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Taking Chris Rock seriously on politics

Chris Rock of 'Fargo' at The Langham Huntington,

Chris Rock of 'Fargo' at The Langham Huntington, Pasadena on January 9, 2020 in Pasadena, California. Rock hosted 'Saturday Night Live' this past weekend. Credit: Getty Images/Matt Winkelmeyer

Even by Age of Trump standards, the past 10 days have been a bit much. Debates, tax returns, a fiscal impasse, the White House as an infection vector, insects landing on the vice president's head, you name it. The hard-working staff here needs a break. Maybe some comedy, like Chris Rock hosting "SNL"? But therein lies a problem.

It is possible that for Gen X, Chris Rock was the first mainstream comedian to show us how to do political comedy. Sure, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin and Richard Pryor had done this kind of comedy before, but their edgiest performances occurred before we came of age. Gen X comedy was defined by the likes of Jerry Seinfeld, whose observational humor is funny but abstains from the very idea of politics.

With "Bring the Pain" and "Bigger and Blacker," however, Chris Rock changed the game. I remember watching both of those shows, thinking that it was like seeing Muhammad Ali in his prime. Rock's energy was electric. He forced everyone to laugh as he launched one truth bomb after another at his audience. I have only ponied up money to see one comedian live in the past decade. It was Chris Rock's "Total Blackout" tour, and by God it was worth it.

Rock's more recent forays into politics are not quite up to his usual caliber of excellence, however. As Rock promotes his run in Season 4 of "Fargo," he gave an interview to the New York Times' Dave Itzkoff and hosted "SNL" over the weekend. Politics came up in both.

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"Part of the reason we're in the predicament we're in is, the president's a landlord. No one has less compassion for humans than a landlord. [Laughs.] And we're shocked he's not engaged.

"Did you ever see that movie 'The Last Emperor,' where like a 5-year-old is the emperor of China? There's a kid and he's the king. So I'm like, it's all the Democrats' fault. Because you knew that the emperor was 5 years old. And when the emperor's 5 years old, they only lead in theory. There's usually an adult who's like, 'OK, this is what we're really going to do.' And it was totally up to Pelosi and the Democrats. Their thing was, 'We're going to get him impeached,' which was never going to happen. You let the pandemic come in. Yes, we can blame Trump, but he's really the 5-year-old.

"Put it this way: Republicans tell outright lies. Democrats leave out key pieces of the truth that would lead to a more nuanced argument. In a sense, it's all fake news."

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I have never had a more mixed reaction to a statement than that one. I can certainly get behind the idea of Trump acting like a 5-year old, though that might be a bit more maturity than the toddler thesis deserves.

Rock's error is in ascribing Nancy Pelosi the role of Trump's only caregiver. To be sure, as the speaker of the House, the California Democrat represents a powerful institutional check, one that she exercised by impeaching Trump. It's fair for Rock to criticize that move.

What Rock elides is the GOP's complicity in supporting Trump to the hilt. As I noted in "The Toddler in Chief":

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"The reason Trump has paid such a small political price for his multiple transgressions is that he maintains the rabid support of GOP partisans. In a polarized age, Donald Trump's immaturity has barely affected his standing with Republicans....

"As long as he is President, the GOP is Trump's party. And as long as the GOP remains under Trump's thumb, he will be able to act like a toddler with little fear of serious political retribution."

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Rock is wrong to posit that the reason Trump has acted in an unconstrained manner is due to Democrats. To the extent that Trump has run amok, Republicans bear more of the blame.

In his opening monologue for "SNL" last Saturday, Rock also argued for term limits for members of Congress:

There's a lot of decent jokes in that monologue. "President Trump's in the hospital from COVID, and I just want to say, my heart goes out to COVID" is solid. The riff on the disappearance of plans is great. But the term-limits argument is just a weird non sequitur. Political scientists do not agree on much, but there is a pretty strong consensus that term limits are a terrible idea.

If Rock wants to wade into political analysis, let me return the favor with a Chris Rock-like analogy to explain why this is a bad idea:

This would be like airlines telling pilots, "Nope, you've been here too long and completed too many takeoffs and landings, it's time to give these younglings a break!" That's nuts!

The reason that members of Congress are sometimes around for a long time is that they are good at getting reelected. Is that a bad thing? We don't tell people who are good at their job that they can't do their job because they're too good at it! No one tells LeBron James, "That's too many MVP trophies. Time to go!"

When Chris Rock hones in on a thorny subject, he usually mines it for comedy gold, riffs that make you laugh and think at the same time. His latest musings on politics don't have that feel. They feel more like nascent jokes that need polishing before the public is ready to see them.

Once that polishing happens, though, I look forward to seeing him in action.

Daniel W. Drezner wrote this piece for The Washington Post.

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