Joking around

One of the bizarre features of US politics is that, among the many roles that presidents are required to take on — commander in chief of the armed forces, head of the federal bureaucracy, regal head of state — they are also expected to act as stand-up comedians on certain ritual occasions. So naturally candidates are expected to do so as well, to prove they have what it takes. The occasion is the annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Dinner, an event in honour of the first Catholic major party presidential candidate (in 1928), former NY governor Alfred Smith.

Donald Trump has suffered from the inability of large parts of the public to appreciate — or indeed, to recognise — his idiosyncratic humour, whether he’s been joshing about Barack Obama being the founder of ISIS or not accepting an election loss or encouraging Russian hackers to break into his opponent’s email accounts. So it is hardly surprising that his appearance at the dinner was not well received:

Donald Trump was loudly booed at the annual Al Smith charity dinner in New York on Thursday—an evening typically reserved for good-natured humor and a rare opportunity for presidential candidates to demonstrate a capacity for self-deprecation—when he attacked Hillary Clinton with the aggressive language frequently used at his campaign rallies.

What interests me about this is what it says about the nature of humour in general, and political humour in particular. Barbed jokes are naturally easier to enjoy when the target is someone you dislike, though that is somewhat balanced, at least for mature and responsible people, by a discomfort at “punching down”: It is uncomfortable to see the weak being trampled on, even if they are contemptible for other reasons.

I do have the impression that there is an asymmetry between left and right in this respect,  at least in the US. No one likes seeing their sacred cows being gored, but it seems to me that US liberals really enjoy seeing their champions taken down a peg, and are able to find deeper humour in their opponents through greater willingness to imagine their worldview. I think this is why successful political satire in the US has come to be almost exclusively a province of the left.

But am I just imagining this? Again, it’s easy to convince yourself of your superiority. Donald Trump is sui generis but also — since he’s a salesman who is selling himself as a Republican — the quintessence of a Republican, to the point of caricature, and this holds for his humour as well. Are his jokes really different from Hillary Clinton’s?

Here are some Trump zingers:

“We’ve learned so much from WikiLeaks. For example, Hillary believes that it’s vital to deceive the people by having one public policy and a totally different policy in private—That’s okay, I don’t know who they’re angry at, Hillary, you or I. For example, here she is tonight, in public, pretending not to hate Catholics.”

“Everyone knows, of course, Hillary has believed that ‘it takes a village.’ Which only makes sense, after all, in places like Haiti, where she has taken a number of them.”

“Hillary is so corrupt, she got kicked off the Watergate Commission. How corrupt do you have to be to get kicked off the Watergate commission? Pretty corrupt.”

And here are some of Clinton’s:

“People look at the Statue of Liberty, and they see a proud history of a nation of immigrants—a beacon of hope for people around the world. Donald looks at the Statue of Liberty and sees a 4. Maybe a 5 if she loses the torch and tablet and changes her hair.”

“After listening to your speech, I will also look forward to listening to Mike Pence deny that you ever gave it.”

“Whoever wins this election, the outcome will be historic. We’ll either have the first female president or the first president who started a Twitter war with Cher. And if Donald does win, it will be awkward at the annual Presidents Day photo, when all the former presidents gather at the White House, and not just with Bill. How is Barack going to get past the Muslim ban?”

It seems clear to me that there is a qualitative difference between these two sets of mocking comments. Trump’s seem to me vicious and unfunny, barely even resembling jokes, while Clinton’s seem reasonably funny, and not vicious, though harsh. In part it’s because of the greater severity and crudity of the charges he makes against her — “corrupt”, “hates Catholics”, and… I can’t even figure out what the “takes a village” remark is about, maybe the Clinton Foundation, as opposed to objectifying women, denying things he’d said, tweeting uncontrollably and proposing a ban on Muslims/ claiming Obama is Muslim. But the real difference is that Trump’s remarks have almost nothing but the attack, sometimes with repetition for emphasis (“pretty corrupt”). Clinton’s remarks combine two or more issues in a generally non-obvious way.

The role of absurdity is interesting: Somehow Trump’s made-up story about the Watergate commission is close enough to plausible that you would expect this part of a joke to be true, hence it seems slanderous, whereas Trump leering at the Statue of Liberty is so weird that it falls outside the realm of truth. (The Watergate joke doesn’t even make sense on its own terms: She was an aide to the commission investigating Watergate corruption, and you would actually expect pretty high ethical standards to be set for that role. Trump’s joke would make sense if he said she was thrown off the team planning the Watergate break-in for corruption.

Trump did actually manage one really good joke:

“The media has been so biased, more than ever. This is going to get me in trouble.  Michelle Obama made a speech and everyone loved it. It was great. My wife, Melania, made the exact same speech and everyone gets on her case.”

What’s great about this is that it weaves together a minor scandal — the speech plagiarism — with Trump’s obsession with media conspiracy and the supposed bias against him. It even has elements of self-deprecation, suggesting that he’s too dumb to recognise that giving “the exact same speech” is not doing the same thing, and it’s not unfair to criticise the plagiarist. Bravo. Of course, this being Trump, even when he seems to be mocking himself the main target is his wife.

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