Christopher Buckley on Satire in the Age of Trump

“I think Trump is fair game for ridicule. Why do I think this? Because it drives him nuts.”

Christopher Buckley
Getty / The Atlantic

About the author: Andrew Ferguson is a staff writer at The Atlantic. He is the author of Fools’ Names, Fools’ Faces; Land of Lincoln; and Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course on Getting His Kid Into College.

In 1999, when Donald Trump was first toying with the idea of giving his countrymen the honor of voting for him for president, the notion was so absurd that Christopher Buckley took to The Wall Street Journal to publish his rendition of a Trump inaugural address. “My fellow Americans,” Buckley’s Trump began, “this is a great day for me personally.”

Twenty years later, Buckley remains the master satirist of Washington life. To be sure, it’s not the most crowded or competitive professional category in the world, but he has again cemented his position at its apex with the publication of Make Russia Great Again. In his 19th book, Buckley takes on a subject that would seem beyond satire—indeed, would itself seem a manifestation of some wild, dark satiric impulse: the Trump presidency. Buckley and I talked about Trump, the book, the Republican Party, and much else in a conversation last week. The transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Andrew Ferguson: I guess my first question is: How did you work up the nerve? You’re satirizing a moment that seems to be unsatirizable. A couple of years ago, you said you’d stop writing satire because contemporary politics in America had become “sufficiently self-satirizing” and no longer required your help. Yet here you are, taking it on.

Christopher Buckley: I suppose the answer is desperation. I did retire the mantle of satire some years ago. Which reminds me of one of my favorite New Yorker cartoons, which is Washington-based. It shows a secretary approaching a congressman’s desk, around which is sitting the congressman and a number of his aides. She’s walking in holding what looks like a folded cloth in her hands. And the caption is “No, no, Miss Clark! I asked you to bring in the Mantle of Greatness, not the Cloak of Secrecy.”

So I retired the cloak of satire, and I turned to historical fiction, which I had a jolly fun time doing. I wrote two [books]: One is called The Relic Master, which is set in 1517 and the Holy Roman Empire, and the other is called The Judge Hunter, which is set in 1664 New England.

Ferguson: Both of those had satirical elements to them.

Buckley: Yeah. I was sort of pleased when one of the reviewers of The Relic Master said it was a cross between The Princess Bride and Oceans 11, which may be the first and only time those two paragons have been so yoked. They did okay, but they didn’t knock, you know, Hilary Mantel off the mantelpiece. They didn’t seem to be what my audience—to the extent I have an audience—wanted.

But people kept asking me, “Hey, you do satire, why aren’t you writing about this?” And to them, I said, why bother?

In the end, I think I tend to respond to what you might call the muse of annoyance. I finally got tired of hearing people say, “What does Putin have on Trump anyway?” And I also was continually wondering why we weren’t retaliating against Russia.Why aren’t we interfering in their elections? Although it’s pretty hard to interfere. I mean, if you put all the organs of U.S. intelligence and counterintelligence to work, they’d probably succeed in reducing Putin’s plurality from 97.6 to 94.2 percent.

So I came up with this notion that’s frankly borrowed from the greatest satire ever done, namely Dr. Strangelove. Deep in the bowels of Fort Meade, at the national-security agency, is a doomsday device, code-named Placid Reflux. When Russia interferes in one of our elections, if there’s no counteraction to that, if the United States doesn’t retaliate, this machine will assume that the president has been decapitated, and will automatically respond. And in this case, Placid Reflux elects the head of the Russian Communist Party as Russian president. So that’s the kickoff.

Ferguson: You do finally reveal what Vladimir Putin has on Trump. I don’t want to give the game away.

Buckley: No, no, we mustn’t deprive the many avid readers who are at this moment logging on to Amazon to purchase the book in bulk orders.

How many times have we heard this plangent cry: What does Putin have on this guy? Most recently there’s the story in The New York Times saying that Putin was offering the Taliban bounties to kill U.S. soldiers. And all we hear from our commander in chief is “This is just another hoax!” And so, once again, the plangent cry is raised: For God’s sake, what does Putin have on him?

So I decided to come up with my own thought on what it is.

Ferguson: Well, it actually kind of parallels what a lot of people have been thinking. And it’s only two or three clicks beyond the worst you can think of Donald Trump. It’s not completely out of the realm of plausibility.

