Return to Article Details Brother Jonathan Runs for President: Spoof Campaigns, the Janus Laugh, and the Rise of Donald Trump

“Wintergreen for President! Wintergreen for President!
He’s the one the people choose. Loves the Irish and the Jews!”
— Ira Gershwin (lyrics), Of Thee I Sing (1932)



The qualifications for the presidency outlined in the US Constitution (1789) have epitomized American self-government and unleashed political humor that mocks and questions it. The requirements, widely summed up as “any American child can grow up to be president,” actually take negative form. “No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President,” stipulates Article II, Section 1, Clause 5; “neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.” Like other aspects of US political life, the loose prerequisites for a presidential candidacy have inspired a long line of comic and satiric commentary—in this case, dating back to the 1830s, the Age of Jackson. The tradition originates in patriotic ideology. Since the 1830s, American humor has expressed national pride and identity, demonstrating American irreverence and innovation as manifest not only in the brash revolt against King George III, but also in rejecting monarchy and aristocracy in favor of a republican government even though the Greek and Roman models showed republics to be fragile (Lee 2008; W. 1838). And in the context of American democracy, comic political critique—the more critical the better—validates US constitutional rights to the franchise and free speech. Of course, brash and even vulgar political rhetoric reached the US as a postcolonial heritage of vigorous British debates among elites from Parliament to coffee houses, but Americans took advocacy further in comically celebrating universal (white male) citizenship, leaders chosen by ordinary people from among themselves, and citizens’ right to seek “redress of grievances” from their government, as the First Amendment puts it.1 Such patriotic pride is not blindly nationalistic, however, because humor on this theme also feeds the ambiguities and incongruities that Louis D. Rubin has called “The Great American Joke,” born of the gap between the Constitution’s goal of a “more perfect union” and the lesser daily reality of it (Rubin 1973, 3–15).

Nowhere does the gap between ideal and real inspire greater comic creativity—or public engagement—than in American presidential campaigns. Consider the matter of political equality between citizens and their leaders, and the faith that all citizens wield equal power at the ballot box, despite the anti-democratic distortions of the Electoral College. James Madison took the sincere view of the theme when he argued for the wisdom of the citizenry in Federalist Paper #14, where he linked phrasing from the Declaration of Independence to the newly proposed Constitution:

"Is it not the glory of the people of America, that whilst they have paid a decent regard to the opinions of former times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience?" (Hamilton, Madison and Jay 1986, ch. 4, doc. 22)

As he argued for the value of modernity, the validity of personal choice, and the wisdom of that sacred entity, “the people,” Madison also implicitly rejected tradition and elite status as political values—ideas that remain bedrock ideology in American political rhetoric. It is not surprising, then, that a comic tradition dating back almost to Madison’s time mocks that faith in the common Joe and Jane through campaigns for fictitious or feigned presidential candidates. Since the Revolutionary era, the stock figure Brother Jonathan has personified that ordinary citizen; like other kinds of parodies, spoof campaigns by one Jonathan or another reveal key features of the model candidacy. In this context, the very real campaign by Donald Trump, which began (at least in perception) as a publicity stunt and thrived on free media coverage of his provocative sound bites,2 not only echoes the parodic campaigns of the past two centuries, but also exposes the ideological flaw at their comic heart: Brother Jonathan’s virtue, patriotism, and charm personify American ideals, but do not outweigh an ignorance that disqualifies him for the job. In other words, spoof campaigns call Madison’s bluff, at once affirming and negating US political values with a two-facedness that we might call the Janus laugh.3

Consider the example of Jack Downing, perhaps the earliest example of a spoof campaign. In April of 1830, with frontiersman Andrew Jackson in the White House—much to the distress of elites who saw his election as empowering the rabble, as shown in an inauguration image from his time (—editor Seba Smith of the Portland, Maine, Courier struck a rich vein in joking about the fitness of candidates for public office: he nominated his fictional character Jack Downing for governor of Maine. Smith had introduced this young Maine farmer in January as the supposed author of naïve political commentary in letters written from the state capital to his family back home down east in Downingville. Jack could trade axe handles for food like a properly sharp Yankee peddler, but could not understand why state lawmakers refused to seat a speaker when there were clearly enough chairs to go around (Smith 1834, 37). In proposing young Downing as governor, Smith mocked his suitability by listing the members of the patriotic Democratic National Republican Party who nominated him: Joshua Downing, chair; Ephraim Downing, secretary, and platform committee members Jotham Downing, Ichabod Downing, Zenas Downing, Levi Downing, and Isaiah Downing, all of them nominated by Jacob Downing. This joke about nepotism also questions whether simple morality and good will suffice as qualifications for office. In fact, Smith mocked the ideal of the citizen leader as an amateur rather than professional politician when Jack cites his readiness to serve while ironically revealing the reverse: “I don’t believe there’s a boy in our county, . . . that’s turned out and tied up more cattle than I have,” he boasts, “And they say a Governor has a good deal of this sort of work to du [sic]” (Smith 1834, 81). Of course, in showing Jack’s practical side, the remark lampoons the career legislators who need such herding, but the possibility that Jack has more experience with animals than with people pokes fun at him too.

This fictional candidacy deserves note partly for its innovation and partly for its surprise effect three years later: on July 17, 1833, soon after Jackson’s second inauguration, Downing fans 400 miles away from Maine, in Washington, DC., nominated him for president, citing his superiority to such luminaries as Van Buren, Clay, and Webster as “probably . . . the most popular candidate” in the nation ([“For president],” 1833, 3). (See Fig. 2.) This spoof nomination—that is, parodic nomination of a purported but ineligible candidate—upped the ante on Smith’s jaundiced view of American politics, because joking about the governorship of a small state like Maine is one thing, and mocking the national pool of candidates for the presidency is quite another.


Fig. 1: Downing fans 400 miles away from Maine, in Washington, DC., nominated him for president in 1833.


Among the delights of Jack’s semi-literate letters in Maine dialect were his ties to the beloved American folk figure known as Brother Jonathan. An American version of the stock character from classical Greek theater known as an eiron, a character whose modest appearance contrasts with his abilities as later—and, with ironic surprise—revealed, Brother Jonathan personified Revolutionary America. His Old Testament name and archaic title “Brother” signaled his Puritan heritage. Albert Matthews has traced the earliest appearance of the figure to a London satire from 1642, two decades after the 1620 Mayflower landing, in which a character states:

"Queene ELIZABETHS Monument was put up (at my Charge) when the Regall Government had fairer credit among us than now: and her Epitaph was one of my brother Jonathan’s best poems before he Abjured the University, or had a thought of New-England." (1935, 374)


The moniker reappeared (sneer intact) in March 1776, when two contemporaneous documents recorded that British troops withdrawing from the battle of Bunker Hill left behind sentry uniforms stuffed with straw and bearing the sign “Welcome Brother Jonathan” (1935, 374–75). Pro-British commentators personified the rag-tag American militiaman—the “Yankie [sic] Doodle“—by calling him Jonathan. An anonymous 1776 editorial cartoon, “The Yankie Doodles Intrenchments near Boston 1776 [sic],” exemplifies what Susan E. Maguire describes as British “paternalistic renderings of a foolhardy offspring” (2016, 190; Yankie Doodles, 1776). As shown in the linked image (, images of Jonathan gradually morphed into Uncle Sam, as Winifred Morgan details, but remained a staple of editorial cartooning on both sides of the Atlantic for the next century. (Fig. 3: Jonathan gradually became Uncle Sam.)

