it feels good for those of us who do it,” he said. “If nothing else, people enjoy it because nobody can buy their way out of negative attention.” Satire is the opiate of the masses. Even though opiates have actually become the opiate of the masses.
Brickbats and barbs, no matter how alliterative, cannot prevent the election of a thin-skinned, short-fingered man who will press the nuclear button just to prove that he’s physically capable of it. But as I was saying goodbye, Andersen suddenly perked up. “If Trump were elected President, then I think the satire would have an actual effect of preventing him from governing. Once he failed to do things instead of just saying ‘I’ll build a wall’ and ‘I’ll bomb them back to the Stone Age,’ it would make his life unlike any other President’s. Gerald Ford was falsely accused of being clumsy, and that destroyed him.” Whether it was clever mocking of his tripping or the stagflation or pardoning of Nixon that did Ford in, we’ll never know.
But as desperate as Andersen sounded, I wanted to believe what he said, since all my other job ideas involve doing public relations for Snapchat, which probably involves learning how to use Snapchat. I can argue that I have done as much to damage Trump’s campaign with my eviscerating tweets (he is not likely to type “payed” again soon after I called him out on his misspelling) as Jeb Bush, Lindsey Graham or Rand Paul. And at the protest that shut down Trump’s speech in Chicago, I saw a photo of a bearded man holding a sign that said, Short fingered vulgarian. Every protester, it turns out, needs a sign. And it might as well be funny.
This appears in the March 28, 2016 issue of TIME.