American Vandal’s True-Crime Satire Perfectly Captured the Stupidity of the Trump Era
At one point in Netflix’s brilliantly loopy true-crime mockumentary American Vandal, the girlfriend of the suspect—a high school burnout accused of spray-painting penises on 27 cars in the teacher’s parking lot—offers the defense that he simply lacks the capacity to have pulled off the crime’s elaborate coverup.
“Dylan is too dumb to delete security footage,” she says.
“It’s true,” he replies unabashedly. “I would never think to do that.”
The argument becomes a central thesis in the case for Dylan Maxwell’s innocence, one that is persuasive enough for American Vandal’s team of fictional documentarians to take it seriously. This gambit is part of what makes the show such an enjoyable sendup of a genre built on the slow reveal of intricate criminal plots. Vandal nails these twists and turns, but its revelations are incredibly juvenile rather than nefarious. Can we, for example, trust the testimony of the crime’s only eyewitness once we learn he’s been lying about receiving a handjob from one of the most popular girls in school? And what are we to make of Maxwell’s alibi, that he was defecating at Priceless Moments, the local antique shop, because he doesn’t like the squishy toilet seat at his friend’s mom’s house? In the same way Maxwell’s ineptitude is paramount to overturning his expulsion, so is Vandal’s inherent stupidity to its satirization of shows like Serial and Making a Murderer. The question at the center of the story isn’t about something as grave as homicide, it’s literally “who drew the dicks?”
Of course, a similar but graver absurdity dominated the real-life news cycle all through 2017. As much as by its policies, Donald Trump’s presidency has, like Vandal, been defined thus far by an ongoing investigation into a (potentially) criminal act: the question of whether members of Trump’s campaign worked with a foreign government to undermine his opponent in the 2016 election. While the alleged crime is a good deal more serious than a couple dozen spray-painted penises, every discovery into the purported transgression has been astounding in its idiocy. Consider that the catalyst for the whole thing was that the man appointed to the position of national security advisor didn’t realize calls he was placing to a Russian ambassador were being monitored by the FBI, and so thought nothing of lying to the FBI about the content of those calls.
There are reasons a late night talk show dubbed the scandal “Stupid Watergate”:
- When The New York Times reported that, during the campaign, Donald Trump Jr. responded “If it’s what you say I love it” to an email promising dirt on Hillary Clinton from the Russia government (one with the subject line “Russia – Clinton – private and confidential,” no less) Don Jr.’s response was … to post the entire email chain on Twitter, confirming the Times’s report.
- One-time campaign chair Paul Manafort thought it was a good idea to ghostwrite an op-ed for a Russian connected with Russian intelligence services while out on bail for fraud and conspiracy charges related to work he did for a pro-Russian government in Ukraine.
- Former Trump campaign policy advisor Carter Page casually admitted on All In With Chris Hayes that Russia “may have come up from time to time” in campaign emails. “Carter Page is awesomely stupid,” California Congressman Ted Lieu tweeted shortly after.
- On NBC Nightly News, the president offered up, nearly unprompted, that he had fired former FBI Director James Comey, not, as his administration insisted, on the recommendation of the attorney general and deputy attorney general, but because “of this Russia thing.”
Trump’s administration was elected to oversee the largest economy and strongest military on the planet. And in its bush-league attempts at covering up the potential theft of that election, it finds a pretty good analogue in a fictional group of stoners who spend their time making videos of themselves farting on babies. Vandal’s Maxwell and his friends the Way Back Boys (because they go way back) are ultimately much more charming and way less evil than anyone associated with the Trump administration, but the corollaries are nonetheless readily apparent. During an off-the-record summer lecture to congressional interns—which was, of course, secretly recorded and released by an intern—Jared Kushner used the same defense Maxwell cites in Vandal to vouch for the campaign’s innocence: that he and his cohort were too dumb and disorganized to handle a plot as elaborate as the alleged Russia collusion.
“They thought we colluded,” Kushner said, “but we couldn’t even collude with our local offices.”
That Kushner seems proud of his team’s ignorance is perhaps the most egregious similarity between our current reality and Vandal’s mad- up one. But asininity is considerably less entertaining when its ascribed to those who are succeeding at their ultimate goals of killing the poor, destroying the environment, and setting civil rights back a century. Dylan Maxwell just wanted to graduate.