Americans appropriated both the Yankee Doodle character and song, turning the sneer into a badge of honor through post-Revolutionary anti-British ideology. In Constance Rourke’s classic description of the Yankee’s lineage in American humor, Jonathan emerged by the 1770s as both “homely and comic:” “an out-at-elbows New England country boy with short coat-sleeves, shrunken trousers, and a blank countenance” (1959, 12). Jonathan moved from folklife to literary culture in 1787, when playwright Royall Tyler grafted American republican politics onto English stage conventions in The Contrast, which touted U.S. superiority to Britain. The absurd premise made for excellent, patriotic comedy in light of the empire’s military might, despite the recent failure of the American Articles of Confederation and the uncertain future of the recently drafted U.S. Constitution.4 The hero of the play was the middle-class Revolutionary War hero appropriately named Captain Manly, but the comic subplot starred Jonathan as his equally virtuous though rustic wartime buddy. A key moment in the play involved Jonathan’s performance of “Yankee Doodle” as a celebration of patriotism. Its presence demonstrated how the Revolutionary-era song originally spoofing New Englanders’ rustic speech and manners, because the fellow who “stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni” showed his ignorance of contemporary high fashion, had already morphed into a source of egalitarian pride.5 (


Fig. 2: “Yankee Doodle” trumpeted rustic New Englanders’ patriotism.


Appropriations of Jonathan as the quintessential Yankee made British-US difference a politically significant convention of American humor from an early point. Ridicule of everything British played out in both comic plots and linguistic style.6 James Kirke Paulding’s Diverting History of Brother Jonathan and John Bull, by (the pseudonymous) Hector Bull-us, parlayed the contrast between the two avatars through three “improved” editions between 1812 and 1834. When Jonathan rose from this partnership in the transatlantic contrast in 1830 for solo stardom as Jack Downing, his regional dialect signaled the democratic ideology of vernacular humor, which made heroes of ordinary folks, for all their foibles, mocked the elite as fools, and privileged common sense over book learning (Lee 2008).

This line of joking highlights important theoretical issues regarding humor in general and American presidential satire in particular. Above all, the example of Brother Jonathan shows that humor carries political meanings even when the topic treats some other sphere. Comic characters, contexts, and plots all carry specific cultural valences and meanings (Eco 1986, 269). Jokes about a priest, minister, and rabbi walking into a bar tweak differences specific to majority Judeo-Christian cultures like the U.S. and have very little relevance to societies that are hegemonically Buddhist, Muslim, or Hindu. Although protected by the First Amendment, ridicule of a sacred text in the Broadway hit The Book of Mormon, for instance, would less likely be risked or tolerated of the Koran or Christian Bible; in other countries law or custom forbids mocking religion or its leaders. The “just joking” excuse claims humor’s essential insincerity as its defense: “I didn’t mean what I said.” In this sense, humor tends to follow Emily Dickinson’s rule, “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—/ Success in Circuit lies“—with the pun on lies doubtless intended (1961, 248). Controversial matters thus lend themselves to the covert presentation and indirect analysis of the comic slant instead of straight. By enabling the just-joking defense, the comic slant reflects social action within what Johan Huizinga in Homo Ludens called the zone of play, a symbolic space that generates pleasure and joy from interaction outside normal social rules. Play is serious but not sincere in its attacks, defeats, and humiliations. That is, play is deliberate but symbolic, whereas sincerity is deliberate and literal (1955, 7–22). Thus, tackles allowed on a football field are forbidden in a bar or in class, while teasing permits criticisms (a variety of what Freud called tendentious jokes) that sincere conversation forbids. But humor is also more than a playful mode of expression and representation. Humor both dramatizes and mocks social relations because it explicitly addresses an audience while it reports on human interactions. Humor both articulates and lampoons expressive practices because it aims at rhetorical (comic) effect. And humor both highlights and critiques the values and viewpoints it violates—the more sacred, the better—in celebrating and articulating what is often taboo.

Qualities that make humor more satisfying than other forms of discourse deepen the significance of lampooning national ideology. Topping the list is what psychologists call salience: because humor draws unexpected or unrelated ideas together through illogic, incongruity, irony, or wit, a comic message presents its audience with a more complex cognitive task, and thus offers greater cognitive rewards than straightforward, sincere discourse. As documented by the brain scans known as functional MRIs, processing a comic message (experiments typically use single panel gag cartoons or 3-line jokes) creates or strengthens neurological pathways that make the message more memorable than a nonhumorous control, while the satisfactions of solving the cognitive puzzle engage the brain’s pleasure centers and enhance the value of the message.7 Satire’s negativity adds to the effect because evolution seems to have disposed us to keep negative experiences firmly in mind. The negativity of American political satire serves both sides of the satiric coin, usually simultaneously, in what we might see as two faces of American exceptionalism, the idea that the U.S. differs from other nations because it was founded in the ideals of its sacred documents, not a heritage of blood and soil. In the two-faced view of the Janus laugh, the Puritans’ “errand into the wilderness“—whether to pursue their own faith or serve as a beacon to the world8—is today’s wild goose chase.

One sacred ideal concerns who deserves to be America’s president. Since Jack Downing’s mock-nomination, spoof presidential campaigns have regularly mocked contenders and their supporters both, always valorizing the vernacular hero as the candidate of the people while joking about such a person’s fitness for office. Some candidates have returned cycle after cycle like Elmer Fudd trying to shoot Bugs Bunny. In a gag that has run fifteen presidential elections since 1956, Mad magazine has sponsored a quadrennial write-in campaign for mascot Alfred E. Neuman, whose varied election slogans include “You could do worse, and always have!” (Gavin 2012; see Fig. 3).


Fig. 3: Mad magazine mascot Alfred E. Neuman repeatedly ran for office with slogans such as “You could do worse, and always have!”


