Donald Trump has had quite a week, making jokes about Hillary Clinton’s potential murder before declaring that she and Barack Obama are the co-founders of the Islamic State. He said it, and then he said it again the next morning, and now he says it was sarcasm. “Ratings challenged @CNN reports so seriously that I call President Obama (and Clinton) ‘the founder’ of ISIS, & MVP,” he tweeted this morning. “THEY DON’T GET SARCASM?”
While conservative talk radio and the rhetoric that form engages in is a major factors contributing to Trump’s popularity, the candidate’s own rhetoric—not just the words he says, but how he says them—is more akin to a stand-up comic or late-night host: The patterns and rhythms, the punchlines and asides, the faux-familiarity. And yet, sometime earlier this summer, about a year into Donald Trump’s candidacy, after watching hours upon hours of footage from his campaign rallies, cable news interviews, and debate performances, I realized that I could not recall having seen the Manhattan real estate developer laugh—like, genuinely laugh—a single time.
Nobody takes Trump more seriously than Trump, and there’s no question that he is utterly lacking in a sense of humor about himself. This has been obvious since at least 2011, when Comedy Central hosted a “Roast” for the real estate developer. (It looks to have been pretty excruciating.) That same year, Obama roasted Trump at the White House Correspondents Dinner—an experience which, as has now been widely reported, steeled Trump’s resolve to run for president.
But even if Trump is unable to laugh at himself, that hasn’t stopped him from repeatedly claiming to have been “joking” or “kidding” in the wake of several controversial statements. The most recent example, before his purportedly sarcastic remarks about Clinton and Obama being the co-founders of ISIS, was when he said he was “just kidding” about not minding a crying baby at a campaign event. And after Trump said on Tuesday that Clinton “gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although, the Second Amendment people, maybe there is,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said the remarks sounded like “a joke gone bad.” Trump later said he was talking about voters.
Humor has played an odd role in both Trump’s campaign—he is very concerned with who, around the world, is “laughing at” the United States (mostly China, apparently)—and coverage of it: By making outrageously offensive statements right from the get-go, he forced journalists into the difficult position of having to maintain impartiality and professionalism when confronted with a prospect both horrifying and absurd. This is an untenable position in mainstream media, consumers of which are increasingly unable to hold two seemingly-contradictory ideas in their heads at once, which leads to covers like this one, from Wednesday’s New York Daily News, wherein the publication declares “This Isn’t A Joke Any More.” (Helpfully, an inset shows the cover from when Trump declared his candidacy: “Clown Runs For Prez.”)
Except—it is. Trump isn’t actually any more offensive now than he was a year ago, so any commentators or pundits who decide, in August 2016, that now Trump isn’t funny anymore are either totally myopic, disingenuous or both. He is still a joke: A horrifying, absurd joke that should make your skin crawl. It is possible to be outraged and to laugh at the same time—in the face of something like Trump, protecting our ability to laugh at him might actually be the only thing that keeps us from completely losing our heads. It is possible to both laugh at what he is saying and to understand that it is deadly serious.
Trump isn’t being sarcastic—being sarcastic requires an understanding of nuance, of irony, of playfulness. And just as his politics demonstrate little more awareness of how complex the world actually is than a drunk uncle’s lengthy Facebook comment, Trump displays the same sense of humor: small-minded and mean and totally, totally unfunny.
This, incidentally, is the only video I could find of Trump laughing: