‘South Park’ conditioned the public to a very Trumpian ideology: be the biggest asshole possible to society’s most vulnerable.
O n August 13 of this year, Trey Parker and Matt Stone will celebrate 20 years of making South Park, a show that glorifies being an asshole with the excuse that it’s “comedy.” Meanwhile, Donald Trump continues to be President of the United States.
These statements are more related than they may seem.
While it has enjoyed major popularity, particularly among white male youth, South Park has also done more than perhaps any other American program to desensitize the public to bigotry, bullying, and downright cruelty. In the South Park universe, it’s cool and — more specifically — an act of heroic anti-establishment rebellion to defy “political correctness” and mistreat the most marginalized in society. If that ethos sounds familiar, it might be because it defines the proudly asshole white nationalist “alt-right,” and its beloved son, the bully to rule them all — our current commander in chief.
Two decades later, it’s time to assess the political impact of what’s championed by many as a modern classic.
Before diving in to the influence South Park, it’s important to understand its cultural context, starting with (yes) the 1987 film Wall Street.
Ironically, Wall Street was meant to be a scathing satire and indictment of Big Finance culture; Oliver Stone was a hard liberal who hated Reagan and everything he stood for. Instead, Wall Street inadvertently kicked off the “greed is good” movement, which openly celebrated Reagan-era unbridled capitalism at the expense of the poor and disenfranchised. This was hardly the first time a movie helped perpetuate the idea that being an asshole is good, but Wall Street’s influence was particularly notable, inspiring many to enter a financial market that would later collapse under the sheer weight of its “fuck the little guy” greediness. In 2009, Catholic Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone even partially blamed the 2007–2008 collapse of the financial market explicitly on Wall Street’s “greed is good” mantra.
In 1993, a few years after Stone’s film captured the nation, comedian Dennis Leary first performed his original song, “Asshole,” about how he likes to go out and arbitrarily be an asshole for fun and because he can (it also includes some incredibly ableist content). The song ends with Leary stating, “I’m an asshole, and I’m proud of it,” signaling that this isn’t about mocking assholes, but about sincerely revering them.
Notably, this song was often played during The Howard Stern Show, the sexism- and racism-laced program that ushered in the era of “shock jock” radio in the ’80s and ‘90s, further endearing asshole behavior to the American public.
It’s in this environment that, in 1997, a crude cartoon about four potty-mouthed fourth-graders debuted. South Park’s first episode, “Cartman Gets an Anal Probe,” tested poorly among women, but over the years, the show became incredibly popular among center-right (or globally, far right) young people who embraced its attack on “PC culture” and mockery of liberal ideals. If anything, this ethos has only become more strident over time; in 2015, the show — while also lampooning Donald Trump — had a storyline featuring the not-so-subtly named “P.C. Principal,” who, among other things, bullied those who dared to call Caitlyn Jenner anything but “stunning and brave.”
From the start, South Park represented a deviation from the norm among comedians, who often identify as left of center in terms of politics and are typically more likely to mock conservative ideals. The show has targeted conservatives from time to time, but not with the same intensity and frequency — the result, it seems, of the creators’ personal politics. Matt Stone once said straight out in an interview that “I hate conservatives, but I really fucking hate liberals.”
From the start, ‘South Park’ represented a deviation from the norm among comedians.
For many years, it was conservatives who were perceived to be restricting the “free speech” of comedians and other individuals by fining them for saying “dirty words.” Howard Stern battled the FCC for years, even supporting John Kerry in the 2004 election because he believed George W. Bush to be responsible for the increase in FCC fines. And of course, there’s George Carlin’s 1972 monologue “7 Words You Can’t Say on TV,” back when you could be arrested for saying these words in public.
Over time, the animosity seemed to shift to liberals insisting that slurs and language harming oppressed populations not be used. South Park pushed the use of harmful language to the extreme, mocking disabled people, disrespecting every religion Trey and Matt could think of, airing an episode with repeated use of the n-word, viciously mocking and condemning trans people, making a hero out of a virulently anti-Semitic character, and generally holding itself up as the show that “offends” people, regardless of who those people may be.
In turn, the show became a hit among the far-right, even giving rise to the so-called “South Park Republican,” described by Urban Dictionary as “A person who subscribes to the libertarian ideology but tends to support (within the American two-party system) the republican party due mostly to personal opposition to the democratic party.”