The magazine now mainly publishes reprint materials, but its electoral tradition has already spawned a tweet regarding Alfred’s 2028 candidacy (see Neuman’s face bears an uncanny resemblance to that of George W. Bush, though today he is compared to you-know-who (see Fig. 4). This context adds significance to Alfred’s debut on a MAD cover, which invoked him as a write-in presidential candidate the month after Republican Dwight Eisenhower’s 1956 landslide re-election victory against Democrat Adlai Stevenson II, the former Governor of Illinois who helped establish the United Nations (


Fig. 4: The Nation borrowed Alfred to critique George W. Bush in 2000; Mad mocked Trump’s candidacy


Instead of a seasoned warrior or statesman, like Eisenhower or Stevenson, the sort of individual who had occupied the presidency since George Washington, Neuman is young (as the name “new-man” suggests) and so inexperienced and naive that he does not even know enough to be worried—a particularly disqualifying optimism during the Cold War. Thus, he joins Jack Downing as Brother Jonathan’s heir. Al Feldstein, the MAD editor who commissioned this famous painting of the soon-to-become mascot for the magazine, told artist Norman Mingo, that the boy should “look like an idiot—I want him to be lovable and have an intelligence behind his eyes. But I want him to have this devil-may-care attitude, someone who can maintain a sense of humor while the world is collapsing around him” (Sweet 2016). Neuman shared Eisenhower’s genial smile, sources of the campaign slogan “I like Ike,” while distancing himself far from the label that dogged Stevenson’s candidacy in 1952 and ’56: “Egghead.” Even apart from the politics of the day, Neuman’s spoof candidacy marked antagonism toward the elite.

The Mad gag probably derived from the contemporaneous candidacy of Pogo Possum, hero of Walt Kelly’s daily newspaper strip set in a Florida swamp. The setting comically literalized a long-running metaphor for US national political culture as an unhealthy, fetid environment, grounded in the physical geography of Washington, DC: the engineer who laid out the capital city situated the governmental structures on high, dry ground above a triangle of marsh and tidal wetlands created by Rock Creek and the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers (District of Columbia 2022; Abbott 2017). Best remembered for its April-June 1953 satire on Senator Joseph McCarthy’s search for communists in the federal government, Pogo offered its hero as a spoof candidate in 1952 and ’56, the slogan “I Go Pogo” echoing the rhyme of Eisenhower’s “I Like Ike.” (

Pogo’s first nomination, in strips from April 28 and 29, 1952, makes the satiric point. (see Fig. 5.) Roping the unwilling possum into the presidential race is P.T. Bridgeport, whose name invokes the redoubtable impresario Phineas T. Barnum of Bridgeport, Connecticut. Barnum’s nineteenth-century fame rested on the hoaxes of his American Museum, such as the exhibition of slave Joice Heth as George Washington’s wet-nurse, and he served in the Connecticut state legislature from 1866-69 and as mayor of Bridgeport from 1875-76, but his reputation reflects his association with the three-ring circus after 1881 and as the personification (but apparently not the author) of that folk wisdom of American business, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” The Pogo satire presents Bridgeport wearing the straw hat, plaid coat, and cane of the circus barker and traveling salesman—both shifty types. Bridgeport has run away from the circus to run Pogo’s campaign, a detail that implies no difference between them, and his bombastic pitch to Pogo reeks of hucksterism. “I, P.T. Bridgeport, at great personal expense and sacrifice, will guide your every step!,” he boasts, and the multiple fancy fonts in his speech bubbles—oversize lettering, ready-made tropes, boilerplate printing symbols just wrong for their context—highlight the artificiality of his remarks (Kelly 2012, 142).


Fig. 5: Walt Kelly, Pogo, April 28-29, 1952.


At least part of Kelly’s joke here, in a cynical, modern twist on the traditional mock-candidacy, concerns who the sucker actually is: the candidate or the nation. But as a figure whom every panel shows to be small—not necessarily the smallest critter in the swamp, but certainly much smaller than his antagonists—Pogo stands in the line of American eirons that starts with Brother Jonathan. Pogo’s candidacy, like Downing’s and Neuman’s, mocks the American electoral process by playing not only with the American dream that anyone can grow up to be President, but also with the American joke that American politics fulfill our democratic ideals: the job exceeds the grasp, literally and figuratively, of candidates both called and chosen. Furthermore, nominations for unlikely, unqualified spoof candidates endorse the status quo of seasoned elites in the backhanded way central to the reverse logics of irony and humor, by implying that the alternative to elite leadership is a joke. Through this two-faced move the Janus laugh at once affirms and scorns the ideology of the ordinary citizen leader.

The timing of spoof campaigns suggests that they gain traction in times when voters show frustration with established parties and other symbols of political status quo. As Andrew Jackson’s 1828 election confirmed the split of the old National Democratic-Republican party into Democrats and Whigs, so the popularity of Pogo among 1950s college students during the Cold War reflected push-back from the left against the nativism and anti-intellectualism of the McCarthy years. The same mood of displacement fed the mock-candidacies of Will Rogers in 1928, on the eve of Wall Street’s crash, and Gracie Allen in 1940, as US involvement in World War II loomed.

Will Rogers (1879-1935), perhaps best known for his claim “I am not a member of any organized [political] party—I am a Democrat” (O’Brien and Thomas 1935, 162), became famous for his rope tricks and topical monologues in the Ziegfeld Follies, America’s premier vaudeville revue, from 1916-25. The Oklahoma-born Cherokee Indian became a multimedia star. By 1928, his solo three-act touring shows, film performances, syndicated political commentary, radio broadcasts, and writings for the Saturday Evening Post and other magazines had won a national audience for his aw-shucks persona: an updated, westernized Brother Jonathan known as the “Cowboy Philosopher” whose political commentary began with a humble “All I know is just what I read in the papers.” Rogers’s columns and radio broadcasts featured homespun insights (“it’s awful hard to get people interested in corruption unless they can get some of it”), colloquialisms (“he ain’t much interested”), nonstandard grammar (“the fellow that has never drank”), eccentric capitalization (“Sour Kraut Juice,” also a homely detail), and the occasional mock-oral spelling (“kinder like”). His analysis of the major parties’ attitudes toward corruption—“Big or Little Corruption—Take Your Pick,” his April 22, 1928 column that supplied the previous quotes (1981, 155)—played out dramatically when the weekly humor magazine Life nominated him for president in the spring of 1928.

This spoof campaign followed two barely more viable symbolic so-called “favorite-son” presidential nominations earlier that year, the first by an Oklahoma Congressional representative and another shortly thereafter by his hometown chapter of the Democratic Party, which also voted to return the country to the Indians (“Will Rogers,” 1928; “Oklahoma,” 1928). He declined publicly, telling the New York Times preferred a joke candidacy to an actual one (Rogers 1928g). Editor Robert Sherwood (one of the Algonquin wits) and art director Fred P. Cooper soon obliged with a stunt aimed to boost Life‘s circulation (Rogers 1982, xiii).9 In loose consultation with Rogers, Life launched its Anti-Bunk party in the May 17th number, nominated Rogers in the next, ultimately ran a total of twenty-five weekly installments over the six months up to the November 6th election. Sherwood augmented regular policy announcements by the candidate with editorial cartoons, campaign updates, endorsements, letters to the editor—even polling results. (The latter, written by Robert Benchley, parodied the phenomenon recently spurred by Walter Lippman’s Public Opinion [1922].) The joke and its joy spilled over into other media in the US and abroad. Regular updates appeared in the New York Times and London Daily Express, the campaign sold buttons, and mock rallies were broadcast via a radio hook-up of twenty-plus local stations (“The Kind of Candidate,” 1928; [Sherwood] 1928b; “[Advertisement],” 1928).10

