It is widely acknowledged that no American leader has ever done more for the nation’s comedians than Donald Trump. As a businessman, he made a habit of running companies into the ground. As president, he has spawned a boom in the satire industry.
What is less acknowledged — indeed, often completely ignored — is the insidious manner in which comedians, and comedy, have served Trump.
I mean this as no knock on the talents of our humorists, or the pleasures they provide. Our predicament is this: Previous occupants of the Oval Office courted gravitas; the current one thrives on mockery.
It is hard to imagine any other president, for instance, taking to Twitter, as Trump did during the polar vortex, to ask, “What the hell is going on with Global Warming? Please come back fast, we need you!” With one jibe, our president reduced the discourse around climate change from a scientifically verified threat to a brainless joke.
He subjected his intelligence chiefs the same treatment, quipping, “Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school” after they contradicted his various unfounded assertions before Congress. News reports focused more on this bit of calculated ridicule than the terrifying reality that we have a chief executive who spews misinformation rather than relying on the agencies charged with providing national security.
Trump’s entire political ascent, if closely examined, has been an intricate psychic ballet, in which he instinctively pivots between two comedic poles: being the perpetrator of cruel jokes or the butt of them.
During the campaign, Trump managed to convert the GOP debates into comedy roasts with slashing sobriquets (“Little Marco”) and outlandish laugh lines. These crude outbursts projected a strength essential to his allure — that he could not be governed by politically correct norms. To his partisans, Trump’s retrograde antics — imitating a disabled reporter, body-shaming female rivals, pining for the good old days when he’d be allowed to punch protesters — proved his authenticity. Like an edgy stand-up, he said what his audiences could only think.
The power to transgress, to shock and offend, is central to the comedic impulse. It’s the rhetorical posture that binds the scathing satires of Aristophanes to the profane riffs of Lenny Bruce. Trump’s knack for serving up sadism with a smirk provided him the foolproof alibi favored by online trolls: he was just joking. Anyone offended was a snowflake with no sense of humor. It’s no coincidence that Trump’s preferred mode of discourse is Twitter, a medium in which the news of the day is instantly converted into a polarized province of sick burns and counter-burns.
Trump doesn’t just borrow his comportment from comedians. The bond he’s forged with his base hinges on the emotion that is comedy’s dark underside: humiliation. His worldview arises from the idea that America is being laughed at, a phrase he has been invoking since he first considered a presidential bid, in 1987. His decision to run in 2016 was reportedly seeded not by a commitment to public service but a personal affront: President Obama’s decision to roast him at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Assn. Dinner.
Trump’s own bullying bluster is best understood as a form of comedic jujitsu. His quips convert the shame of an aging white population with declining utility into peals of smug laughter aimed at the elites (such as Obama) who they think routinely condescend to them.
In this sense, the professional comedians who make a living tweaking Trump have become invaluable and unwitting allies in a cycle of divisive recrimination. The more they tease Trump, the more he is able to portray himself as a hero whose own verbal assaults are a necessary response to those determined to turn Trumpism and its followers into a joke.
“It only builds up my base,” Trump said recently, of his ongoing feud with Stephen Colbert, who tees off on the president nightly on “The Late Show.” “It only helps me, people like him.”
This is a president, in fact, who relishes and exploits his beefs with comedians. He doesn’t see them as degrading the office of the presidency so much as transforming that office into an adjunct of the entertainment industry, where what matters most is your ratings — your capacity to capture attention, not govern.
The towering irony here is that the essential mission of comedians in the Age of Trump is identical to that of the man they mock.
Both preach that our political and media classes are essentially corrupt. Both use shtick to convert our distress at this dysfunction into disposable laughs. In other words, both turn politics into show business.
As the cultural critic Neil Postman observed three decades ago in “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” the greatest risk to America isn’t the tyranny of totalitarianism, but a self-induced triviality, a culture in which atrocity masquerades as just another entertainment.
The fault here lies not with our comedian moralists, but with those of us who look to them as redeemers.
Halfway through his reign, Trump has reaffirmed a truth that extends from King Lear to Norman Lear: A kingdom that relies on court jesters to confront mad rulers is doomed. The Fool is not a redeemer. His role is to defuse, by means of laughter, the moral distress that presages redemption.
Until we recognize this, we will continue to respond to this administration’s startling cruelties and deceits with a kind of reactive indulgence. Rather than taking to the streets, or demanding action on the part of our elected officials no matter their party, we may be content to sit back and snicker at the jokes served up by Colbert and “Saturday Night Live.”
But there’s nothing funny about child refugees being torn away from their parents and dying in U.S. custody. Or a government that refuses to recognize the ravages of climate change. Or a president who traffics in authoritarian tropes and Kremlin-fed misinformation while slashing taxes and regulation for his corporate sponsors.
The antidote to the administration’s barbarism resides in turning away from the false comfort of political taunting. Citizens must be courageous enough to confront our predicament, not laugh at it.