In 2015, Stephen L. Miller —a conservative writer who is not related to Trump’s senior advisor for policy— wrote a story for The National Review entitled, “South Park Shows How To Defeat The Social Justice Warriors.” In it, Miller specifically heralds the “P.C. Principal” character, and writes:
“Parker and Stone are laying the groundwork and leaving us blueprints as a culture for how to move past all this [PC] ridiculousness. They are dismantling the social-justice society piece by piece, week by week. Fall in line, and let them guide us.”
Liberals, of course, have often pushed back against South Park’s blatantly offensive content. But inevitably, criticism of the show has been received as evidence of success — if people are offended, the show has done something right, an ideology that today fuels bashing of “snowflake” liberals. A scene from the South Park episode “Scott Tenorman Must Die” has become a meme frequently used by the “alt-right” when content they like is called out for harming marginalized groups.
Over time, the show’s focus on “offending” intensified, foregoing more neutral themes of fart jokes and censorship of the word “shit” in favor of weighing in on current political and cultural issues, occasionally even making a good point about things like Scientology (while still, in that case, being homophobic). But problematically, it never ceased Cartman’s constant bigotry — and, moreover, just like the show itself, criticism of the character became an endorsement. The worse Cartman got, the more fans seemed to love him, until he was the most popular character on the show — and Trey Parker’s confessed favorite.
Unfortunately, South Park proved being an asshole to be highly profitable, and others soon jumped on the bandwagon. Comedian Daniel Tosh started making money in 2009 simply by showing clips of other people’s YouTube videos and making bigoted remarks. In the non-comedic world (or at least not intentionally comedic), you have Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones screaming hateful nonsense for that sweet ad money. Asshole YouTube stars like TheAmazingAtheist and a load of GamerGate-riding misogynists started making easy cash by regurgitating each other’s asshole talking points and targeting any women who stand up to them with their hoards of followers.
Before we knew it, the “alt-right” had arrived, with its white supremacists and actual neo-nazis. And Donald Trump was elected president.
‘South Park’ proved being an asshole to be highly profitable.
What’s to be learned from this history? It appears that comedy has morphed from fighting the establishment with hard-hitting satire and making sex jokes to punching the easiest targets you can find as hard as you can to see how much money falls out. Comedians immediately pre-dating South Park in the ’70s and ’80s, like Bill Hicks, Andrew “Dice” Clay, and Eddie Murphy, occasionally punched down, but were never 100% offensive for the sake of being offensive. South Park helped condition the public to humor with a crudely simple purpose: be the biggest asshole possible to society’s most vulnerable.
At the same time, it became de rigueur to attack anybody who dared say this comedy was harmful to them. The most disenfranchised of our society have effectively become the establishment to the mostly white, male, and cishet individuals who adore South Park, and comprise both the “asshole” comedy scene it is part of and the “alt-right” movement it helped inspire. The enemy is no longer conservative prudes demanding one never says “fuck,” but liberals decrying oppressive slurs. As progressives tell people to take a hard look at their subconscious prejudices, professional assholes make bank (or get elected president) on base, reactionary impulses to go full “don’t tell me what to do!”
Dear Men, Here’s How To Not To Be A Complete Asshole Online
Moral guidelines for your personal conduct in digital spaces.
So I’m left asking, “Where did it all start?” Was it Wall Street? Shock jocks? Reckless white male comedians? It’s not as though comedy has never been used to harm — minstrel shows are just one particularly chilling example of that. But for much of comedy’s history, satire in particular was meant to be used against those in power. What happened? How did it get turned around? How did something that was supposed to make you laugh end up supporting the idea that taking a dump on the oppressed is a good thing, to the point that Donald Trump is president?
Here’s a more hopeful question. If being a bigoted asshole is so mainstream that it can get you elected president, is there anything more establishment than that? How long before kindness and consideration are edgy? I want to see the rise of kindcore. Give me hopepunk. Instead of “share to piss so-and-so off,” I want “share to make so-and-so feel included and supported.” I want a YouTube series where people perform SHOCKING and EXTREME acts of consideration and generosity. I want reality shows where people compete to see who can do the most charity work. Being an asshole is for boring old adults, it’s out of touch, it’s passe. The ’90s are over. It’s time for radical kindness.