Buckley: Actually, it’s a little more innocent than the realities we’re being forced to confront. One reality is—and this doesn’t have anything to do with Putin—when the final COVID death tally is tabulated, there will be some mathematical revelation of how many lives were forfeit because of his inaction and dithering and utter indifference.

This most recent Putin bounty scenario—it’s hard to imagine one more loathsome. Now, we don’t know if it’s actually true. I will give Mr. Trump the, you know, I will afford him the … [sigh] Will I really? A presumption of innocence?

Ferguson: I was wondering where you were going with this.

Buckley: Anyway, my scenario is rather more playful. It has to do in fact with the 2013 Miss Universe contest in Moscow. I was quite attracted to that as an occasion of sin.

Ferguson: Trump was quite attracted to it too, obviously.

Buckley: Yes, he was! He kept referring to it as the greatest Miss Universe contest ever. I thought, Hmm, well, why would he think that? What made it so great? Let’s just imagine.

Ferguson: One thing I thought of while I was reading this book: There is a school of thought abroad in the land that Trump can’t really be made fun of, because he’s such a disaster. I’ve seen this firsthand. For some people, he’s like a big Hoover vacuum cleaner that just sucks up people’s sense of humor. If you try to make light of this really sort of ridiculous man, the response is: “That’s not funny! How dare you!” Did you think about that at all?

Buckley: I did. What you say reminds me a little bit of what, in a different context, Samuel Foote once said of someone—that he was not only dull but the cause of dullness in others.

There’s power in ridicule as a countermeasure. There was a movie recently, and a very fine one, called Jojo Rabbit. It’s the work of a talented director [Taika Waititi]. And in that, he manages to make Hitler a comic character—I emphasize: up to a certain point. Or look at another fairly recent film, which I thought was incredibly deft and wonderfully done: Death of Stalin. Imagine if I’d said to you, “I’ve got this idea for a comedy. You want to hear the title? The Death of Stalin!” You might logically assume I’d been overserved at lunch with martinis. And yet it’s an incredibly brilliant film about an ultimately uncomic occurrence.

I think Trump is fair game for ridicule. Why do I think this? Because it drives him nuts. After one of the Saturday Night Live episodes, in which he’s portrayed quite brilliantly by Alec Baldwin, he tweeted that this ought not to be allowed. So the president of the United States is up tweeting at two o’clock on a Sunday morning, demanding that the FCC make Saturday Night Live illegal. You know you’re batting a thousand when you’re annoying the president of the United States that way.

And thank heavens this is the United States. You can’t do this in Hong Kong anymore. You can’t do this in Russia. I’m guessing we still can do it here—although if Mr. Trump had his way, you and I would be having this conversation in Cell Block B at Rikers Island.

The thing is, it’s not particularly funny, what’s happening. It’s ghastly. But does that mean we shouldn’t ridicule it? I’m not so sure. If nothing else, laughter is the best revenge.

Ferguson: It’s interesting—that late-night tweet about Baldwin is a perfect example. I’m always astonished to consider that the president isn’t a drinker. He’s up at four in the morning tweeting strange and incomprehensible things, giving answers 12 and 14 minutes long at his own press conferences, repeating himself. He behaves like one of the worst drunks you could ever imagine.

Buckley: I think they call it a “dry drunk” at AA. I’ve only heard this, mind you, from other people.

There will be many psychological biographies written about this guy. At one level, I don’t think he’s that complicated. I think he’s a malignant narcissist who is ignorant and defiant and amoral. I don’t think I can imagine this guy shedding a tear over anything. To the extent he rises to the level of tragic hero—and I’m not sure he does—it would be only in the sense of the majesty of his self-involvement. One gropes for other historical or literary comparisons.

I have to force myself to watch things like the Tulsa rally for forensic reasons. Was it only last Saturday? It seems like several years ago. He began in on the ramp rant—about the West Point ramp. I actually started timing him, and he went past 10 minutes. I thought, How long is this going to go on? This is Eugène Ionesco on steroids. This is theater of the absurd meets Nightmare on Elm Street.

Ferguson: We were both speechwriters, briefly, for the first George Bush. I find myself trying to imagine being a speechwriter in the White House today, having to sit and listen to Trump, where every sentence you’ve written just becomes an occasion for him to start off on another one of his riffs, usually something he’s said a hundred thousand times.