The core of the campaign addressed frustrations familiar to Americans today. “It’s just about time for someone to step up and admit that the Republican and Democratic parties, as such, are defunct organizations,” opened the party manifesto. “All politicians take refuge in the same bunk.” He meant bunk both metaphorically and literally, noting the “old bromide that ‘politics makes strange bedfellows’” ([Sherwood] 1928c; see Fig. 6). Naming Rogers as the anti-bunk candidate the next week, Sherwood praised the nominee’s unique qualification: “If elected, he would be the first President in sixty-two years who was funny intentionally” ([Sherwood] 1928a). Rogers confirmed the unlikelihood of the former and validity of the latter in accepting the nomination two weeks later: “Our support will have to come from those who want NOTHING, and have the assurance of getting it,” and announced his sole campaign pledge: “IF ELECTED I ABSOLUTELY AND POSITIVELY AGREE TO RESIGN” (Rogers 1928b). But his best campaign promise came in early June, when he compared himself to his competition, Al Smith and Herbert Hoover: “Whatever they offer you I will raise ‘em at least 20%. And I can come just as near keeping my promise as they can” (Rogers 1928f). He offered his opponents a “joint debate—“in any joint you name” (Rogers 1928c). In his last message before the election, Rogers conceded, “Our party has placed Dignity above Showmanship, so the majority of people don’t even know I’m running” (Rogers 1928d, 10).


Fig. 6: Will Rogers’s Anti-Bunk Party referenced bunk as both bed and nonsense or lies.


Sherwood wrote most of the candidate’s columns—ostensibly speeches by the nominee—when Rogers declined to contribute them. (The editor complained that Rogers failed to deliver timely and full-length copy, despite a weekly fee of $500, and went so far as to compliment Sherwood on his stylistic imitation, joking “If this quality keeps up I’ll have to be asking you for a raise” [Yagoda 1993, 252]). Rogers lost the election nonetheless. Despite famous endorsements—from auto magnate Henry Ford, journalists William Allen White and Ring Lardner, baseball hero Babe Ruth, and radio star Eddie Cantor (van Doren 1928, 314), Rogers apparently received just one write-in vote, while Herbert Hoover trounced Al Smith in both the popular and Electoral College counts (Jones 1972, 8–10).11 Rogers did not mention his own candidacy in his election wrap-up for the New York Times, where he blamed the outcome on lackluster candidates: “[Al] Smith carried all the Democratic States he didn’t go into, and Hoover had a cinch in all the Republican ones he didn’t speak in. I believe a dumb candidate could have beaten ‘em both” (Rogers 1928a). By contrast, Sherwood offered Life readers the joking solace of an invisible win: he advised Rogers in an ostensible public telegram, “All you know is what you read in the papers, so you probably haven’t heard that you were elected President by the Great Silent Vote of this nation” (Rogers 1928e):

"No one except us know that this vote existed—even the voters themselves were ignorant of it; no one except us knew that it went unanimously for you. The newspapers may say that the other candidates piled up millions of votes, but don’t let that worry you. You’re in. Please advise us at once what we’re to do about this. Shall we expose the sharp practices at the polls, whereby you were overwhelmed in the paper vote? Shall we demand a recount? Or shall we just forget about the whole thing?" (Rogers 1928e)

Rogers’s reply, probably written by Sherwood, explained the disappointing outcome with an unbecoming elitism: “my big vote was supposed to come from those who couldent write” (Rogers 1928e, 5). Whereas Rogers’s remarks in the Times affirmed the democratic occasion by crediting voters’ wisdom, the candidate’s response in Life channeled the divided leanings of the Janus laugh, elitism in populist garb.

Spoof candidates who flout their ineptitude highlight this internal contradiction. Capitalizing on her stage persona as a dumb broad to campaign against common sense, Gracie Allen of the vaudeville and radio comedy duo Burns and Allen ran in 1940 as the candidate of the punningly named Surprise Party. ( Her whistle-stop tour of thirty-four cities flaunted a platform proposed to make everything worse:

“Plank number one . . . . Unemployment and where to get it. Under my administration, the government will give free correspondence courses so that people who can’t find jobs in their own line will soon be without jobs in three or four different types of work.” (Simon 2004)

Amid the lingering effects of the Depression and growing pressures to join the war against Germany, her proposal presented a bold if comically slanted charge that political parties do not help the people or the nation. But her candidacy as Franklin D. Roosevelt sought a third term also highlights spoof campaigns’ cynicism about the worthiness of candidates. Her opinion on the national debt—“we ought to be proud of it. It’s the biggest in the world” (Block 2008)—frames fiscal recklessness as charming cluelessness. In the process, her campaign not only mocked the republican ideal of citizen governance, but also gendered it. All spoof campaigns nominate unelectable candidates, but Allen’s candidacy upped the ante, asking who could be more unelectable, while still officially eligible to run, than a woman?

Although Allen’s persona of the ditzy dame drove her mock candidacy in the tradition of Brother Jonathan, the question remains relevant to American politics today. Long after women have led other democracies, the United States has yet to elect a woman to the top political office; Kamala Harris gave a boost to the 2020 Democratic ticket, but the white male former senator and vice president Joe Biden could hardly have been a more conventional headliner. (The same might be said of 2012 Republican nominees Sarah Palin and John McCain, although Palin received the Brother Jonathan treatment in the parodies of her public statements by Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live, as I will discuss below.) In that context, we might reframe the issue and note that an inept Brother Jonathan seems to have more electoral traction as a spoof candidate than any of the qualified women who have run for president: publisher and financier Victoria Woodhull on the 1872 Equal Rights ticket, Congresswoman Shirley Chisolm in the 1972 Democratic primary, and (of course) former Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as the 2016 Democratic nominee. That Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 3 million in the popular vote (65,853,514 to 62,984,828, 48.18% to 46.09%), but lost in the Electoral College, has led many scholars to attribute her loss to gendered evaluations of both nominees (Han and Heldman 2020; Deckman and Cassese 2021; Dignam, et al. 2021; Vescio and Schermerhorn 2021).

Spoof candidates since the 1960s have also brought modern electoral policy and practice to public scrutiny. Where the earlier candidacies of Will Rogers and Gracie Allen proved that campaigns (mock or otherwise) could leverage the stardom of national media and the embodiment and immediacy of real-time performance, the 1968 spoof nomination of Pat Paulsen demonstrated how a multimedia blitz could take on an expanded set of satiric targets. Paulsen began as a conventionally inadequate mock candidate launched as the nominee of the punningly named STAG (Straight Talking American Government) Party on the March 10 episode of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (CBS-TV, 1967-69), but his parodic sketches soon took on a broad range of campaign behavior, including the faux nonchalance of the so-called peekaboo period in which politicians pretend that they are not running and the feature-length campaign biopic portraying the candidate as an avatar of the common American. To the crowd chanting “We want Paulsen! We want Paulsen!” as the film opens, the candidate humbly responds, “I did not want this support. I’ve not desired it,” he demurs in his signature deadpan. “As I said, I’d rather remain as I am today, the common, ordinary, simple savior of America’s destiny.” Running the full hour on October 20, the film paid homage to Brother Jonathan. Melodramatic narration voiced by the Academy Award-winning actor Henry Fonda hailed Paulsen for heeding “the call of destiny” (Collins, et al. 1968; Paulsen’s foolish campaign promises included a legislation to improve urban sanitation by providing for “a woman to come in three days a week to clean your city,” but sight gags provided the most frequent, successful, and enduring humor: his childhood artwork, his fall into the reflecting pool at the Washington Monument at a sentimental moment, his wipe of the brow when hesitantly supporting sex education as a topic deserving bold and mature talk. In the best tradition of spoof candidacies, the ironic whole comically undercut the ponderous account of his classic political journey.

