The walkback from various administration officials was quick and predictable: The remark was “made in jest,” “tongue in cheek,” just another presidential joke. Trump’s own walkback of the walkback — “I don’t kid” — may have struck some people as confusing. But in reality, it may well have provided a clue to the elusive nature of this president’s often inscrutable sense of humor.
Inscrutable because, for one thing, it so often has to be explained afterward. His famous appeal during the 2016 campaign to “Russia, if you’re listening,” to help find Hillary Clinton’s emails, we learned only later, was simply a joke. His suggestion to police officers in 2017 to “don’t be too nice” when putting suspects into the backseats of squad cars was, according to the White House, another example of Trump’s joshing. His idea that injecting disinfectant might be a cure for the coronavirus? Just “a sarcastic question to reporters,” Trump insisted after the blowback.
“He made a joke,” press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters in 2017 after another of Trump’s loony comments (challenging Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to an IQ test). “Maybe you guys should get a sense of humor and try it sometimes.”
Part of the problem is a kind of misdirection. In his rallies and speeches, Trump looks and sounds like a traditional Borscht Belt comic: the mocking rhythms, the dripping sarcasm, the exaggerated expressions, the outlandish hyperbole. Yet, when it comes to telling an actual joke, Trump is fairly hopeless. As far as I can recall, he has gotten off precisely one good one since taking office. It came at the Gridiron Club dinner in March 2018, when he said he would be open to a one-on-one meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. “As for the risk of dealing with a madman is concerned,” Trump said, “that’s his problem, not mine.”
It’s hard to imagine Trump making that joke today (or anyone having the nerve to write it for him). He lacks the self-deprecating gene essential to all good presidential humorists. John F. Kennedy, for all his Ivy League hauteur, was a master at deflecting criticism with self-aware irony. (On his appointment of younger brother Bobby to the Cabinet: “I see nothing wrong with giving Robert some legal experience as attorney general before he goes out to practice law.”) Ronald Reagan often poked fun at his own age and reputation for laziness. “I have left orders to be awakened at any time in case of national emergency,” he once quipped, “even if I’m in a Cabinet meeting.”
By contrast, Trump is pioneering a new kind of presidential humor, one so avant-garde and subtle that many Americans may just now be catching on to it.
His influences are not previous presidents, or even the insult comedians like Don Rickles whom he superficially resembles. Trump’s chief model, it seems to me, is the deadpan performance-art comedy of people such as Andy Kaufman and Sacha Baron Cohen. They created elaborate put-on characters, like Kaufman’s obnoxious lounge-lizard Tony Clifton or Cohen’s blundering Kazakh journalist, Borat.
The key to pulling off this sort of comedy is to stick with the ruse, to stay in character, to dupe the audience for as long as possible. Cohen’s stunts have fooled even a former congressman. When Kaufman moved on from Tony Clifton to staging seemingly dead-serious wrestling matches against women, people thought he had really flipped out. But they weren’t sure.
Trump, the Tony Clifton of presidents, has proved equally adept at sustaining the put-on. He never breaks character. He never laughs at his own jokes (or anyone else’s, for that matter). On those rare occasions when he feels compelled to backtrack from an especially ridiculous comment, he does so with a scripted monotone of can’t-miss-it insincerity.
That may be the key to understanding the most head-snapping moments of Trump’s presidency, from his insistence that his Inauguration Day crowd on the far-from-full Mall was bigger than Barack Obama’s packed throng eight years earlier, to his rambling explanation for that shaky ramp walk at West Point last month. These moments are so bizarre, so out of proportion, so brazenly at odds with visible evidence (he ran the last 10 feet!) that they make sense only as performance art. And in that respect, Trump is peerless. Even Tony Clifton and Borat couldn’t keep their acts running for four years straight.