There is nothing funny about Donald Trump and the extreme danger to the country and world he represents. To laugh now is a dangerous distraction and waste of energy in what will be a long battle to save America’s multiracial pluralistic democracy.
Humor is, of course, subjective. There is much that one could potentially make fun of about Trump the man. His physical appearance belies his claims to godlike status. His extreme ego is a cover for his equally, if not more, extreme fragility. Trump lacks intellectual curiosity and does not read yet believes himself to be a genius who is an expert on all things. There are many other aspects of Donald Trump that one could reasonably consider to be funny.
Trump also possesses great comedic timing, is very entertaining, and in another reality would have been an excellent late-night variety show host. In all, there is something magnetic and compelling about Donald Trump. His detractors are loathe to admit this because they would then have to admit that they too are oddly compelled towards him even as they detest him. Evil can be very charismatic.
The laughter and humor, if at all, should stop here.
In his role as the leader of a tens of millions strong political cult Trump is now claiming to be a messiah, and type of prophet chosen by god and “Jesus Christ” to be the country’s first de facto dictator. Public opinion polls show that more than a quarter of Americans actually believe that Trump has been chosen by God to be the leader of the country.
Trump and his lawyers are continuing to argue that he is somehow above the law, and while president (and if he returns to power) will have king-like powers to order his enemies murdered or to accept money for political and other nakedly corrupt acts.
On Tuesday, a Federal appeals court rejected such claims as a violation of the Constitution and basic principles of democracy and the rule of law. The judges' ruling left no room for evasion or interpretation, using clear and strong language such as:
"Former President Trump's alleged efforts to remain in power despite losing the 2020 election were, if proven, an unprecedented assault on the structure of our government"….
“[F]ormer President Trump's stance would collapse our system of separated powers by placing the president beyond the reach of all three branches"….
"We cannot accept that the office of the presidency places its former occupants above the law for all time thereafter…”
Trump is channeling Hitler and the Nazis with claims about America’s blood being poisoned by non-white human “vermin” and “Democrats” and other "traitors" from “within." Instead of being repelled by such energy, Republicans and other Trump supporters increasingly embrace such hatred.
There is nothing funny about any of this.
When and if Trump or his successors take power in 2025 and beyond, the civil and human rights, freedom, dignity, and safety of entire groups of people deemed to be “the enemy”, “not real Americans”, “disloyal”, or otherwise targeted by the Trump regime and the MAGA movement will be imperiled.
To be able to dismiss these fears is to enjoy a certain type of privilege where one imagines oneself or their group as immune and safe from the type of neofascist and other authoritarian assaults that Trump and his movement are promising (and have been enacting). Such safety is an illusion. At the New Republic, David Rothkopf explains why Trump and American neofascism are an existential, almost unprecedented threat to the country and its future:
For the past nearly 250 years, when the United States faced a grave threat, our people rose up and sacrificed whatever it took to defeat it. From the American Revolution to the Civil War to the menace of the Nazis or Soviet communism, we were willing to do what we had to do to defend what we valued most about this country.
Today, as it did once before, in 1861, the greatest peril confronting the country comes from within. Then as now, it was a threat that sought to divide America, and it was a threat founded in racism, contempt for our Constitution, and a twisted sense of what was worth preserving from our past.
The new threat, of course, is led by Donald Trump.
In recent days, we have watched as the vast majority of leaders of the Republican Party, including many of Trump’s former foes, from Marco Rubio to Ted Cruz, have lined up behind the twice-impeached, frequently indicted former president. Nikki Haley can stay in the race as long as she likes, but the primaries are now effectively over. The worst president in our history is, arguably, stronger within the leadership ranks of the Republican Party than he has ever been. He is now the most dangerous presidential candidate in U.S. history. As a consequence, the great question before the rest of us is whether enough of us are ready to do whatever is necessary to defeat this threat as we have all those that have come before.
Sadly, there is reason to believe that this time we may not meet the challenge. Right now, Donald Trump is one of two people who could be our next president. The race, at the moment, between him and President Joe Biden, is too close to call.
That it seems a choice at all is what should mortify us. It is a sign that many in our society are blind to reality. And it is a sign that the rest of us, who understand both reality and what is at stake, have not yet done our job communicating to one another, to our friends, family, and communities what must be done to defend our country and our system.
None of this is funny.
In his recent essay “Trump’s Brownshirts”, Robert Reich warns that Trump and his movement are channeling some of the darkest chapters in human history:
During the German presidential elections in March and April 1932, Brownshirts assembled Alarmbereitschaften, or “emergency squads,” to intimidate voters.
On the night of the Reichstag election of July 31, 1932, Brownshirts launched a wave of violence across much of northern and eastern Germany with murders and attempted murders of local officials and communist politicians and arson attacks on local Social Democratic headquarters and the offices of liberal newspapers.
When five Brownshirts were sentenced to death for the murders, Hitler called the sentences “a most outrageous blood verdict” and publicly promised the prisoners that “from now on, your freedom is a question of honor for all of us, and to fight against the government which made possible such a verdict is our duty.”
A chilling echo of these words can be found in one of Trump’s recent speeches in Iowa, in which he claimed that his supporters had acted “peacefully and patriotically” on January 6, 2021. “Some people call them prisoners,” he said of those who were serving sentences for their violence. “I call them hostages. Release the J6 hostages, Joe [Biden]. Release them, Joe. You can do it real easy, Joe.”
