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Political Humor: Trumpism is No Joke. Or is it?

Belief in humor as a corrective force in politics is deeply ingrained in American culture.

Mark Twain may have put it best when he took aim at the political sphere:  All forms of government are appropriate targets “to be blown to rags and atoms” by the use of laughter.

When the current occupant of the White House descended the golden escalator in Trump Tower to announce that he would enter the presidential race, the New York Daily News printed the headline “Clown Runs for Prez” in bold letters over a photoshopped image of Trump showing him in clown makeup.

A relentless barrage of satirical attacks on the man and his ideas has ensued. There has not been a single show in late-night comedy in which Stephen Colbert, Seth Myers, Jimmy Kimmel, Trevor Noah, John Oliver, Samantha Bee, or Conan O’Brien, among others, have not torn into the political actions of the president. Just as there was not a single newspaper that endorsed candidate Trump in 2016. The thin-skinned, orange-tinged counterpuncher has swung back wildly against the punchlines. 

When comedian Bill Maher described Trump as the progeny of “a mother and an orangutan,” he found himself defending a multi-million dollar lawsuit that was summarily thrown out of court.  

Trump’s desire to ban the TikTok video Website stems, according to some pundits, from the embarrassingly low turnout at a Trump rally after TikTok users generated thousands of fake sign-ups. Then there is the backlash against the U.S. postal service. While many attribute the undermining of the postal system as an attempt to rig his own re-election, others trace Trump’s resentment of the USPS to its role as a delivery vehicle  for Amazon.com and the constant criticism of the Washington Post, owned by Amazon chairman Jeff Bezos. 

Hubris and humor have played an outsized role in the impact of the Trump presidency. Did our left-leaning culture drive right-leaning Americans to “register dissent” at the voting booth, as Ross Douthat suggested might happen? Did it “normalize” Trump, presenting him first as a hapless wannabe and then as a lovable schmuck, but never as a credible threat?

“Whatever the role our culture played in the election of Donald Trump—the second pop culture figure to become president, after Ronald Reagan, and the only one never to have served in government—you can’t pin the blame on any one artifact, performer, or institution,” comments SLATE magazine. “Not Hollywood, not Hamilton, not even Jeff Zucker. No one alone caused Trump, and no one alone is responsible for reversing the damage. No one alone can fix it.” But all of us certainly CAN!

He or she who laughs last at the end of 2020 will laugh best.  

Which candidate’s brand of humor is the funniest?

If humor about Trump is the benchmark, Joe Biden would be the last comic left standing. On the other end of the laugh meter, humor about the former vice president is simply not as funny.

Biden joke: What’s the biggest downer about the Covid pandemic for Joe Biden? “Social distancing.”

Trump joke: What’s the difference between Donald Trump and a flying pig? The letter “F.”

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are on a boat. They both fall off. Who gets saved? America!

Headline: Experts believe the Coronavirus could be defeated with the Twenty-fifth Amendment.

Trump’s closest, if not only, nodding familiarity with the use of humor is akin to that of an “insult comic.” There was a definite shock value to the nicknames, put-downs, and insults the so-called “short-fingered vulgarian” unleashed on fellow GOP members. His Republican colleagues on the primary debate stage: “Lyin Ted”(Cruz), “Little” Marco” (Rubio), “ Low energy” Jeb (Bush),” were unwilling to stoop that low and attempted to ignore the assault. Still Trump insisted on “punching down.”  A retouched video posted by Trump to Twitter showed the president “knocking out” a wrestler made-up to symbolize CNN.

In a similarly contemptible vein, Trump’s use of the cartoon figure known as Pepe the Frog, recasting the character with a coif of orange hair, has been interpreted as a gesture to align with white supremacists and anti-semitic hate groups who have adopted Pepe’s image for their own nefarious campaigns. The Anti-Defamation League has listed such uses of the cartoon character as constituting a symbol of hate on its official watch list.   