Like Mad‘s Alfred E. Neuman, Paulsen revived the gag in each presidential election cycle until his death in 1997, long after CBS cancelled the Smothers Brothers, but ran into trouble in 1972, when his ambitions encroached on US broadcast and election policies: he filed to run in the New Hampshire Republican primary (“Three more,” 1972). His candidacy brought much joy to cities and college campuses. He one-upped candidate Rogers’ scorn for the two parties with a witty double entendre, “only a cheap politician, greedy for political gain, would try to single out one individual for blame” (Conaway 1972, SM 58). The wrinkle came in late January, three weeks after he moved his spoof candidacy into the public sphere, when the Federal Communications Commission ruled that any appearance by him on television, no matter how frivolous the entertainment, would require the network to offer equal time to his opponents. The rationale: “use of broadcast facilities by a legally qualified candidate does not have to be a political use” to violate the then-current Fairness Doctrine, which since 1949 had required broadcasters to provide fair and balanced coverage of controversial events and political ideas as a condition of their federally issued broadcast licenses (United States of America 1972, 1186). The FCC killed the rule in 1987, during the Reagan administration. Conservatives opposed it as a form of censorship, while media critics found it obsolete: television channels relying on the federally controlled broadcast spectrum had lost their media dominance and competitive edge with audiences to cable channels that—because they transmitted via cable, not the spectrum, and thus evaded regulation related to licensure—already operated outside FCC programming restrictions, which also banned sexual and violent content. (The gaslighting Fox News slogan “fair and balanced” for its cable channel hearkens back to the Fairness Doctrine, yet its demise also created a space for news comedy to grow.) Paulsen complained in March, on learning that NBC had cancelled his previously recorded television appearances to avoid the FCC problem, “I’m not going to win any votes cavorting with a bunch of Disney characters,” he but withdrew from the race in April, citing his “professional responsibility as a performer” to his producer (Conaway 1972, 59; “Comedian drops,” 1972). He had sued the FCC on the ground that its ruling discriminated against candidates who, lacking independent wealth, needed to earn a living while running for office, but he ended the effort in 1974, when an appellate court affirmed that the FCC ruling upheld First Amendment protections that do not discriminate between political and non-political (i.e., entertainment) speech (U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit 1974).

A related legal complication arose in October 2007 when Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report (2005-2014) filed to run in South Carolina’s 2008 Democratic primary, reflecting his genuine political convictions rather than those of his Comedy Central nightly talk show’s ironic persona, an over-eager mock-conservative journalist and pundit spun off from the cable channel’s flagship parodic news roundup, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (1999-2015).12 In early polling, Colbert’s modern Brother Jonathan trailed Joseph Biden with 2.3 percent of the vote, but finance experts soon observed that his program’s sponsorship by Doritos, along with his plans to use the campaign for content on the show, would violate campaign finance laws prohibiting corporate campaign contributions (“Stephen Colbert Is Running,” 2007). The finance issue quickly became moot, however, because the state Democrats denied him a spot on the ballot, citing the $20,000 cost to list someone who “wasn’t a serious candidate” (Vogel 2007). Perhaps primed by this experience, Colbert seized the comic and political potential of the next presidential cycle, which began a year after the Supreme Court struck down limits on corporate political donations via its ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (558 U.S. 310, 2010). Like the appellate ruling in Paulsen, the new decision rested on the First Amendment, in this case holding that (a) political speech cannot be restricted because the speaker is a corporate or other organizational entity rather than an individual, nor (b) can issue-oriented “electioneering communication” be restricted, either directly by censorship or indirectly by contribution limits, unless specifically coordinated with a candidate, organization, or campaign, because Congress does have a legitimate interest in limiting direct contributions to candidates for elected office (Supreme Court of the United States 2010). Now PACs that coordinated with a candidate still had to identify donors, yet unions and corporations could donate their own funds to candidates while Super PACs operating independently of a candidate or organization could raise and spend unlimited funds on political activities without disclosing their donors (Federal Election Commission; Federal Election Commission).

Colbert’s production team put Citizens United to a comic test in March 2011 by lampooning a peekaboo ad for former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, then toying with a presidential run by promoting his recent book about his vision for America. Pawlenty’s ad already verged on self-parody, with hyperbolic assertions of American greatness and his own leadership set to booming music, heroic images, and rousing words. Pawlenty’s bombastic introduction, “The United States of America is the most successful nation the world has ever known,” easily morphed into Colbert’s nonsensical self-promotion, “I believe our nation is the most American country the United States has ever known,” so Colbert suggested closing the parody with a classic technique: imitation with a small difference. Thus, his mock ad, also teasing viewers with his own possible run, retained Pawlenty’s final image of blue skies and sunshine above a green lawn (suggesting glorious days ahead in the mode of Ronald Reagan’s 1984 “Morning in America” campaign), and changed only the credit line. (see Fig. 7.) The alliterative clichés of “Tim Pawlenty’s Freedom First PAC” thereby became the non-sequitors of’s (then imaginary) motto, “Making a better tomorrow, tomorrow” (Cobert 2011a;


Fig. 7: Stephen Colbert began his satire on super PACs with a parody of Tim Pawlenty’s campaign ad.


Instead of inaugurating a spoof campaign, although Colbert kept flirting with one, this ad hoc joke spawned an eighteen-month series of parodic candidate attack ads, issue ads, and jocular (but accurate) instruction in US election policy and campaign finance laws on The Colbert Report. Comedy Central’s legal team inadvertently sparked the series; in reviewing the Pawlenty spoof before it ran, a lawyer asked Colbert whether he really intended to form a PAC, “because if you do that could be trouble,” and the comic needed no further inspiration (“Winner,” 2012). By June 11 he had acquired approval from the FEC for a super PAC, “Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow” and channeled his inner Brother Jonathan in sharing the news with his supporters, “It’s been said that freedom isn’t free”:

"Today, we have placed a sizeable down payment. Today, we put liberty on layaway. . . . Sixty days ago today, on this very spot, a young man petitioned the FEC for permission to form a super PAC to raise unlimited moneys and use the moneys to determine the winners of the 2012 elections. . . . . I’m sorry to say, ‘We won!’" (“Stephen Colbert,” 2011)

To sustain the satire, in September, he established a second entity, a non-profit social welfare organization known by its tax status as a 501©(4) committee, “Colbert Super PAC SHH!,” eligible to receive unlimited anonymous contributions and donate them to the Super PAC for disbursement. After on-air instruction from his lawyer, a former FEC chairman, Colbert explained why “(c)(4)s are much better than PACs” with an obscene comic simile:

