The White House correspondents' dinner is not proven to be the reason Donald Trump was elected president but, really, can you rule it out? Each year, journalists gather in black tie to hear a comedian's political shtick. The jokes are good but too easy, the assumptions too liberal, the audience too aligned with its entertainer. Last week's event starred Hasan Minhaj of, naturally, The Daily Show. At times, the stereotype of a coastal elite who high-five each other on a mutual adulation circuit of talk shows and well-catered parties is a demagogic slander. At others, it materialises in real time and space.
How mysterious that a nation that produces this spectacle also invented one of the most potent satires ever committed to television. It has been 20 years since the debut of South Park. That is long enough to take the measure of its impact — and to conclude, with some confidence, that it did more than any cultural product of that era to predict the counter-elite mood of today.
After a scatological start, South Park found its voice as a satire of the liberal left. It made joke figures of Barbra Streisand, Bono, Alec Baldwin, Toyota Prius drivers, pacifists, grievance-mongers, public sector bureaucrats, the politically correct and, in a double episode after the Danish cartoon furore of 2006, those who would cave in to religious intimidation. There were rightwing victims, too, but every other comedian picked on those. What gave South Park its electric effect — and its creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, hero status among me and my friends — was its willingness to go after the hardest targets, and with style. The only liberal-baiters we had grown up with were oafish standup comics on Britain's seedy club circuit.
The Anglo-American writer Andrew Sullivan, a "punk Tory" in his youth, went so far as to hail "South Park Republicans": irreverent young people driven rightward by the priggishness of the other side more than by any doctrinal commitment. Parker and Stone winced at the link but knew he had half a point. "I hate conservatives," said Stone, in a quote for the ages, "but I really fucking hate liberals."
Their artistic influence is still unmistakable — in Family Guy, in the standup work of Bill Burr, in the derision with which celebrity pronouncements on serious matters are now met, in the fact that South Park itself is entering its 21st season. The question is whether the show had an unintended political influence, too, creating a kind of anti-PC chic that curdled into what is now the populist right. Through no conscious design of their own, did Parker and Stone invent a monster?
At some indistinct point in the recent past, the left lost its monopoly on rebellion. To rebel was to be conservative or libertarian. It was more transgressive to buck the sensitivities of the age on race, gender, sexual preference, climate change, civil liberties, mental health and religion than to walk on eggshells around them. This shift in what it meant to be a radical was the price of the left's success in the culture wars. The more it policed language, the more it inadvertently glamorised anyone who gave voice to unreconstructed sentiments — even if, as you sense with the mischievous creators of South Park, they almost never mean them.
It is not such a great leap from there to the alt-right, which can resemble an extended South Park episode for people who have forgotten that it is meant to be a joke. There is the same anti-elitism, the same appeal to educated young men who resent being trammelled in thought and speech. But none of the same lightheartedness and humanity, none of the same rigorous equidistance between the absurdities of right and left.
There is certainly something of Eric Cartman, South Park's profane and offensive anti-hero, in Trump. The next season of the show will not lampoon his administration ("Let them do their comedy and we'll do ours") and it is hard to see how it could without falling for the same trap as the White House correspondents' dinner: obviousness and predictability.
At bottom, Parker and Stone are just contrarians. They spent the noughties in Hollywood parties telling their fellow guests that George W Bush was doing a great job as president. Had they plied their craft in the 1950s, their victims would have been stuffed-shirt generals and moral busybodies. They just happened to come of creative age in a time of liberal cultural consensus. In 1997, that consensus was a monumental thing for a pair of small-town jokers to challenge. Twenty years later, the worry must be that they did almost too well.