Buckley: If you’re inviting me to feel sorry for Stephen Miller, I think I’ll pass.  But it’s remarkable how lifeless Trump sounds when he is speaking from a script. You can almost see the thought bubble going up over his head: This is sooo boring.

And, of course, he told us this himself a couple of years ago. At one of these rallies, he said something like “People tell me, you know, I should be presidential. Why do I want to be presidential? Presidential is so boring.” There’s no reason we should expect dignity and majesty coming from him.

He has in him the totalitarian oratorical inclination to go on and on. This is, I suppose, one of the symptoms or by-products of narcissism—the absolute certainty that you are being compelling. As I watched the Tulsa rally, though, I noticed the yawns, and people turning to their iPhones. I thought, This might be a tipping point—this might just be the tipping point where they finally see the emperor has no oratorical clothes—where he has become boring.

Of course, this guy has taken us past more tipping points than an Olympic hurdler.

Ferguson: Let me ask you another thing about the new book. Your second book, your first novel, The White House Mess, was in the form of a White House memoir, and Make Russia Great Again is also a White House memoir. You seem to have an affinity for that very particular literary form.

Buckley: Yes, my first novel was a faux—or as we say now, a fake—Washington memoir by a White House chief of staff named Herb. This is my 19th book, a fake memoir by a White House chief of staff named Herb. So I’m ready for the reviewers to say, well, Buckley has traveled the gamut from A to B, or from A to A.

Ferguson: Probably best to say you’ve come full circle.

Buckley: Well, it’s a kind of bookend. I probably won’t be writing another White House memoir. But it’s a fascinating, very rich subliterary genre. Everyone who works at the White House for more than five minutes writes a memoir. The White House dog keeper wrote a memoir. I think it was like 500 pages. They all tend to have two themes: One, it wasn’t my fault; and two, it would have been much worse if I hadn’t been there.

Herb, the main narrator in the new one, he’s sort of a likable schlub. He’s basically an innocent. He used to be the food and beverage manager at Trump’s other resort, Farrago-sur-Mer. Trump calls him, and he’s fired his six chiefs of staff at this point, and he begs Herb to come on board. I’d say he’s a good guy in a bad place. His observations are naive and innocent, and therefore, I think, the comedy is amplified.

Ferguson: There’s a peculiar psychology to White House staffers—maybe it’s true in all of politics. They all have an element of hero worship—they’re there to serve this superior person in rank and stature—and yet at the same time they, of all people, are more exposed to the weaknesses that all aspiring great men and women are heir to.

Of course, with Trump there’s an additional complication in the psychology. You have a great line in which Herb finally becomes self-aware.

Buckley: He says, “It had gotten to the point where I felt virtuous merely by not saying something that was false.”

Yeah, in a normal White House, which this seems not to be, the relationship between principal and staffer could probably be called a healthy codependence. They’re both there for their own reasons. A good leader like Bush 41—you loved the guy because he was lovable, and he was good, and it wasn’t about him. He may well be the most selfless man ever to occupy the White House.

With this guy, it’s different. It’s frankly hard at this point to imagine why anyone would want to work for him. I think the “I’m doing this for the good of the country” explanation rings a little bit hollow.

Ferguson: Have you read John Bolton’s book? It’s only 600 pages.

Buckley: It just arrived yesterday, and I can’t wait to plunge in. I should point out that it is published by Simon & Schuster. My book is published by Simon & Schuster. And the Mary Trump book [is also soon to be published by Simon & Schuster], which I’m very much looking forward to reading. So we have a trio of Trump memoirs coming out.

Mine is the little guy. Bolton’s book has sold 780,000 copies. And Mary Trump’s book is going to be a monster. I feel a little bit like the stick of chewing gum between these two main courses. My only consolation in being the Lilliputian here in this triad is that mine’s fiction. So we’ll see whose book is still being read 10 years from now.

In our lifetimes, we’ve gone from Emmet John Hughes, a speechwriter for Eisenhower, who wrote a book in the ’50s while Ike was still in power, or maybe just after, called The Ordeal of Power, the first modern White House memoir, and the reaction was appalled. By today’s standards, it was as bland as cream of wheat. He said nothing untoward. He didn’t reveal confidences. I don’t think he even quoted anyone in any meetings. And yet it was considered monstrously inappropriate to write such a book. We have traveled that distance in our lifetime to this.

