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Red-blooded, real Americans are sick of America’s elites punching down on them. Authentic American politics, like authentic American comedy, roots for the underdog and punches up, not down. The problem with today’s elites is their down is up and their up is down: Our elites believe they’re signaling their superior virtue by “punching up” when they ridicule heartland America, but of course what they’re really doing is using their privileged social status to punch down on heartland America instead. Or that’s how it seems to many of us. For those unfamiliar with this punchy lingo, comedian Ben Schwartz explains,
“Punching up” and “punching down” are relatively new pop-political terms, often found not far from words like “mansplaining,” “problematic,” and “trolling.”
“Punching up” is a SJW term, in other words, but one Trump supporters should instinctively understand:
Trump is the fist Trump-supporters punch up with.
The term “punching up” may be new, but the sentiment itself is as old as the republic. It runs deep in our pop culture, to the very core of how we see ourselves as Americans. Here, in the land of unbridled speech and plucky self-reliance, even the lowliest among us is free to snark upon the high and mighty—and playing the scrappy David to our entitled Goliaths is, arguably, more important to us than actually being funny.
Does Kurt Schlichter succeed in punching up? If you believe he does, he’s a hoot. If you doubt his success in this, though, he’s less entertaining. Schlichter’s humor relies on the American zeal for punching up, and sustaining that zeal requires confidence that the puncher-uppers we champion have unmasked the power structure they’re punching up against for what it really is.
What kind of puncher-uppers has America traditionally championed?
“Out of the travail of the Revolution,” wrote Constance Rourke in her still vital 1931 study American Humor, “by a sudden, still agreement, the unformed American nation pictured itself as homely and comic.”
America’s homely comedy apparently baffled the otherwise-astute Alexis de Tocqueville:
In 1831, when Alexis de Tocqueville arrived from France to observe us in our natural habitat (the same year Darwin set sail for the Galapagos to poke the blue-footed booby), he deemed Americans decidedly unfunny. In Democracy in America, he wrote… “People who spend every day in the week in making money, and the Sunday in going to church, have nothing to invite the muse of Comedy.”
Our early stock of puncher-uppers included
three “homely, comic” characters… the Yankee, who outwitted upper-class, educated elites; the backwoodsman, a braggart pioneer who told fantastic, improbably violent tales of survival on the frontier; and the minstrel, a white man in blackface makeup who appropriated African American culture. They were regional variations on one national comic character, which Toll describes as “rustic, proud, independent, morally strong, brave, and nationalistic.”
We no longer think of the plucky outwitter of upper-class, educated elites as “the Yankee,” nor would we consider a minstrel show punching up. But the “one national comic character” underlying these variants might sound familiar to Trump supporters:
It might sound like themselves.
Oddly enough, Schwartz claims that one of our Founders, Benjamin Franklin, gained fame through humor that punched down, not up:
Franklin’s fortunes came in no small way from his career as the colonies’ most popular humorist, and one who punched down, hard. An Enlightenment thinker in the wilderness of the New World, a devoted fan of Swift, he enjoyed playing hoaxes on the yokels. In the various newspapers and publications he and his brother James put out, Franklin authored fake witch trial reporting (he especially loathed his childhood pastor, Cotton Mather) and composed phony letters to the editor as the ironically pious Silence Dogood [also a name mocking Cotton Mather] —and then there was his comic masterpiece, Poor Richard’s Almanac.
Would the “yokels” Franklin hoaxed have enjoyed his humor so much if they believed he was punching down on them? I doubt it.
Franklin may have personally disdained Cotton Mather, but Mather was a powerful, influential man, a man who, despite his backward belief in witches, was in other respects quite forward-thinking, pioneering experiments in plant hybridization and advocacy for inoculation against disease. Franklin also delighted in mocking Harvard University for the pretensions of its graduates. Perhaps you’d have to be a modern American liberal, as Ben Schwartz is, to believe Franklin was punching down.
Disagreement on which way is up, punch-wise, is quite common and pervades much partisan hostility.
Both left and right agree that being white, straight, male, and Christian in America no longer confers the status it once did, but they disagree mightily on whether this decline in status has actually flipped America’s power structure against the red tribe. As the blue tribe sees it, America’s red tribe — a tribe unduly favoring the white, straight, male, and Christian — is hardly the underdog. Rather, it’s still unduly powerful. In particular, red-tribe America is overrepresented politically, for all sorts of reasons, including the geography of our electoral system. Since, according to the Hidden Tribes survey, members of the Traditional Conservative tribe are “Almost twice as likely [as the average American] to feel that people like them have a say in politics — 46% vs. 24%,” perhaps the blue tribe’s fear that the red tribe is better-represented politically isn’t entirely unfounded.