A Theory of Humor to Explain Trump

One theory of the psychology of humor that’s been gaining a lot of traction in political circles is called benign violation theory. The gist of this theory is that we find something funny when two conditions are met: it violates the way we think the world should work, and it does so in a way that’s not threatening.

If Trump really wanted Hillary to be locked up…He should have just hired her!

“What does the ‘J’ in Donald J. Trump stand for?

Genius.

“Other than the 245 times Trump has actually called someone a loser and a sucker on Twitter, he’d never say anything like that.”
Jimmy Fallon

Donald is walking out of the White House and heading toward his limo, when a possible assassin steps forward and aims a gun.
A secret service agent, new on the job, shouts ‘Mickey Mouse!’
This startles the would-be assassin and he is captured.
Later, the secret service agent’s supervisor takes him aside and asks, ‘What in the hell made you shout Mickey Mouse?’
Blushing, the agent replies, ‘I got nervous.

I meant to shout ‘Donald, duck!’‘ — The Friars Club

Then there’s the violation part. The crux of this is that we all have a basic sense of how the world should work, which includes the norms for appropriate behavior and general beliefs about what is “correct.” When our basic sense of the world is violated, it might make us laugh. If someone does something wrong or says something they’re not “supposed to” say, it’s grounds for giggles.

The second postulate, that the premise of a humorous joke is not harmful, would appear to defy Trump’s behavior. Instead, theorists attribute Trump’s actions as being eligible for satirical derision because of the element of “surprise.” Heck, even Aristotle said, “The secret to humor is surprise.”

The Essential Truth About 
What Is Not Funny

Most comedy material typically employs some degree of exaggeration, no matter how “factually accurate” or “truthful” it may be.  But an audience’s acceptance of any exaggeration associated with stand-up comedy will be directly related to the genuineness of the material being presented.

People respect leaders who speak authentically, even when that involves expressing doubt or uncertainty. The most successful comedians and businesses demonstrate hardcore dedication to authenticity. People believe them and therefore believe in them. By speaking your truth, committing to honesty, and communicating your authenticity to your target audience your messaging will not only ring true, you’ll also cut through the clutter of people putting on an act.

It took President Trump 827 days to top 10,000 false and misleading claims in The Fact Checker’s database of the Wahington Post, an average of 12 claims a day.

But on July 9, just 440 days later, the president crossed the 20,000 mark — an average of 23 claims a day over a 14-month period, which included the events leading up to Trump’s impeachment trial, the worldwide pandemic that crashed the economy and the eruption of protests over the death of George Floyd in police custody.

In Trump’s case, well, let’s just say you can make this stuff up!

Donald Trump walks into a bank to cash a check.

Trump: “Good morning, Ma’am, could you please cash this check for me?” 

Cashier: “It would be my pleasure sir. Could you please show me your ID?”

Trump: “Truthfully, I did not bring my ID with me as I didn’t think there was any need to. I am Donald Trump, President of the United States of America!

Cashier: “Yes sir, I know who you are, but I must insist on seeing ID.”

Trump: “Just ask anyone here at the bank who I am and they will tell you. Everybody knows who I am.”

Cashier: “Look Mr. Trump , here is what we can do. One day, Tiger Woods came into the bank without ID. To prove he was Tiger Woods he pulled out his putter and made a beautiful shot across the bank into a cup. Another time, Andre Agassi came in without ID. He pulled out his tennis racket and made a fabulous shot; the tennis ball landed in my coffee cup. With that shot we cashed his check
So, Mr. Trump, what can you do to prove that it is you, and only you?”

Trump stands there thinking, and thinking.

Trump: “Honestly, my mind is a total blank, I have absolutely no idea what to do, I don’t have a clue.”  

Cashier: “Will that be large or small bills, Mr. Trump?”

As you peruse our gallery of political cartoons, the underlying  “truthiness” (thank you, Stephen Colbert) will become evident. After all, it is the revelation of truth amidst the noise, chaos and confusion of political obfuscation, that allows it to strike a chord of recognition and relevancy in our consciousness. Don’t forget to vote — or the joke will be on you! [24×7]