When traveling floats parade through the streets of New Orleans at Mardi Gras, the tradition is for the crowd to shout “Throw me something, Mister” — and for the riders to toss them brightly-colored beads in return.
But these days, carnival societies in the southern US city are also hurling something sharper: political satire aimed at the governing elite in Washington, and closer to home in Louisiana.
Following last year’s bruising election, national politicians are playing an outsized role at this year’s festivities, culminating on Tuesday, along with the usual assortment of shady dealings involving local powerbrokers.
The traveling tableaux, which carry anything from 10 to 200 riders, are like giant political caricatures laced with pithy textual barbs.
President Donald Trump has been a recurring target, appearing one night last week as a Grinch-like leaf-green beast with an orange mane, spouting such lines as, “He’s a Loser,” in a float titled “How the Grump Stole Twitter.”
The following night, Trump was refashioned into another icon of popular culture: King Kong. Instead of the Empire State Building, Trump as an 800-pound orangutan was seen scaling the Washington Monument, proclaiming, “I’ve got the biggest bananas.”
Trump’s defeated rival for the presidency, Hillary Clinton, fared little better, appearing in one float called “Skid Row” and another dubbed “Out to Pasture,” where she and the former president and vice president, Barack Obama and Joe Biden, were represented as a trio of donkeys — the symbol of the Democratic Party.
The different parading societies of New Orleans are known to represent a range of political views — mirroring the city’s place as a progressive foothold in an overwhelmingly Republican state.
But the groups, known in New Orleans parlance as “krewes,” all agree the goal is less about persuasion that winning laughs.
Satire “is very, very important to let people know that we all have foibles and we all have challenges and we’re all human,” said a representative of the Knights of Chaos krewe, a secret society founded in 2001.
“Just let it go. Laugh at yourself a little bit.”
Staci Rosenberg, captain of the all-female Krewe of Muses, said its members come from across the political spectrum and are given a chance to reject sketches they are uncomfortable about.
“Our goal is to be an equal-opportunity offender,” Rosenberg said at the outset of her krewe’s parade. “Our members tell us when we go too far.”
Political satire has a long, but sporadic, history at New Orleans Mardi Gras, the carnival celebration also known as Shrove Tuesday that precedes the ritual Christian fasting season of Lenten.
The first parades to make use of the form were born in the 1870s in opposition to anti-slavery measures rolled out in the South by Washington following the Civil War.
Satire vanished from Mardi Gras for a century after an 1877 spoof depicting President Ulysses Grant, a former Union army general, as a devil figure — which resulted in an apology from the Louisiana governor to Washington.
The tradition was revived in the 1970s, but was again interrupted by racial politics after 1991, when its proponent, the all-white Krewe of Momus, stopped parading out of refusal to sign an anti-discrimination ordinance.
Krewe d’Etat, founded as a secret society in 1996, revived the practice, taking aim at the Bill Clinton’s scandal-marred presidency in floats such as “The Great Lewinsky.”
“If you’re a public figure and you make a jerk of yourself, you’re fair game,” said a spokesman for Krewe d’Etat — who spoke on condition he not be identified.
“We’re not partisan when it comes to satire.”
The parades by the three groups — Knights of Chaos, Krewe d’Etat and Krewe of Muses — together occupy a small but vital niche among spectacles otherwise dominated by fantastical or exotic themes that look impressive, but are thin on substance.
Satire became especially vital after Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 left the city on its back in a disaster that revealed failure at virtually every level of government.
The city, through the krewes, hit back the following February, lambasting politicians, emergency relief officials and the national media in parades that also reflected on hardscrabble realities of life such as confronting the stench from a trashed refrigerator.
“The satire was so important that year because we were in a terrible situation,” said Virginia Saussy, theme chair for Muses.
“Since Katrina, it has been more frequent, more intense and more fun,” said Clancy DuBos, a political columnist at the Gambit, a New Orleans weekly.
Although national politics garnered attention this season, embattled local figures also came in for plenty of heat — from an official caught in a sexting scandal involving a 17-year old to a evergreen subjects like the race for City Hall.
Other edgy works looked at the fraught issue of transgendered bathrooms, the debate over free speech on college campuses, the fake news phenomenon and Trump’s relation with Russia.
There are logistical constraints as to the timeliness of the parody because of the toil needed to transform a subject into a three-dimensional tableau that can traverse the city.
For that reason, devotees of political satire at parades know to read the fine print on floats, which contain some of the newsiest barbs, such as a reference to “alternative facts,” a term coined by Trump spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway to defend Trump’s easily-debunked assertion that his inauguration was the best attended in history.
Conway herself made an unflattering cameo in Carnival 2017, appearing in the corner of one float with a serpent’s tongue.
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