Even if we red-tribers do feel somewhat better-represented politically, though, we find it cold comfort. We still don’t feel that well-represented politically, and more importantly, we feel under siege in the wider culture. Under siege on so many fronts, most of them nonracial. That said, a majority of white Americans now feel discriminated against, and white evangelicals, who voted for Trump in droves, feel particularly discriminated against. According to the Hidden Tribes survey, “80 percent of white Devoted Conservatives” — Trump’s strongest demographic of supporters — “believe that the ‘rights of black and brown people are more protected than the rights of white people,'” as do “62 percent of non-white Devoted Conservatives.” We are the underdogs now. The elites, by officially requiring typical red-tribers to be the losers in the Oppression Olympics, have perversely turned us into its winners — if we believed in playing Oppression Olympics, which of course we don’t — although in our zeal for punching up, sometimes we kinda do…
Disagreement over which way is up is nothing new in America:
To reinforce their regular-guy standing, popular American comic figures of the nineteenth century, such as Major Jack Downing, Sut Lovingood, Simon Suggs, and Jim Crow, spoke in malaprop English. They had no airs of knowing anything but what they picked up in the academy of common sense—and they all punched up. Jim Crow, a persona adopted by minstrel actor Thomas D. Rice, made anti-slavery politics part of his show. Sut Lovingood, a literary creation of George Washington Harris, was a pro-slavery Tennessee farmer who mocked the Lincoln administration. (Harris himself owned three slaves.) They channeled two different sides of the slavery issue—yet both purported to speak for the common man, punching up at, respectively, slave owners and big-government abolitionists. What they reveal is that to punch up, you only have to convince your audience that you are the little guy, while your satirical targets represent the powerful, the elite. In other words, to own the moral high ground, you have to play to the cultural low ground.
Nor is the suspicion that punching up might be an affectation:
“In the days when Mark Twain was writing, it was considered good form to spoof not only the classics but surplus learning of any kind,” wrote Robert Benchley in 1920. “Can it be said that the American people are not so low-brow as they like to pretend? There is a great deal of affectation in this homespun frame of mind.”
To us, the affectation behind Progressives’ claims to punch up is blatant — and repulsive. We don’t buy the blue tribe’s conceit that punching down on ordinary members of the red tribe is really punching up on behalf of oppressed minorities. As one Ricochetian, @fullsizetabby, recently put it,
This seems fairly typical of “left” vs. “right.” Most of the time, people of the “right” attack the power brokers, the politicians, the media stars, the elite. To a far greater extent people of the “left” attack the regular folks (“bitter clingers” “deplorables” “rednecks”).
The left, though, has also spent a disproportionate amount of time directly or indirectly attacking Trump — a power broker, media star, politician, and member of the elite, even if he has successfully branded himself a champion of the common man.
Is Trump’s claim to punch up on behalf of his base just an affectation Trump uses to punch down on the rest of America? To those on the left, it’s obviously so — just as obvious as the affectation behind Progressives’ claim to punch up is to us.
All Americans — even blue-tribe elites — want to be on the side that punches up. The American zeal for punching up is powerful in our politics. That zeal, though, relies on the presumption that you’ve unmasked the real power structure behind politics for what it is, that you know just who the underdogs are, and that you’re on the underdogs’ side, while those you’re punching are not. In other words, it relies on your neither questioning your own shrewdness and virtue, nor caring whether there might be underdogs not wholly aligned with you on whom your punches “up” might land. Since punching up requires a power structure to punch up against, ideally a structure where power is highly concentrated in the hands of an unsympathetic few, zeal for punching up also makes conspiracy theories more attractive — these theories are a rich source of morally simplified power structures, after all, even if the logistics of implementing those power structures must be made implausibly Byzantine to compensate.
Still, as Schwartz says,
to punch up, you only have to convince your audience that you are the little guy, while your satirical targets represent the powerful, the elite.
And just knowing that’s how the gambit works makes it easier to wonder whether you’re really rooting for the little guy, or just for someone somebody wants you to think of as the little guy. Anything that makes it easier to wonder, though, makes stoking the zeal for punching up harder. And wouldn’t passing up a chance to stoke a zeal so embedded in America’s heritage be almost unpatriotic?