By Alison Dagnes
To many people, particularly his opponents, the Donald Trump presidency is no laughing matter. But one of the remarkable aspects of Trump’s rhetorical style on the campaign trail is that he thinks he’s funny. What explains Trump’s attempt at humor, and what does it tell us about how his supporters view Trump as a candidate and a president?
Most politicians try to seem funny, because humor is something that unites us and laughing feels good. Past presidents have used humor as they campaign for office in an effort to show self-deprecation and affability. One study found a president’s most frequent use of humor was to “deflect questions from reporters in order to avoid answering directly.” Presidents before Trump viewed annual Washington insider events, such as the Gridiron Dinner or the White House Correspondence Dinner, as opportunities roast opponents and the press through comedy. Former Senator Bob Dole authored a book called Great Presidential Wit (I Wish I Was in the Book) where he named the four funniest presidents in history (Lincoln, Reagan, both Roosevelts), and there have been countless lists that expand on Sen. Dole’s judgement.
President Trump’s use of humor is unlike that of his predecessors. He uses the cover of “hilarity” to say mean things about other people or make outlandish statements, and he often excuses his bad behavior with “I was only kidding.” The president and his supporters frequently accuse those on the left as being too “politically correct” and overly sensitive; by extension, they accuse the left of lacking a sense of humor when they don’t get the joke.
In other words, Trump’s “jokes” are not jokes in any classical sense. They tend to be derisive jabs at perceived foes with the kind of sneering mockery that is usually reserved for middle school lunchrooms. For instance, in the 2015 GOP debate where Megan Kelly asked then-candidate Trump about his treatment of women, noting his name-calling included the terms: “fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals”, Trump joked, “Only Rosie O’Donnell.” He has referred to Covid-19 as the “Kung Flu.” Looking ahead to Election Day, the president noted the importance of winning Florida, and said about the state’s Governor Ron DeSantis: “You know if we don't win it, I'm blaming the governor. I'll fire him somehow. I'm going to fire him. I will find a way, anyway.”
The immediate explanation for this brand of humor is that it plays well among his enthusiasts. His furious idea of slapstick also reflects the current state of American politics, where negative partisanship rules the day, people communicate in angry code, and nicknames take the place of conversation. Mostly, however, it has to do with how much American politics has become centered on the presidency, and in particular Donald Trump.
Focusing on the presidency alone makes it simpler for the public to follow the narrative of national politics. Political ads for candidates up and down the ballot are all about fealty to or rejection of Trump. Cable news channels accommodate experts and practitioners who weigh in on the easily understood binary of pro-Trump/anti-Trump.
This kind of framing personalizes Trump’s support, exacerbating our already intense negative partisanship while reinforcing the false calculation believed by the Trump base: (a) Trump personalizes the anger of his supporters; (b) opposition to the president is thus an affront to them; (c) those who disagree with the president must then detest his defenders. As students of mine have said, “insulting Trump is insulting me.”
The right-wing media works overtime to encourage this resentment and maintain the highly personalized grievance politics that is profitable for them. A Fox News exec told Vanity Fair’s Gabriel Sherman last year that even when Trump leaves office, Fox News will continue to thrive because their mission is “defending our viewers from the people who hate them.” This has been a successful strategy; building an audience with unwavering support on top of a foundation of dislike against an invented foe has proven to be valuable.
As he turns policymaking into a binary love/hate referendum about him, the president sows division all around. He has turned the bureaucracy into “the deep state” who work against him, disparages members of intelligence agencies as “absolute scum,” and claims political opponents should be jailed -- all because they are not personally devoted to him. When the Supreme Court ruled against one of his cases, Trump asked on Twitter, “Do you get the impression that the Supreme Court doesn’t like me?” All of this shade, often disguised by his unique brand of mockery, is rooted in a deeply personal approach to leadership. It breeds cynicism and fosters discord, but at the same time maintains loyalty among his supporters.
During the 2016 Republican National Convention, then-candidate Trump painted a bleak picture of the country and said, “I am your voice. I alone can fix it.” This is the way he now functions as president. He has no real need for a press secretary or communications director because he takes care of his messaging through his Twitter feed. He does not need experts or policy wonks around him, because he operates with only his own truthiness to guide him.
The idea that any one person could solve the myriad troubles we face today is absurd and deeply undemocratic, but one can understand the temptation to buy into that fantasy. It is a soothing fiction that someone will swoop in to save the day, and it is easier to focus on a single character than to take on a large, complicated system.
Studies have shown that many Americans prefer this strongman leadership style, and most are Trump supporters. This may explain why Trump’s base voters enjoy his taunting ridicule against others and view these insults and hecklings as humorous. Trump’s genius is that he makes sure his supporters see politicking as emotional entertainment: a battle between good and evil, a deeply personal fight between “us” versus “them.”
This emotional performance is the secret sauce of Trump support. When he first ran for president, Trump slammed into national politics by insisting that he would smash the system to pieces and drain the swamp, all to defend Americans who felt ignored by arrogant and patronizing “elites.” He identified the villains in his story, attaching callous nicknames to those he opposed, defining policy efforts through three-word chants.
That rhetorical style continued after the 2016 election was decided, because for Trump, the humor that seems to work best is the mean stuff: sneers against perceived foes, mockery against the "losers" who look down their noses at Trump and his supporters, all constructed as self-righteous comedy. It may not be classically funny, but it's funny in a school yard bully sort of way. (“When you were born, the doctor took one look at you and slapped your mother.”)
I saw a bumper sticker in my town the other day that read, "Trump 2020. Fuck Your Feelings." If that’s the kind of humor his supporters are going for, then President Trump is a laugh a minute, but it also encapsulates how his uncaring style of humor drives a wedge between citizens. It is anyone’s guess as to what happens when Trump is no longer president, but hopefully the jokes will be funnier. “Lock her up,” a once snappy hit in his comedic repertoire, has already lost its zing.
Alison Dagnes is a professor of political science at Shippensburg University and the author of Super Mad at Everything All the Time: Modern Media & Our National Anger (2019).