In on the Joke

Yes, we can still laugh at Donald Trump.

Paul Sableman / Flickr

Is Trump still a joke?

It’s been two months since the election, and the mind still reels. We may never be able to handle the cognitive dissonance of Donald Trump, commander-in-chief, and Donald Trump, patron saint of talentless celebrities. The new president is a dangerous demagogue who fires up arenas with a hatefully catty speaking style that somehow evokes both Mussolini and your rambling Aunt Irene.

This inescapable weirdness isn’t going to change when Trump takes office. Like prisoners huddled around the bulletin board on a demonic cruise ship, we’ll be forced to check the president’s cheerful Twitter posts to learn what horrors the new day will bring:

So here’s the 372nd most important question facing us in the coming months: can we still laugh at Trump? Some will argue that continuing to treat him like a joke minimizes the very real dangers now facing women, people of color, workers, and Alec Baldwin.

You know who else was accused of being insensitive? Mel Brooks. Last year a Maryland organization picketed a local production of The Producers for making light of the Holocaust. “When six million people are murdered,” said protest organizer Jeffrey Imm, “we don’t view it with knee-slapping, we view it with reverence.”

Brooks, of course, takes the opposite view — he once told 60 Minutes that one of his “lifelong jobs” was “to make the world laugh at Adolf Hitler” — and it’s fair to say he’s been proven right. Not only is “Springtime for Hitler” still hilarious after all these decades, you can even make a case that it and other Hitler parodies have played a role in keeping Nazism beyond the pale by making it seem not only evil but ridiculous.

Of course, as some critics have noted, many of the late-night comedy jokes about Trump’s hair and hand-size insecurities don’t exactly rise to the level of Swiftian satire. Even worse are the cracks about the supposed ignorance of his supporters, which aren’t just lame but reactionary.

But let’s also remember that even mild mockery of a president who presents himself as a potentate are rays of hope for people growing up in a Trump household. And frankly, the alternative to tame liberal Trump jokes on shows owned by Viacom and Comcast aren’t going to be revolutionary Trump jokes but no Trump jokes at all. Say what you will about Baldwin’s Donald on Saturday Night Live, but I’ll take it over Trump hosting the show again.

These aren’t new questions. A decade ago, another destructo-clown president ruled the land. Every day, it seemed, Dubya would destroy an ancient Middle Eastern civilization or let a great American city be irreparably flooded. And every night, we’d laugh at how fucked we were by watching Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

But not everyone was amused. The Bush administration, wrote Steve Almond in the Baffler, owed these comedians a “debt” because their critiques of the Iraq war

might have done more to diffuse the antiwar movement than the phone surveillance clauses embedded in the Patriot Act. Why take to the streets when Stewart and Colbert are on the case? It’s a lot easier, and more fun, to experience the war as a passive form of entertainment than as a source of moral distress requiring citizen activism.

The damning conclusion of Almond’s j’accuse was that these two comedy shows were (gasp!) comedy shows, whose goal “was to mollify people, not incite them.” As if the problem was that liberal comedians were making fun of Bush’s goofy sneering face and nonsensical sentences, rather than that the liberal political party kept voting for his wars and shitty policies.

Similarly, we should keep in mind that Trump didn’t win simply because comedians and celebrities mocked him, but because his opponent apparently thought she would win simply because they supported her. It wasn’t John Oliver or Samantha Bee who, in the campaign’s final days, made the decision to ignore a major transit workers’ strike in a swing state so Clinton could cram in just a few more glitzy rallies with Jay-Z and Jon Bon Jovi.

Dark Humor

Obviously, it’s not humor but organizing that can bring Trump down. But as we organize against Trump’s horrific policies, we shouldn’t lose sight of what a comically shallow dirtbag he still is.

Not only that, but jokes definitely seem to bother him and his fragile ego. So let’s have more wisecracks about the ridiculous hair that makes him look like the most lecherous creature ever created by Dr Seuss, and more ruthless imitations of the idiot-king squirming to string together three coherent sentences about anything other than his real estate.

There’s also a darker and more profound humor in history’s most powerful empire being ruled by Biff from Back to the Future. The fact that Trump won the presidency doesn’t mean that he’s actually been a secret Clausewitz-studying strategic genius all along — it just means that the Marco Rubios and Hillary Clintons are even more incompetent than we thought.

Let’s not just mock Trump for being a lowlife, but use his absurdity to indict the supposedly noble establishment. After all, this isn’t the first poll-obsessed, egomaniacal president to harbor the belief that he can solve deep structural problems using the winning force of his personality. And if you look at the Obama years through the lens of Trump, you can see a president slapping some gold plate on a rigged economy and marketing the same old shitty casino with the grandeur of his name.

Ultimately, Trump is funny not because he’s a clumsy intruder into the regal marble halls of Washington DC but because he throws into sharp relief what millions of poor and working-class Americans already know: that our hallowed political institutions are an absolute joke.

It’s okay to see the humor in this sad predicament. But it shouldn’t stop us from fighting like hell to change the situation we’re in. Because the joke will be on us if we’re too weak to resist Trump’s horror show.