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America Borealis: How ‘Simpsons’ references became the perfect shorthand for Trump-era politics

In the first episode of “The Simpsons” after the 2016 presidential election, the opening titles, which show Bart writing a sentence on a chalkboard over and over as punishment, featured a message that didn’t make much sense out of context: “Being right sucks.”

The joke was in reference to a 2000 episode of the series in which a future Lisa, after being elected president, laments having inherited “quite the budget crunch from President Trump.”

The New York real estate mogul ascending to the White House is hardly the first prediction “The Simpsons” has gotten right in its 30-plus years on the air. But in an era where reality sometimes seems to have caught up with the show’s absurdity, the shared cultural vocabulary of the Fox series has become a popular way to navigate and contextualize the political landscape.

Take the now-common allusion to “saying the quiet part loud,” which often comes in reference to a perceived lack of filter on the part of Trump or his supporters.

The phrasing comes from the 1995 episode “A Star is Burns,” in which Krusty the Clown inadvertently admits to taking a bribe to support a particular movie at a film festival. 

“Let’s just say it moved me,” Krusty says, before adding, “to a bigger house!” 

“Oh no, I said the loud part quiet and the quiet part loud,” he mutters afterward.

The same episode features a scene in which evil billionaire Mr. Burns is booed by a crowd, and his aide Smithers tries to salve his ego by assuring him that they’re simply saying “Boo-urns,” a joke that has been applied to Trump in a variety of situations.

“Sadly I think some of the things we joked about have come all too true, Trump being the most famous example but also the dumbing-down of society as a whole,” Al Jean, who was showrunner for the series’s third and fourth seasons and from its 13th season onward, told The Hill.

Perhaps no one person has gotten more mileage out of comparing the real-life United States with Springfield than New York Times culture reporter Dave Itzkoff, who frequently connects the news with images from “Simpsons” database Frinkiac. For him, the connection goes back to Clint Eastwood’s speech to an empty chair at the Republican National Convention in 2012, which he paired with an image from the show of the newspaper headline “OLD MAN YELLS AT CLOUD.”

“It’s not just the current moment in politics — there’s something that’s always been very malleable and adaptable about ‘The Simpsons,’ because the show inherently assumes that every authority figure is incompetent, corrupt or both,” Itzkoff told The Hill.

Characters such as Mr. Burns, the gluttonous, corrupt police Chief Wiggum and the philandering, Kennedy-esque Mayor Quimby are “all archetypes of American society but stretched to absurd and abysmal extremes, which makes it easy to fit them onto lots of day-to-day situations that seems outrageous or beyond the pale,” he added.

As Trump has refused to concede last week’s election, his team’s unfounded allegations that Democrats stole the vote have been frequently compared to Principal Skinner’s hastily improvised lies about a house fire being simply “aurora borealis” and calling hamburgers “steamed hams,” which had already been the subject of memes after Trump served the NCAA champion Clemson Tigers a platter of fast-food hamburgers during their 2019 White House visit.

And the memes aren’t exclusive to Trump and Republicans. During the Democratic primaries, President-elect Joe Biden’s anecdotes about his youth were frequently compared to Grampa Simpson “telling stories that don’t go anywhere,” with Politico explicitly calling him “Grampa Simpson” in one headline.

And as the vote count dragged on last week, Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report, known for saying “I’ve seen enough” when he calls elections, found himself compared to Bart being exhorted by classmates to repeat a catchphrase.

Even politicians themselves have gotten in on the action. After Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) tore up her copy of Trump’s State of the Union address earlier this year, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo mocked her by tweeting an image of Lisa tearfully ripping a piece of paper.

Numerous Twitter users, however, including Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) and Lisa voice actress Yeardley Smith, pointed out that the context of the image is that the precocious elder Simpson daughter has just been disillusioned after witnessing a corrupt politician accept a bribe.

 

“It really puzzled me that the Lisa tearing up her speech gif from [“Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington”] was used as an example of support for corruption. Any viewer of the original knows it was the opposite,” Jean said. “Shows the power of images taken out of context.”

Over the past four years, what might have once seemed like obscure references have become perfectly cromulent. But with Trump’s days in office apparently numbered, will there be an ebb in the flood of “Simpsons” images and dialogue on political social media?

“I have no doubt that the internet will find a whole new set of ‘Simpsons’ memes to apply to an incoming Biden administration. But I’m also really hoping that social media disappears off the face of the Earth,” Itzkoff said.

Jean, for his part, said he’s “afraid to make any predictions for the next four years because they might come true.”

Tags Bill Pascrell Donald Trump Joe Biden Mike Pompeo Nancy Pelosi Stephen Miller The Simpsons

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