That Donald Trump — what a cut-up! Every time the president says something transgressive, the inevitable spin from his defenders is that he was just kidding.
On Saturday, for example, Trump praised China’s President Xi Jinping for rescinding term limits, saying, “He’s now president for life. … I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll give that a shot someday.” His partisans immediately dismissed this as a priceless witticism. So Trump doesn’t harbor any authoritarian impulses? Perish the thought!
What about last month when Trump said that Democrats were “un-American” and “treasonous” for not applauding his State of the Union address? “The president was obviously joking,” said White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Obviously. Because if he weren’t, this would be yet another indicator that we have a budding Mussolini or at least a McCarthy in the White House.
According to his acolytes, here are some of Trump’s other riotous one-liners:
- In October, the president reacted to news that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had called him a “moron” by saying, “I think it’s fake news, but if he did that, I guess we’ll have to compare IQ tests. And I can tell you who is going to win.” So Trump doesn’t really think he’s a “very stable genius” and that he’s way smarter than Tillerson?
- In July, the president told a law enforcement group that suspects should be “thrown in rough” and not “too nice” into “the back of a paddy wagon.” So Trump doesn’t really advocate police brutality?
- A year earlier, in July 2016, Trump asked the Russians to hack into Hillary Clinton’s emails: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.” So Trump wasn’t really looking for campaign help from the Kremlin?
Trump adopted the “just kidding” defense himself on Tuesday when he tweeted: “Lowest rated Oscars in HISTORY. Problem is, we don’t have Stars anymore – except your President (just kidding, of course)!” So Trump isn’t really a megalomaniac who thinks that he’s the biggest star on the planet?
Sorry, I don’t buy it.
The president’s comments are no laughing matter even if they were intended humorously, which is far from clear. In 1905, Sigmund Freud published a book called “Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconsciousness” making the point that jokes are often a way to vent distasteful desires, either lustful or aggressive, in a socially approved fashion. Humor scholars (yes, they exist) have dubbed this ”relief theory.” While it doesn’t cover every type of joke (e.g., puns), Freud’s insight applies to a lot of what passes for levity.
That there is truth in wit as well as wine is now widely recognized — truth, that is, about the thoughts of the joke-teller. That’s why it’s no longer acceptable in polite company for WASPs to tell jokes about supposedly dumb or lazy ethnic groups such as Poles and Hispanics in a way that was common even a generation ago, because we recognize the hurtful and demeaning intent behind the supposedly playful words. Jokes about the mentally disabled are also out. “Dumb blonde” jokes are still okay — just barely. A Jew can still tell jokes about Jews, and African Americans can tell jokes about blacks, but a Jew telling a joke about blacks runs the risk of being branded a racist and an African American telling a joke about Jews of being branded an anti-Semite.
You can argue that political correctness has gone too far. But there is little doubt that the standards of acceptable comedy have changed — for everyone except Trump.
In 2002, for example, Senate Republican leader Trent Lott joked at a tribute for his colleague, Sen. Strom Thurmond, that we “wouldn’t have had all these problems” in America if only Thurmond had been elected president in 1948 on the Dixiecrat ticket. This caused such a furor that within two weeks Lott had to resign. Now I almost feel sorry for Lott. He didn’t stay in the Senate long enough to see Trump normalize white nationalism.
The president doesn’t even bother to pretend that his praise of neo-Nazis as “very fine people” and his advocacy for Confederate monuments as “beautiful” symbols of our “history” were jokes. Yet there is still enough of a stigma about collusion with a hostile foreign power, the undermining of our democracy, the abuse of criminal suspects and unbridled narcissism that the president has to pretend he’s just joshing while giving voice to his darker desires. Thank goodness we still have a few taboos left. But don’t make the mistake of not taking Trump’s “jokes” seriously.