As I’ve said before, America is not the Weimar Republic on the eve of 1933, and Trump is not Hitler. But it is important to understand the parallels.
That Donald Trump still has not been held accountable for encouraging the attack on the U.S. Capitol, or for provoking his followers with his blatant lie that the 2020 election was stolen, continues to galvanize an army of potentially violent Americans.
Again, none of this is funny.
In a recent essay at the New York Times, author and humorist David Kamp engaged in some critical self-reflection about the wisdom of making fun of Donald Trump in a time of such peril.
So you might think I’d revel in our current golden age of Trump mockery. When “Saturday Night Live” returns this week, we’re likely to see him incarnated by the comedian James Austin Johnson, who uncannily recreates Mr. Trump’s fragmentary locutions and deteriorating speaking voice as it whipsaws from a bellow to a gargle to a whisper.
But — no offense to the talented Mr. Johnson — I’m done laughing. We’ve reached a point where the guffawing has to stop.
By now, many of us have had a good chuckle at Mr. Trump’s ridiculousness: the talk of injecting bleach into the bloodstream, the hand gestures that make him appear to be playing an accordion. But the stakes are too high to treat him as a figure of fun — and I say this as someone whose foundational story as a professional writer involved concocting Trump jokes. We need a moratorium on making fun of Mr. Trump.
For one thing, ridiculing Mr. Trump is no longer an effective tool against him. Like some kind of cyborg insult comic, he’s developed a knack for absorbing and redirecting the barbs hurled his way. He internalized and weaponized Spy’s tactic of using belittling epithets, propagating such nicknames as “Crooked Hillary,” “Sleepy Joe” and “Cryin’ Chuck Schumer.” He pulled a similar trick with the term “fake news,” which was popularized by Jon Stewart as a lighthearted description of “The Daily Show.” In Mr. Trump’s vindictive mind, “fake news” was reprocessed and deployed to mean media outlets and news coverage that he doesn’t like.
What’s more, in the Spy magazine era, Mr. Trump was just a local nuisance, a braggart presiding over a foundering casino-hotel empire. When he reconstituted himself as an entertainer, starring in “The Apprentice,” he began to pose a danger of a different magnitude….
I realize I run the risk, in making this case, of looking as if I’m missing the whole point of political humor in a free country. Isn’t laughter what gets us through our darkest hours? Isn’t one of the purposes of satire to shine a light on the folly of the wicked and misguided?... The difference is that Chaplin, an Englishman who made his name in America, was operating from a position of moral strength. His adopted homeland was the world’s beacon of democracy, while the guy he was sending up ran a country that had gone terribly wrong.
This time, we, the United States, are the country that runs the risk of going terribly wrong. The Hynkel-ing is coming from inside the house. So let’s treat this situation as seriously as it warrants.
Well, sure — in normal times. But not when the foundations of our democracy are under threat from a former president who wants to be a dictator on “Day 1.”
Kamp’s essay did not receive as much attention as I would have expected from the “the conversation” and the 24/7 news machine. In many ways this reaction is to be expected: Kamp told uncomfortable truths that are not easily dismissed.
Why do so many people continue to insist on laughing in the face of Trump, the MAGA people, and the larger neofascist movement and the collective danger it represents?
People laugh at what they don’t understand. People also laugh when they are scared or hysterical. People laugh as a psychological defense mechanism when confronted by a reality that they cannot reconcile and resolve with their expectation of what they heretofore deemed to be normal. People will laugh to keep from crying.
There are other people who laugh at and make fun of Trump and the MAGA movement and the right-wing more broadly because it is financially lucrative to do so. For members of the news media, making fun of them also feels good and is much easier than consistently telling the public about how dangerous this moment is, and that Trump, who continues to be tied with Biden in public opinion polls, has a much higher chance of winning the 2024 Election than many people want to admit.
Is there any role to be played by laughter and humor in opposing Trump and the larger fascist movement? Of course.
Strategic mockery (consistently targeting Trump's weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and perceived strengths as part of a larger plan of mobilizing against him and his movement) by the Lincoln Project and other pro-democracy organizations can potentially be very effective. It is also a reminder that a second Trump regime and a victory by the American fascists is not inevitable or permanent. President Biden and other leading Democrats and national leaders should also mock and make fun of Donald Trump. Given what is known about his personality and mind, Donald Trump in all likelihood becomes extremely unsettled and enraged when he is confronted in that way.
But laughter and mockery by themselves, and not in conjunction with the hard work and organizing and other real sacrifices that will be necessary to defeat Trump and his MAGA people and the larger Republican fascist project and movement, is at best empty and at worse enabling such forces in their plan to end American democracy.
Ultimately, the best time to laugh will be once the 2024 election is over, and Trump and the larger neofascist movement have been defeated not just on that day, but in the years and then decades ahead. The laughter will have then been earned.
And if Trump and his fascist forces and their allies “win” the 2024 Election, and he becomes America’s first dictator? Laughter will be an essential means for resisting and maintaining hope in the face of hopelessness. Many of those Americans who will be laughing out of terror when Dictator Trump takes power will wish they had not been laughing so much before when there was still a chance to stop him and his successors.