Since Friday, President Trump has declared a national emergency to bypass Congress in response to an manufactured “crisis;” endorsed the view that people who investigate his alleged crimes should themselves be tossed in jail; and, yet again, channeled the language of Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong to once again label the media as “the enemy of the people.”
What shouldn’t escape our notice in this authoritarian outburst, though, is that he also called for “retribution” against NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” after it aired a sketch ridiculing his national emergency news conference. The president implied that the show’s satirical skits should be investigated because they were the ones behind the “real collusion.”
Thin-skinned authoritarians and aspiring autocrats can’t stand being the butt of a joke. They despise comedy. They lash out against it. For them, nothing can be worse than having people laugh at you. Trump is no different.
He has tweeted more than 50 times about the world laughing at former president Barack Obama, or laughing at the United States, or laughing at U.S. trade and immigration policies. For Trump, being reduced to a punchline is the ultimate humiliation.
In one tweet, Trump suggested that Russia must be “laughing up their sleeves” at the investigations into the Kremlin’s operations during the 2016 election. In another, Russians were “laughing their asses off.” And in a third more authoritarian variation of the genre, he said that because Russia was laughing, Republicans should “finally take control” of the Mueller investigation — a move that would undercut the rule of law.
But Trump’s recent call to punish “Saturday Night Live” fits a pattern of egotistical strongmen who use their power to crush those who dare make jokes about them. Donald Trump may tweet it and dream it, but in other authoritarian countries, making fun of the despot is not something you can afford to take lightly.
In Egypt, there was even a “Saturday Night Live” rip-off show called “Saturday Night Live Bil Arabi.” “In America, they divide [sketch ideas] into yes, maybe, no. We have yes, haram [forbidden], and jail,” one of the show’s creators told GQ. The show finally took a sketch from the wrong pile; it was shut down in early 2018.
Another Egyptian comedian, Bassem Youssef — known as the Jon Stewart of the Middle East — was forced to flee when Egypt’s dictator, Abdel Fatah al-Sissi threatened him with a $10 million fine. (Youssef had already faced an arrest warrant from the previous, Islamist government.) He escaped to the United States, but yet again lives under a president who believes that jokes about the president warrant “retribution.”
Turkey’s despot, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, pressed the German government to prosecute a comedian who joked that Erdogan has sex with goats. Erdogan’s regime has also insisted on prosecuting ordinary citizens who share memes that make fun of the Turkish president. In one case, a civil servant was arrested and tried for sharing a meme that compared Erdogan to Gollum, the miserable creature from “The Lord of the Rings” film trilogy. The defense argued that the memes actually depicted Smeagol, Gollum’s alter-ego and his goodness within, forcing the judge to call for a recess to better understand the character, since he had not read the books or seen the films. Such absurdity is inevitable when you try to police comedy.
In Thailand, a cartoonist who ridiculed the ruling junta was detained and threatened. And for Thai journalists such as Pravit Rojanaphruk (who has been detained several times), comedy is both a subtle weapon against dictatorship and a coping mechanism. In a 2015 column, Pravit wrote: “In a repressive and tragic society where logic succumbs to perversion through irrational autocratic dictum, maintaining a sense of humor is a vital strategy for sustaining sanity. . . . If Thai society is going down, we might as well go down with a rough chuckle or two.”
Autocrats recognize the disarming power of comedy. Laughter is the opposite of fear. And so-called laughtivism can broaden the appeal of resistance movements, allowing them to recruit new members. It also forces snowflake strongmen such as Trump into a trap: If they threaten to crack down on comedy, they look even more ridiculous.
The problem, of course, is that humor cuts both ways. Too many people see Trump as an amusement rather than a threat. Millions laugh at his bombastic threats, his abuse of minorities or his repeated vows to jail his political opponents. And those who laugh with him are less likely to see those objectively authoritarian behaviors for the danger they represent. There are cautionary tales from history, too — of countries that have laughed along as democracy died.
Comedy is a powerful tool in cutting would-be autocrats down to size. But we shouldn’t make the mistake of viewing Trump as a harmless joke rather than an authoritarian menace. While “Saturday Night Live” is funny, threats by the president of the United States to crack down on them for making jokes at his expense are no laughing matter.
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