Multiple sources have all said the same thing: Donald Trump has no sense of humor. Which is fitting, considering his Presidency was motivated by a punchline.
Clive James claimed that if you didn’t have a sense of humor you couldn’t be trusted with anything – not even to post a letter. His friend, the writer Martin Amis, thought it was closely allied to common sense; in fact, he called humor, “common sense dancing.” What does this say about the current lay of the land here in America where we are suffering through some of the least funny days in living memory? Nothing good. Poor Clive’s barely in his grave and already he’s being asked to start spinning.
If there is a common revelation in the current avalanche of tell-all Trump books it is this: the president has no sense of humor. He rarely laughs at a joke. He rarely tells a joke. It’s impossible to imagine him, head thrown back, tearful and helpless in the face of a funny story or a well-executed gibe. Any humor he does possess is only deployed to make nasty fun of someone. To a book, they all mention this singular lack in the Commander-in-Chief; and here we all thought it was empathy.
There’s a good case to be made that, except for the famously sober-sided George Washington, America’s best presidents have been the funny ones. Lincoln was so fond of a funny story that his Cabinet feared he wasn’t serious enough to handle the Civil War. As Jesus used parables, so Lincoln used jokes (and this way, way before Freud). FDR loved laughing so much he could barely keep a straight face even through the most serious of speeches. JFK was the first to turn the presidential press briefings into a near stand-up routine; everyone looked forward to them. Reagan seemed to always be in on some private joke. How else could a man grin that much?
And, Obama can be reasonably held to account for the current president by hilariously taking the piss out of Trump during the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner. In the middle of that event, with the room convulsed, some even stuffing napkins into their mouths, there sat Trump, immobile, scowling, un-amused, a real stiff and a bad sport. Trump himself says that that’s when he decided to run. He wanted to wipe the smile off everyone’s face; he’d teach this black man and this laughing room of press and politicians what’s what.
If there is a common revelation in the current avalanche of tell-all Trump books it is this: the president has no sense of humor. … Any humor he does possess is only deployed to make nasty fun of someone.
This origin story is a good one to keep in mind when many of Trump’s apologists cover for his more extravagant and flagrant howlers by claiming, “He was just joking.” Really? Ingest bleach as a cure for the coronavirus? “Ha, ha, ha – can’t you take a joke?” The virus will just go away, like a miracle? “The president’s just pulling your leg; ha ha ha.” It is literally the last exit ramp taken by his enablers when confronted with obvious head slappers. The message is: Trump’s got this great sense of humor, it’s just so subtle and deep that none of you boneheads can get it.
So, let’s do what should never be done on pain of having to spend a nice quiet, social evening with, say, Josef Stalin. Let’s consider what practical gain is to be gotten by a sense of humor and why it might be a good trait to have in a leader. For the most part, to recognize and enjoy humor is to be able to run along at least two tracks of meaning at the same time. The shock of a laugh is when one of those meanings breaks into a context you didn’t expect. The lowest form, a pun say, is worth a groan because you recognize the original now seen in a different way. The highest form (debatable) is irony, where this double nature is, funnily enough, the whole point.
Thus, a good sense of humor in a leader is an indication that he/she has a nimble, layered mind capable of holding multiple levels of meaning; capable of seeing from many, sometimes conflicting perspectives; can project the present into different contexts, different futures. For the complex issues of governing, it’s nice to know that the one at the top can do more than dance following the numbers on the floor.
Now that we know that “drink bleach,” “lock her up,” “I’d like to punch him in the face,” “Russia, if you’re listening” are not punchlines, this election becomes more and more like being in a comedy club on bomb night. It’s embarrassing, uncomfortable, a bit angering, and starts you wondering what Stalin’s up to – he’s gotta be worth a few laughs.