"According to the FEC, they don’t have to disclose their billionnaires. They’re like campaign finance glory holes: you stick your money in the hole, the other person accepts your donation, and because it’s happening anonymously, no one feels dirty." (Colbert 2011b)

The ongoing joke had few limits. In January 2012, when early polling for the South Carolina GOP primary showed him with 5% of the vote and he formed a presidential exploratory committee to tease his fans (and the media), FEC regulations required him to change the super PAC’s name and give control of its funds and ad strategy to someone else. As a result, the Colbert Super PAC became the Definitely Not Coordinating with Stephen Colbert Super PAC led by buddy Jon Stewart. The January 12, 2012, show dramatized the transfer as a green light and dollar signs moved from Colbert to Stewart as they tensely held hands, demonstrating with a metaphorical wink and a fig leaf how a super PAC could advance a candidate’s program while observing the FEC prohibition against coordinating with the candidate’s campaign (Zinoman 2012; Colbert 2012a). This “strict separation” requirement did not stop the PAC from attacking primary contenders such as Mitt Romney, who got the Colbert treatment a few days later for his infamous defense of Citizens United, “Corporations are people, my friends.” Literalizing the equation for its satire, the ad blasted the GOP front-runner as a dangerous businessman who, as the narrator observed in ominous tones, “bought companies, carved them up, and got rid of what he couldn’t use” as the screen showed someone carving a side of meat and a body being dragged offscreen. His conclusion, “If Mitt Romney really believes [cut to his voice,] ‘Corporations are people, my friends,’ then Mitt Romney is a serial killer” (Colbert 2012b;

The series continued through the November 2012 election, and Colbert shut down the Super PAC in December, but by April The Colbert Report won a Peabody Award, electronic journalism’s equivalent of a Pulitzer Prize, for “inventive comedy, sight gags and mock-strident rhetoric, . . . [that enabled] its ‘megaphone of cash’ to illuminate the far-ranging effects on our politics of the Citizens United decision . . . [and] the shadowy edges of a political system now awash in anonymous cash” (“Winner,” 2012). These sophisticated effects exploited the innocent glee and excess with which Colbert’s modern Jonathan eschewed a mock campaign in favor of spending real money to shape the 2012 outcome. Its only remaining irony: that his naïve conservative persona savaged GOP candidates.

In accepting the Peabody, Colbert acknowledged the degree to which his tongue-in-cheek instruction in campaign finance pushed the limits of the comic play zone beyond satire and into the realm of political object lesson, engaging in what Sophia McClennen and Remy Maisel call “satiractivism” (2014, 196). But he voiced a Jonathan’s sincere faith in an ideal US. “I don’t think we should have been allowed to do our show that way this year,” Colbert confessed. “The things we got away with were a little alarming” (“Winner,” 2012). The series engaged a post-modern tension between fiction and reality akin to contemporary mockumentary programming such as House of Cards (Netflix 2013-2018). But Colbert had a sincere precedent in Al Franken’s move from Saturday Night Live (1975–1980, 1985–1995) to Congress in the 2008.

Will Rogers might have seen Franken’s career change from comedian to Senator as a distinction without a difference, because the shift began with a series of comic writings that paid homage to the political peekaboo phase. Best known are Franken’s books of satiric political sketches, especially Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations (1996) and Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right (2003); Lies satirized Fox’s Bill O’Reilly and led to the 2004 radio show The O’Franken Factor on Air America, a left-leaning talk-radio channel that aimed to counter Fox. But Franken hinted at his transformation with a spoof presidential campaign in the pages of his 1999 fictional candidate biography, Why Not Me? The Inside Story of the Making and Unmaking of the Franken Presidency. Eric Kleefeld, discussing the book during the 2016 campaign as a warning to take Donald Trump seriously, claimed that Franken “forever ruined the timeless sub-genre of political comedians joking about how absurd it would be if they were to actually run for office themselves (Kleefeld 2016). That claim not only overlooked the precedent of Ronald Reagan, whose three decades of B-grade films not only showed the prescience of the FEC’s analysis in Paulsen (although a ruling about broadcasting was moot for the film industry) but also evidently qualified him to lead California as governor (1967-75) before he ran for U.S. president (1981-89). Kleefeld’s claim also missed the degree to which American politics have increasingly merged with entertainment as a function of the modern media environment. The political ambivalence of the Janus laugh means that half jokes are also half sincere. As Franken’s election to the Senate in 2008 spoke to the possibilities of comic candidates, so his forced resignation from Congress for sexual harassment in 2018—on the verge of a possible presidential run in 2020—bore marks of a political hit from Fox News and the right, as politics stripped the humor from a comedian’s antics (Mayer 2019).

A different 2008 candidate had a greater impact on Trump’s 2016 election by signaling the changing winds in the year that put an African American in the White House and a comedian in the Senate. Like Obama and Franken, this candidate not only shared spoof candidates’ status as political outsiders and underdogs, but also a homespun persona channeling the vernacular comic tradition of plain speech, keen instincts, and gun-toting frontier values that the urbane, Harvard-educated Obama and Franken could not match.

That candidate was Sarah Palin, whose qualifications as John McCain’s vice-presidential running mate rested largely on the Jacksonian ideology of the spoof campaigns I have shared. Chosen to balance McCain’s penchant for independent thought and bipartisanship with her right-wing purity, Palin embodied Jack Downing’s naïvete: her ignorance of national and world affairs signified her lack of corruption. The greatest insight into the comic potential of Palin’s candidacy came not from Tina Fey’s caricatures on Saturday Night Live, however, despite their excellence in turning mannerisms and quotes into punchlines.14 Scholars who study audience opinions concluded that Fey’s parodies of Palin’s interviews and debate performance affected opinions of the candidate but not the outcome of the election.15 Nonetheless, declines in Palin’s approval as the campaign progressed contributed to the GOP loss in 2008, although the headliner’s bumbled response to the September financial crisis surely played a role as well (“Palin Fatigue,” 2008; Johnston and Thorson 2009; Knuckey 2013). Rather, by contrast with these political outcomes, the cultural significance of Palin’s political persona emerges most clearly from a comic video by Jenna N. Mourey (b. 1986), performing as Jenna Marbles, who saw through the Janus joke in Palin’s version of Brother Jonathan.

