Chelsea Handler is in the middle of a political awakening. And this week, it’s not going very well.
With her Netflix talk show Chelsea, now in its second season, the comedian has made a conscious choice to pivot away from the vapid, celebrity gossip that dominated her long-running Chelsea Lately show on E! and towards the type of specifically anti-Trump political humor that has helped buoy other late-night hosts like Stephen Colbert this past year.
But while she may be finding success with jokes about President Trump’s obsessions with golf and his daughter Ivanka on Netflix, she has veered into some seriously questionable territory on Twitter, culminating in this call for a military coup against the president on Friday.
That tweet follows one from earlier in the week that received even stronger backlash from mostly conservative commentators, but some liberal ones as well. In response to a story about two Chinese men who were arrested in Berlin for giving the Nazi salute, Handler suggested that the U.S. should have similar laws to Germany for those who “think racism is funny.”
The problem with that line of thinking, as critic after critic pointed out, is that someone has to decide what constitutes a “racist” joke. It is a slippery slope from there to outlawing free speech as we know it. On top of that, it was an odd comment to make for a comedian who has spent her career telling jokes that at least some segment of the population likely finds offensive.
One of the best things about Chelsea—and the excellent Chelsea Does documentary series that preceded it—is Handler’s ability to admit that she doesn’t know everything, or sometimes much of anything, about a given issue. She has called the show “the college education I never got,” and has frequently brought on guests like MSNBC’s Jacob Soboroff, the Pod Save America hosts and CNN’s S.E. Cupp to help explain what’s happening in Washington to her.
“When I was growing up, I never understood, why is this so important?” Handler told me in an interview a couple of months before the 2016 election, speaking about her newfound interest in politics. When we spoke again a few months after Trump’s inauguration, Handler talked about the “responsibility” she feels to use her platform to hold Trump accountable. “I’ve been screaming and yelling my whole life and now at least I have a reason to,” she said.
As President Trump continues to ramp up his frightening rhetoric about North Korea, Handler is understandably unnerved by how precarious everything in this country feels right now. Who could blame her? But that hardly means it’s “responsible” to call for a military coup against the man who is still president of the United States.
It’s a lesson that Handler’s fellow comedian Sarah Silverman learned just a couple of weeks after Trump took office, when she tweeted this similar all-caps message long before we were on the brink of nuclear war.
After the inevitable backlash, Silverman took a day to calm down and ultimately walked back that sentiment with this more measured follow-up.
Like it or not, comedians like Handler and Silverman do represent “The Left,” at least in the eyes of the right-wing pundits who can’t wait to call them out for any misstep or slight hint of hypocrisy. That’s not to say that liberal comedians must apologize for every shocking thing they say. Colbert, for instance, rightly refused to back down from the Trump joke that prompted a #FireColbert firestorm on Twitter.
On the same night Bill Maher casually dropped the “n-word”—leading to a rare apology of his own—he said in his “New Rules” segment that Democrats should abandon Michelle Obama’s “when they go low, we go high” slogan in favor of “when they go low, we kick them in the nuts.”
“What country do you think you live in now?” Maher asked his audience. “Wake up and smell the asshole. Because it turns out when they go low they get reelected, they take the Congress, the Supreme Court, the presidency.”
There may be some validity to that approach in certain situations. But now more than ever, the #Resistance has to avoid sinking to President Trump’s level. The counter to his crazy cannot be, let’s act crazier! When Trump goes low, the answer is not to call for a military coup.