There was President Donald Trump, on Monday, recounting the cold reception he received from Democrats during his State of the Union address a week earlier.
“So that means they would rather see Trump do badly, OK, than our country do well. That’s what it means. It’s very selfish. And it got to a point where I really didn’t even want to look too much, during the speech, over to that side, because honestly, it was bad energy,” he said. “That was bad energy.”
And then – the punchline.
“They were, like, death and un-American. Un-American. Somebody said, ‘Treasonous.’ I mean, yeah, I guess, why not,” Trump said as his audience, at a manufacturing plant in Ohio, had a good chuckle. “Can we call that treason? Why not.”
Less than a day later, after his question had been answered with a squall of condemnation by Democrats and, as has become custom, silence or evasion by most Republicans, the White House began to reframe the message.
“He was clearly joking. He was making the point that even when good things are happening (the Democrats) are still sitting there angry,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said of Trump on Tuesday. One of her deputies described the remark as “tongue-in-cheek.”
That Trump is a cunning public speaker, even (or especially) when he borders on incitement, is no secret. Indeed, his suggestion in Ohio that Democrats had betrayed their country by scowling during a partisan speech certainly sounded like a joke. He attributed the sharpest bit of the allegation to “somebody,” and ultimately landed on a “why not?”
So yes, sure, why not. Let’s say Trump was joking. But here’s the thing about that. A joke is not, by definition, false. Or believed to be false by the person who tells it. Or, more importantly, received as false by the people who hear it – and laugh at it. Quite the opposite. What’s that thing people say at a comedy show, when the performer is nailing her lines and you’re doubled over, slapping a knee?
“That’s so true.”
Trump has a history, too, that casts his Cincinnati show in darker hues. He routinely conflates himself with the government he was elected to lead. Allegiance to one, Trump has repeatedly implied, is the same as loyalty to the other. It stands to reason, then, that sitting on your hands, refusing to cheer as he speaks, is not simply defiance of a political opponent – it’s a betrayal of the country.
More importantly, though, is the rhetorical usefulness of playing off a smiling accusation – of treason, a capital offense – as a gag. To start, it immediately diminishes those who find it upsetting. Implicit in Sanders’ defense is a taunt: What’s wrong, can’t take a joke? It’s a conversation ender, and for Trump, one he used successfully on his way to the White House and in his first year in the job.
On July 28, 2017, Trump urged an audience of police offers in New York to dispense with the lawful requirements of their profession and get “rough” with suspects.
“When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, you just see them thrown in – rough. I said, ‘Please don’t be too nice,’” Trump said, to scattered laughs. “Like when you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put the hand over … like, don’t hit their head and they’ve just killed somebody, don’t hit their head. I said, ‘You can take the hand away, OK?’”
Asked for her response after a series of subsequent public rebukes from anxious police departments around the country, Sanders told reporters, “I believe (Trump) was making a joke at the time.”
She said about the same when Trump, in an interview with Forbes, denied reports that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had called him a “moron,” before adding, “but if he did that, I guess we’ll have to compare IQ tests. And I can tell you who is going to win.”
“The President certainly never implied that the secretary of state was not incredibly intelligent,” Sanders said later. “He made a joke, nothing more than that.”
That the stakes and circumstances were vastly different – yukking it up over police brutality being a rather more serious digression than mind games with with a Cabinet secretary – only underscores the vast utility of the deflection. One that has on at least two notable occasions been used to gloss over odd or troubling remarks about Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign.
Less than a week after accepting the Republican presidential nomination in Cleveland two summers ago, candidate Trump at a press conference in Florida said he would “love to see” Hillary Clinton’s hacked emails.
“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 e-mails that are missing,” he blared. “I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”
Then, in August of last year, Trump refused to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin’s order to remove hundreds of US diplomatic staff from the country. Instead, he offered his gratitude.
“I want to thank him,” Trump said, “because we’re trying to cut down our payroll and as far as I’m concerned, I’m very thankful that he let go of a large number of people because now we have a smaller payroll.”
Both incidents invited a mix of anger and confusion, which in turn were met with similar dismissals from the President and White House staffers. “Of course I’m being sarcastic,” Trump told Fox News in an interview that aired the day after his Florida press conference. Months later, since-departed press secretary Sean Spicer, looking back on the bizarre scene, made a similar argument.
“He was joking at the time,” Spicer said. “We all know that.”
Trump’s kind words in the wake of Putin’s swipe at American officials in Moscow were also, according to Sarah Sanders, “sarcastic” – a characterization he later confirmed.
Perhaps Trump’s most enduring round of quasi-comical storytelling came at a campaign rally in Iowa on January 23, 2016.
“I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody,” he said, “and I wouldn’t lose voters.”
In the immediate aftermath, Trump brushed off the backlash on familiar grounds.
“Now, that comment was said with me laughing and the entire audience, thousands of people, were laughing,” he told friendly Fox Business host Maria Bartiromo. “It was said as a joke – obviously it’s a joke.”
The tempest that followed, a reaction to his light description of a violent act, subsided within a few days. But the truth at the heart of the “joke” – that his supporters’ loyalty was impervious to Trump’s own behavior, no matter how unseemly – made it memorable, a cornerstone of the conventional wisdom about his presidency.
Jokes, it turn out, are not always a laughing matter.