The New York Times named Marbles “the reigning queen of YouTube” in 2013 because her online videos drew 1 billion clicks in her first three years (O’Leary 2013). By 2019, her channel had some 17 million subscribers.16 Her lampoon of Sarah Palin, with 6.5 million views, is significant not only because her impersonation hit the mark but also because Marbles launched her comic attacks on July 13, 2011, just as Palin was positioning herself to run for president in 2012. Marbles’s video also shows the deep cultural penetration of vernacular humor’s conventional equation of the dialect-speaking political novice and the quintessential American citizen as embodied in Brother Jonathan: Marbles cheerfully imitates Palin’s upper-Midwestern inflections and outsider politics in an imaginary visit to her Alaskan kitchen. She peppers the patter of her cooking show, where she’s sharing a family recipe for chocolate chip cookies, with GOP talking points on abortion (“We’re not going to crack the eggs because that’s abortion”), guns (“We’re going to add an entire stick of butter from a cow that I shot with my shotgun out in the back yard here in Alaska”), and patriotism (“while you’re doing this, you can think about your love for our country”). References to Palin’s memoir, Going Rogue, and to being “all American and maverick,” appropriating John McCain’s reputation for independence, complete the comic portrait, but Marbles adds layer upon layer of irony to the impersonation. She skewers Palin for marketing politics through sex appeal (“because I want you to take me seriously, the first thing I’m going to do is take my top off”), for wrapping herself in the flag (her “jazzy American shorts” made of a flag print), and for masking racism as Christianity (her flour is “white, like Jesus”; she adds black chocolate chips “because the last thing that we want to be called is a racist”), and for exploiting her children as props (“Crystal Palin did so good on Dancing with the Stars“)—all in the service of a presidential future. This homemaker shtick presents a feminized version of Jack Downing’s farming and peddling and Will Rogers’s rope twirling: humble activity of an ordinary rural American. And Marbles manages all of this comic complexity in her first three minutes. (

Hilarity notwithstanding, Marbles’s parody demonstrates a key element of the Brother Jonathan candidacy: its down-home politics and homespun appeal express deeply held ambivalence about American democracy, the ambivalence of the Janus laugh. Jonathan’s apparently unaware persona mediates the ambivalence by requiring the audience to construct implied ironies. Spoof campaign elements began marking real presidential politics as Palin explored a presidential run in 2011, and settled into the GOP by the time she endorsed Donald Trump in January 2016. (By contrast, none of the Democratic contenders in 2008, 2012, 2016, or 2020 channeled a naïve Brother Jonathan—not even Bernie Sanders, the Democratic Socialist, whose policies offered leftist populism.) Palin’s widely publicized (and mocked) speech praised Trump as an outsider (“Not a politician, can I get a hallelujah”), scorned establishment Republicans (for “refusing to fight back for our solvency and our sovereignty”), and reviled Democrats for their antipathy to rural Americans (proudly twitting Obama by uniting with her audience as “Right wing and bitter clinging crowd clingers over our guns, our gut and our religions and our constitutions”) (“Palin Endorsing,” 2016).17 Tapping into the values of spoof campaigns across their long history, Palin insisted that the federal government is the swamp where Pogo was set, that career politicians are corrupt elites, that outsiders’ inexperience affirms rather than disproves their fitness for office, that soft power is for softies, and that “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” means electing Brother Jonathan.

For all that she was a joke to elites because she seemed a lot like Gracie Allen, Sarah Palin exposed elites’ sincere contempt as a component of Brother Jonathan’s runs for President. If she—or Jack Downing or Will Rogers or Gracie Allen or Pat Paulsen—really held office as ineptly as their spoof candidacies implied, what would be funny about it? For his part, Trump was already a joke in 2011 for his long-established public persona of the braggart and miscreant: Mad magazine began ridiculing him in 1986 for his questionable real estate practices in a mock ad for the Integrity Record Club and caricatured him in 1991as a sinister “Wizard of Odds” (Lee 2020b, 30–32). Obama played into that vein when he took comic revenge on the so-called birthers who accused him of being African-born at the 2011 Washington Correspondents’ Dinner, which always features political humor by both the president and a well-known comedian. Trump had fed birther conspiracies while advancing himself as a potential candidate, making him a fair comic target. As the president rose to the podium, wrestler Hulk Hogan’s anthem “I Am a Real American” provided the soundtrack for a video flashing Obama’s recently released long-form birth certificate, confirming his eligibility for the presidency as a native-born citizen. With mock sincerity, Obama also offered additional evidence in the form of a sight gag: his “secret birth video” was a clip from the Lion King (President, 2011; Peters and Stelter 2011). Finally, he lampooned a potential Trump presidency with an image of the White House turned into a garishly gilded resort and casino, (See Fig. 8.) Piling on, the evening’s official comedian, Seth Meyers, called out Trump as a Brother Jonathan: “Donald Trump has been saying he will run for president as a Republican — which is surprising, since I just assumed he was running as a joke” (Meyers 2017). Trump sat deadpan throughout both presentations, but announced two weeks later that he would not run in 2012 (Barbaro 2011; Rutenberg 2011).


Fig. 8: President Barack Obama lampooned a potential Trump presidency at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Club dinner.


As a media figure already in the jokeworld, Trump offered an outsider candidacy that brought Brother Jonathan to life. His tentative run in 2011 and wholehearted campaign in 2015 proved that the Janus laugh can save both its faces only through the fiction that the presidency is not an elite office that the elite seek to control, whatever their professed fondness for Jonathan’s virtues. Palin and Trump called that bluff.18 For all that Trump’s campaign echoed the spoofs that have been running at least since 1833, however, his divisive presidency and its aftermath—especially his success in spreading lies about the 2020 election, poisoning previously non-partisan state electoral processes, and marginalizing GOP politicians who dared to hold him accountable instigating the January 6, 2021, insurrection—offer a more sobering lesson. That is, perhaps Karl Marx had things backwards, and history repeats itself first as farce and second as tragedy.

The Janus joke simultaneously celebrating and scorning Brother Jonathan as presidential caliber helps explain both the enthusiasm and the disdain for Donald Trump’s candidacy as a plain-speaking outsider. His fans’ suspicions—indeed, their knowledge—that opponents harbor contempt for them and their leader likewise reaffirms the joke’s conventions and values. The cycle sustains itself because the tension between democratic openness and elite control that animates the long history of Brother Jonathan campaigns also drives American politics. The U.S. Constitution constrains the popular vote through the Electoral College, pits a conservative Senate against a populist House of Representatives, and elevates the federal government over otherwise autonomous states; contemporary divisions between liberal cities and conservative rural areas merely exacerbate intrinsic conflicts. The continuity running through periodic Brother Jonathan campaigns may reflect the difficulty of amending the Constitution, but in any case, it expresses frustration with the promise and fulfillment of American democracy.

More important, perhaps, the continuity reflects what James Caron has identified as the parallel and sometimes overlapping modes of the public sphere and its comic counterpart, which mimics political speech but does not sincerely engage in political action (Caron 2021b). Thus, Pat Paulsen could continue spoof campaigns, but not real ones, for years after the FEC ruled against him; likewise, Colbert’s FEC-authorized super PAC could attack real candidates across his satire’s eighteen-month run, yet his spoof campaign quickly ran aground. But the movement of Brother Jonathan campaigns from entertainment media into the political sphere coincides with the rise of embodied media—film, radio, television, and their online counterparts—and the corresponding decline of print. The spoof campaign featuring film and radio star Will Rogers began in a humor magazine, but moved into radio by the end, inaugurating a process that would facilitate Ronald Reagan’s and Donald Trump’s career changes as well as spoof campaigns by Paulsen and Colbert. Like the phenomenon of parasocial relationships between fans and media characters, the rise in ratings for Trump’s reality show, The Apprentice, whenever he mentioned the possibility of a presidential run documents points to how audiovisual media blur the difference between reality and imitative fictions, life and art (Peters and Stelter 2011).

