Nearly two years after attending the ebullient hope fest of the Inauguration, I returned to the National Mall with some colleagues to take a reading on where that hope had gone in the intervening time. A goofy retort to Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” drew an estimated 200,000 people, who wore costumes, held signs, and cheered the proceedings, meant to give a voice to the 15–20% of Americans who “control the conversation” of United States politics and keep it locked in a battle of ideological extremes. A year later, outrage and humor have given way to frustration and malaise. The Sanity Rally looks from some angles like a prescient forerunner of the Occupy movement, but also feels like eons away.
An attempt at civil sensibility via nonsensicalness, at serious discussion by way of Halloween, or simply what ComicCon might be like if its nerds traded Warcraft for statecraft: circulating along the packed edges of the mall, over 200,000 people — easily dwarfing Glen Beck’s conservative-leaning rally in August — traded inside jokes borrowed from television and the internet, seasoned with puns, acronyms, bastardized American political tropes.
Some were dressed as obscure comic book characters, sci-fi villains, Tobias from Arrested Development, a man in a cigarette costume, Avatar aliens, a Hunter S. Thompson. It was The Daily Show inside out, crowdsourced and in the flesh. It was the absurd costumery of politics, run through the 24-hour news cycle, and then hung out to dry.
It didn’t matter if it was a rally for a pragmatic citizenry or a convention for fans of the shows; there is little difference now, at least according to the logic of Stewart’s brand of infotainment, which has become the go-to source of TV news for a few generations of Americans. And that was also the point, perhaps. Whether comedy proves to be a salve for a deranged national conversation or an ironic refuge from it, the buzz of 215,000 people, young and old, celebrating civility on the Mall, invited the kinds of questions that Stewart himself might have asked: what exactly did it mean that a fake news show on a comedy network could bring so many people out — and where would they go next?