Ferguson: Your novel The White House Mess was published in 1986, toward the end of the Reagan administration. It opens with Ronald Reagan, who’s slightly dotty at the end of his second term, refusing to leave the White House on Inauguration Day. If Trump loses, do you foresee anything similar happening next Inauguration Day?

Buckley: Yeah, that’s how the book started, and it got the book a lot of attention, that prologue. I certainly don’t claim any prescience. I mean, President Reagan was having the occasional dotty moment toward the end of his term. But he was also having some pretty cool non-dotty moments—as when he said, “Tear down this wall.”

That was just sort of a fun idea. Reagan’s not not leaving for malevolent reasons; he’s just a little dotty, and he just doesn’t feel like leaving right then. Maybe he’ll leave tomorrow. Meanwhile, the motorcade is waiting; the world is waiting.

I was interviewed about the book by The Washington Post, and I expressed worry that, you know, this might not seem funny to the Reagans, both of whom I had known since I was 13 years old, because my father [the journalist William F. Buckley] was close to them. Four days later, I get a handwritten letter from the White House. I opened it and it was from the Gipper, saying that he was delighted to have played a small role in the success of my book.

Did I weep at this man’s funeral? Yes.

Several years later, he wrote that one-draft letter to the American people telling us that he, as he put it, like “millions of other Americans” had Alzheimer’s. Note, by the way, how he put that: He was basically saying he was just unum among the pluribus. The refusal to take center stage. And we all wept at that letter.

Now flash forward to a different era. Trump is essentially issuing threats that if he loses this election, it will be because it was rigged. And so we face that possible drama. He may put us through hell.

Ferguson: Well, all he has to do is try, and he can put us through hell.

Buckley: I’d say we’re already in hell. It’s just a question of what circle of hell.

Ferguson: As a onetime Republican, do you have any thoughts about what the Republican Party is supposed to do after Trump is gone? Will it still exist?

Buckley: The Republican Party that you and I once knew and loved is over. It’s gone. One looks at the Republican Senate and, with one or two exceptions, despairs. There’s something, to me, almost more odious than Trump himself in the sum of his enablers and apologists and lickspittles.

My favorite character in the book is a certain southern senator, Squigg Lee Biskitt.

Ferguson: Of the great state of South Carolina. The president gives him a particularly pungent nickname.

Buckley: Yes, he does, which I’m not going to say. But, yeah, it’s in there. I had fun with that character. Lindsey Graham was once John McCain’s wingman, as he used to describe himself. I don’t understand how he could have made that journey from being John McCain’s wingman to Donald Trump’s lapdog. I don’t get it.

It’s fallen to Mitt Romney to express what once would have been the opinion of the majority. I am proud to say that my uncle Jimmy Buckley, when he was U.S. senator from New York, was the first Republican to urge Nixon to resign—in early 1973, well over a year before Nixon left office. I say this with frank family pride: I look in vain trying to find a Jimmy Buckley in the Republican Senate today.

Ferguson: One last thing: You were great friends with Christopher Hitchens, a writer much beloved by Atlantic readers for many years. He’s been gone for—

Buckley: He left us way too early, age 62, in 2011, so we’re coming up on a decade.

Ferguson: Do you ever think about what he’d be writing?

Buckley: I think about it all the time. He was so brilliant and so eloquent that I tremble to attempt to put words in that golden mouth. Being with Christopher was, as he might say, always a feast of reason and a flow of soul.

I think it’s certainly likely that he would be appalled—in particular by, say, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and Trump’s cosseting of the man who might as well have held the bone saw: Mohammed bin Salman. Hitch was always saddled up and put on the buckler and lance in defense of his colleagues, and I think he would have considered Khashoggi one of his colleagues. I think he would have been appalled by the recent revelation that Trump told President Xi of China that he was perfectly fine with his putting a million Uighurs in concentration camps.

I wish we could have Christopher’s take on a thousand things—on Boris Johnson, on Prince Harry and Meghan. Certainly he would have given us a very fine descant on the cravenness of the Republican Senate.

In his posthumously published book, Mortality, he quotes a poem that always makes me think of him. “They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead / They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed / I wept when I remembered how often you and I / Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky.” I miss him. A lot of people miss him.

Ferguson: That’s a perfect place to close. It’s very Hitchens-like of you to be able to recite that off the top of your head.

Buckley: Well, I managed stanza one. He would have done one, and then stanzas two, three, and four.