In that context, Trump’s very real candidacy points to several conclusions regarding the significance of spoof campaigns. Chief among them is that humor draws its meanings and energy from the values that people crave and condemn. Brother Jonathan campaigns make clear that voters crave the old-time American promise that the government belongs to ordinary folks; they reject claims to authority by social elites or technocratic experts, whom they see as inherently corrupt—an aristocracy to be overthrown. They thereby value outsiders over insiders, instinct over education, authenticity over polish, plain talk to nuance. Mock candidates’ foolishness expresses fatigue, if not despair, over the status quo: what is ineptitude, the jokes suggest, in light of the other options? Moreover, the history outlined here, a gradual merger of aesthetic joking about politics and satiric intervention in it, together with the outpouring of comic ridicule and invective against Trump since 2015, suggests that the impulse for satire rises as faith in direct political agency declines. Like all communication, humor and satire are symbolic action. Satire has thrived since the millennium, which began with Bush v. Gore, the Supreme Court’s foreclosure of the 2000 presidential vote count. Since then, faith in the U.S. political system and voting has declined, most notably in Trump’s insistence that voter fraud cost him the popular vote in both 2016 and 2020, but also in the contrast between federal and state election results: Republicans have lost the popular vote all but one presidential election since 1992 even as gerrymandering and voting restrictions have engineered big GOP wins in many states. People who have real political power or influence do not need satire, which is a symbolic weapon for asymmetrical struggle. Satiractivism engages directly in the public sphere, but humor’s inherent insincerity limits its impact. Satire aims to destabilize and de-legitimize those in power: it undermines their dignity, credibility, and morality by challenging their motives, values, and acts. Satire is thus inherently negative. Positive political prescriptions—that is, advocacy—can be offered sincerely and usually are, but without the leavening, distracting, or distorting effects of humor they also lose humor’s aesthetic pleasures along with the mnemonics of the negative that reward attention. The Janus joke solves this problem, as spoof campaigns show, by offering a solution, albeit a comic, insincere one: elect Brother Jonathan, the post-Revolutionary citizen. One can enjoy the creativity of satire in all seasons, but it gains maximum traction when political channels seem closed to dissent. Emily Nussbaum (2017) missed a key detail in her otherwise excellent 2017 analysis of how “jokes won the election” for Donald Trump by creating an asymmetrical rhetorical environment in which humor defanged both opponents and journalists. His candidacy was a joke before he ran. But the joke was not on him.


Works Cited



1 In 2022, the eligible US electorate consists of all native born and naturalized citizens over the age of 18 who have registered to vote in their local jurisdiction, but some states have enacted various limitations for convicted felons, both during and after incarceration. The Fourteenth Amendment (ratified 1868) and Nineteenth Amendment (ratified 1920) established the citizenship and voting rights of formerly enslaved Americans and women, respectively.

2 On perception of Trump’s campaign as a publicity stunt, see “Politics,” 2015; Gibson 2015; Reuters 2016; “Wednesday Trump Dump,” 2016. On Trump’s plan to exploit “earned media“—i.e., campaign publicity based on apparently newsworthy events or commentary—see Stokols and Schreckinger 2016, which dates his strategy to December 2013, when he declined an invitation from the New York GOP to run for governor but confessed his plan to run for president: “I’m going to get in and all the polls are going to go crazy. I’m going to suck all the oxygen out of the room. I know how to work the media in a way that they will never take the lights off of me.” For a neutral contemporary summary of his campaign and its style in the closing days of the 2016 presidential race, see McCammon 2016.

3 I offer the term with apologies my late mentor Hamlin Hill, who offered the image to show the cultural differences between traditional and modern American humor; see Hill 1963.

4 On the history of the Articles of Confederation, which governed the former British colonies from 1 March 1781, to 1789, see the account by the U.S. National Archives at <>. The Articles remained in force during the ratification process for the Constitution, which ended with New Hampshire’s approval on 21 June 1788.

5 Blair 1960, 17, traces the history of “Yankee Doodle,” showing that the term Yankee began as British scorn for the New Englander’s rustic speech, coarse clothing, penny-pinching, and general ignorance of the world.

6 For further details on the implications of British-American relations for American comic traditions, see Lee 2008; Lee 2012, 71–106; Lee 2020a. Specific imperial British-American connections drive the analyses in Sillin 2020; Caron 2021b; and Gilbert 2021. On the role of the Yankee in debating potential US imperial expansion into Cuba, see Sillin 2021.

7 For a comprehensive review of early scientific research on humor and memory, see Fry 2002. Examples of more recent research include Coronel, et al. 2021; and Dai, et al. 2017.

8 The phrase comes from Samuel Danforth (1671). Although it has come to endorse an expansive view of the Puritan experiment, Theodore Dwight Bozeman, concludes, “Assertions of a national mission to mankind were to play a large role in later American history, but to represent the Great Migration as the first installment upon such claims is to misunderstand the origins of New England” (1986, 251).

9 A weekly humor magazine edited by a series of Harvard Lampoon alumni since its founding in 1883, Life in the mid-1920s had trouble competing with the New Yorker and Vanity Fair for readers, contributors, and advertising. Sherwood hoped that the Rogers campaign would solve the problem, but lost his post in December nonetheless. Life limped along until 1936, when Time magazine publisher Henry Luce bought the title for his new photographic weekly.

10 Most of the Life mock campaign materials have been collected in Rogers 1982; for the larger periodical record, including the complete run of the original Life, see the database American Periodicals Series Collection 1883-1936.

11 Jones 1972 claims that the Rogers candidacy was ideologically passé, occurring too late to benefit from the rural populism of William Jennings Bryan earlier in the century and the progressivism of LaFollette in 1924.

12 For a recap of Colbert’s early career, see Mnookin 2007.

13 Colbert described the origin of the super PAC project when it received a 2011 Peabody Award for Journalism; see “Winner,” 2012.

14 See, for example Fey and Pohler 2008.

15 See, for example Flowers and Young 2010; Esralew and Young 2012; Baumgartner, Morris and Walth 2012.

16 YouTube credited Marbles with 16,969,612 subscribers and 2,250,939,210 views on 14 March 2017, and dates her start on the platform to 16 February 2010.

17 Palin here referenced Obama’s December 2015 remark repeating, albeit in less clumsy language, his unfortunate 2008 analysis of small-town Americans’ political discontent in the aftermath of deindustrialization: “it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations”; see Ross 2015. For the video of Palin’s endorsement, see Palin 2016; for the Saturday Night Live parody, see Fey and Hammond 2016.

18 As a growing body of memoirs and political news makes clear, establishment Republicans’ conviction that they could restrain him for their policy purposes eventually gave way to the power of the MAGA base, even after the 6 January 2021 insurrection, unresolved at the time of this writing.