Right-wing comedy is on the rise. Over the last several years, this trend has been spurred on by algorithmic audience targeting, strategic cross-promotion among conservative comedians, and liberals' unwillingness to acknowledge that their political opponents might have a sense of humor. Right-wing comedy ranges from the late-night talk show Gutfeld! on Fox News, toThe Onion-esque news satire site The Babylon Bee, to the libertine, libertarian ramblings of Joe Rogan. These varied voices might not always agree on specific issues, but they share the common objective of using humor to hilariously own the libs.
When liberal analysts do acknowledge inklings of comedy in right-wing discourse, it is often in an effort to dismiss it as marginal to conventional conservative politics. Doing so, as Matt Sienkiewicz and I argue, overlooks the extent to which the right uses humor as cover for its more reactionary elements to enter mainstream spaces.
Consider the case of Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes, a right-wing troll adept at using the indignant reactions of his conversational combatants against them. Although media are often quick to paint McInnes as an extremist and outsider, he's also cozied up to more mainstream right-wing spaces on Fox News.
In one example of right-wing trolls' comedic modus operandi, McInnes appears on a 2018 segment of Hannity ostensibly to talk about Hillary Clinton. Instead, he commandeers the conversation and tries to provoke his co-panelist. “Women do earn less in America because they choose to...they’re less ambitious, this is God’s way, nature’s way of saying women should be at home with the kids. They’re happier there.” The segment’s other panelist, lawyer Tamara Holder, indignantly responds, “I hope that [Hannity] viewers do not take you, sir, seriously.” Perfect, McInnes must be thinking, she’s taken the bait. Holder runs down a list of McInnes’s recent chauvinistic comments while he and Hannity laugh, then sternly states that, "This isn’t funny...I think that your guest here is doing a disservice to all of your viewers, and a disservice to America."
Holder is right. McInnes isn’t being funny in a conventional, setup-punchline way. Instead, he’s hunting Holder’s vulnerabilities and exploiting them for comedic effect. The trolling humor arises in the first instance from McInnes misogynistically mansplaining to Holder her own areas of expertise. Considered in a broader context, he tries to sexistly joke about contradictions in popular post-feminist thought -- that women can be both successful professionals and happy housewives.
He trolls farther with a disingenuous retreat to biological determinism, stating that women are simply meant to be at home. This is what Holder means by McInnes doing a disservice even to the traditionally conservative Fox News audience -- he’s trolling viewers like her who do not recognize his ironic address. Of course, McInnes takes Holder’s apoplectic reaction and simply uses it to raise the stakes of the bit again. Surely, when Hannity cuts to a break, Holder is irate, while one can imagine McInnes shrugging, “I was just kidding!”
To be clear, characterizing McInnes' and other trolls' misogynistic, racist, or otherwise reprehensible behavior as "comedy" isn't a defense of it. Instead, it's a call to see such reactionary ideas with a new analytic frame. Just as left-leaning scholars have long celebrated liberal satrists' service to progressive politicial projects, so too must we start to take seriously how the right has used comedy to further its own conservative goals.