With nearly 200 top figures from the worlds of politics, punditry, podcasting and comedy converging at the Pasadena Convention Center for Politicon this weekend, it may seem like the only famous politico not appearing at the two-day extravaganza is President Donald Trump.
Not to worry. The bipartisan event will have a more entertaining version of the commander in chief on hand when Anthony Atamanuik, who lampoons Trump weekly on Comedy Central’s “The President Show,” performs his one-man show “The Trump Dump” there on Saturday night.
Atamanuik’s show will be just one of more than 75 panels, debates, discussions, interviews and comedy shows at the political smorgasbord.
One particularly noteworthy participant was to be newly appointed White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci. But the combative Wall Street investment guru announced Friday that he had decided not to attend.
Politicon is just the latest in a string of major appearances Atamanuik has made while portraying the president, including a 40-city “Trump vs. Bernie” national tour during the 2016 election season in which he faced off in comic debates against Bernie Sanders impersonator James Adomian. The two also appeared at last year’s edition, in addition to two comedy specials for the Fusion cable network and on Comedy Central’s “@ Midnight,” but he is relishing the chance to cut loose as a solo act this weekend.
“’The Trump Dump’ was a show I did even before the Bernie debates, as a press conference set in the future when he would be president that was meant as a warning,” said Atamanuik, who will also participate in Saturday’s “Trump: Genius or Lunatic?” panel. “I try to give people the closest experience of being there with the real him, and it’s the best intersection between a press conference and a rally. I go off on the week’s news for the first half-hour, and then I take questions from the audience.”
Atamanuik first portrayed Trump in the improv show “ASSSSCAT 3000” at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York two months after the real estate mogul had announced his presidential run. The positive audience reaction inspired him to study Trump’s extemporaneous speaking style at debates and rallies, honing his interpretation of the future leader more fully as he realized the growing demand for a comedic takedown of the then-candidate.
His experiences both on the tour and with his current series have led Atamanuik to believe that the nation’s political divisions are largely media-fueled. Likening the tour to “a poor man’s version of the campaign trail,” he was able to observe that people of all stripes wanted to laugh at the tensions in the news.
“I think there’s much smaller margins than people perceive, and that people make it their business to maintain a divide over trivial things because it drives revenue to keep people split into different tents,” said Atamanuik. “What will really heal the divide is when we remove the money from politics and publicly fund elections. The media needs to return to a nonprofit model where any divisions in networks are not required to turn a profit to report the news and stay on the air.”
This weekend marks the third go-round for Politicon, which originated in Los Angeles in October 2015 before moving to Pasadena last June. Drawing nearly 10,000 attendees, last year’s edition offered hope that even in the divisive political climate of the 2016 presidential campaign, challenging and entertaining discussions could still occur.
That bipartisan spirit is also a large part of the appeal for CNN commentator Paul Begala, who first attained notoriety as a campaign strategist for Bill Clinton in 1992 and his work with the SuperPAC that helped guide the 2012 re-election of Barack Obama. He will be participating in three discussions: “WTF: The Hillary Panel” and “Art of the Campaign Strategy,” which will focus on the 2016 election, and “Politics and Dirty Tricks,” which analyzes the scandals since Trump’s inauguration.
“Anytime you lose, it’s part of what your side did wrong, and what you did right, and you have to be candid or you won’t learn,” said Begala, who has appeared in all three Politicons. “It’s important for all the people who voted for her to analyze it so we win back the White House. He had masterful marketing, and on Hillary’s side, it was all substance and no marketing. I’m not advocating that Democrats turn away from good ideas, but a whole lot of it is salesmanship.”
Among the hallmarks of Politicon are debates pitting leading conservatives and progressives against each other. This year’s most anticipated showdown finds Cenk Uygur— the co-founder and main host of the popular progressive commentary program “The Young Turks”— facing off against Ben Shapiro, founder of the conservative site Politico.
A former Republican who began shifting to progressivism in his 20s, Uygur, 47, fully embraced the Left in 2003 in opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Having debated conservative icons Ann Coulter and Dinesh D’Souza at the prior Politicons, he said he has learned the “conservative bag of tricks.”
“Half the debate is spent explaining how they do propaganda, and a classic trick is to cite a stat that sounds factual, sounds like intelligence and truth but is grossly misleading,” said Uygur. “A classic one is ‘debt went up dramatically under Obama,’ but leaving out how much a deficit Bush left him and how much he brought it down each year. You leave out a bunch of facts about the debt and make it sound worse. Shapiro’s bread and butter is cutesy tricks like that.”
Aside from Atamanuik, other prime comedy figures appearing at Politicon include Chelsea Handler, Greg Proops, Al Madrigal and “Daily Show” founder Lizz Winstead. One particularly busy comic is “Daily Show” correspondent Roy Wood, Jr., who will be a guest on a live taping of “The Adam Carolla Podcast,” speak in a panel on marijuana legalization called “Weed Nation” and perform at the Sunday night finale show of comics at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium.
“I think if you can laugh at each other, then anything else is possible,” says Wood, Jr. “I’m hoping that come Monday morning when it’s over, all the attendees leave with a better sense of understanding about where they stand on issues and why they feel that way.
“Now everything seems so entrenched – even outside of politics you’re forced to choose white or black, lactose or no lactose, gluten or gluten-free, and I’m hoping for greater understanding, not just for attendees but for everyone on the panels and holding a microphone too,” he continues. “A lot of us work in echo chambers, though we try not to. It does not hurt to address someone with a different view than you.”
Politicon takes place from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Pasadena Convention Center, 300 E. Green St., Pasadena. Tickets are $50 to $300. Visit politicon.com.