Killing on the Square
Trump's Killing Jokes
I saw a tweet from a journalist whose feed would not make me immediately classify him as a Trump supporter who expressed dismay over Donald's "great and unmatched wisdom" remark being parsed as serious and not as a sarcastic joke.
The tweet became part of a thread discussion in which others chimed in with agreement, and included the observation that he only had no history of making such self-deprecating, facetious remarks if you ignore every single one of them on the grounds that he has no history of doing such.
I am not embedding the tweet here because I have no interest in exposing a random tweeter to derision just because I disagree with his perspective. If DC politics were his beat, his remarks might be consequential, but if that were the case they would also already be generally known without my intervention.
It's convenient that I'm writing this missive today, because
I'm doing so on my phone as it's the day of the wedding we're traveling for, and I'm discovering it's not super convenient to embed tweets. So please bear with me if I don't include any illustrative examples.
Anyway, the reason I'm giving this a second thought is because the practice of ignoring a pattern by insistently dismissing each instance as not matching any known history, over and over again, is something I have written about. I think it's worth considering the possibility that my own thinking has fallen into the trap.
Background: my long contention has been that Trump's idea of a joke is it's when you say what you mean but no one is allowed to be angry about it.
It's a strictly utilitarian view for a man who views every interaction as a transaction and every transaction as a contest with a winner and loser. Rules are there to constrain suckers and be ignored by those with the will to do so.
I've described Donald Trump as the sort of man who will see a dish of free candy and take the whole thing, dish and all, under the reasoning that if it's okay to take one then it's okay to take another one until the whole thing is gone, and if no one stops you from doing that they probably won't stop you from taking the dish, and if they do, oh well, you didn't lose anything for trying.
There are people who won't take a candy from such a dish without an explicit invitation addressed directly to them, and others who would follow similar logic as Donald's but with some restraint and take a couple, or a few, or a handful.
There are people who will take one for later even if they don't want it at the moment and might not later, because they don't want to appear rude or because they don't want to miss anything they are entitled to.
For Donald Trump, the question is always "how much can I get?" And he'll do whatever no one stops him from doing.
Tony Schwartz, an early critic of Trump whom he successfully co-opted into a biographer and ghost writer, has said Trump has no sense of humor. I trust his judgment but I would refine it. Schwartz has described Donald staring in grumpy confusion at jokes, but we've all seen him laugh and smile with obvious mirth.
He thinks cruelty is funny.
Now, Schwartz says Hair Furor never jokes. If you listen to Donald and more especially his enablers, he's always joking. His Twitter feed, which has been established as a source for official orders, is also his own personal comedy club. His helicopter pool sprays, the only time he regularly talks to reporters anymore and a vital chance to take his message direct to the public, are also his chance to workshop his sets for open mic night at the Funnybone.
Obviously he's joking, this theory goes, any time he says something that upsets you. Illegal orders? Joke. Admission of guilt? Joke. Soliciting foreign interference in an election? Don't ruin the gag by asking us to explain it!
The thing about this theory is, it's not much different from my actual understanding: the stuff Trump's not supposed to say that he says anyway are what he calls jokes.
Where I differ from his enablers is I think he means them.
And quite often, when asked, Donald will confirm that I'm right.
So let's look at these grandiose claims of his, like "I'm the chosen one" and "great and unmatched wisdom".
To answer the question of "are these jokes?", we have to start by asking "what would the joke be, if they were?"
The contention is they're sarcasm. Not sincere, meant ironically. Ostentatious bragging meant sarcastically is a form of self-effacing humor. The idea is that when Donald calls himself a "very stable genius" he is doing the same thing to himself you would be doing if you rolled your eyes at someone and said, "great idea, Einstein."
One way to test a possible meaning for something is to try swapping it out for the word or phrase. In this case, let's say that sarcastic phrase "in my great and unmatched wisdom" actually stands in for the sincere phrase "not being any great shakes in the wisdom department" and see how it fits.
"As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate, if Turkey does anything that I, not being any great shakes in the wisdom department, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!)."
...doesn't really work, does it? I mean, syntactically, it's fine. But this is a messaging tweet and the message is "trust me on this Turkey mess, no matter how bad it looks, I have it under control" and downplaying his wisdom undercuts that.
You could read the "sincere" version and the only way it makes sense is if you assume the sincere translation is also sarcastic, that he's sarcastically downplaying his intelligence to remind you that he's no dope.
Double sarcasm? That's kind of a stretch. I think we can throw that idea out.
You could also argue that "great and unmatched wisdom" is hyperbole, an exaggeration of his intended meaning, but contextually there's not much reason to, there is a sizable contingent of people he pointedly addresses among his audience who literally think he is a 17th dimensional chess-playing genius tactician and/or sent by God, and also and most tellingly a person who has a habit of frequently referring to his own intellect in hyperbolic terms probaby means it.
It's this last point that I can't emphasize enough. My theory that Donald Trump jokingly says what he thinks he'd be prevented from saying seriously is not based on the idea that Donald is some wholly unique anomaly, but rather that he's an outlier on the continuum of a very human behavior.
It's called "kidding on the square" - using jokes as a combination of safety valve and trial balloon, to get out a sentiment we can't safely express and maybe test the waters a bit.
We all joke about things we're a bit afraid to express sincerely, sometimes. It's not always a negative thing. Lots of queer people have used jokes to sort of edge their way out of the closet, or to sound out new people before coming out to them. But a person who repeatedly tells the same sort of transgressive "joke" where the only humor is "ha ha, if I were saying this seriously it would be bad so obviously I wouldn't", and where that seems to be their only joke?
If someone walks around frequently joking about violating people's boundaries, that's a red flag. A guy who is constantly joking about dating or having sex with a female friend or coworker... look, we know what that's about, right? A person with power over you who is constantly joking about inflicting violence... that's a tidy definition of terror.
So I would say it's not that we haven't recognized Trump has a pattern of joking about how great he is, any more than we've failed to pick up on his pattern of joking about having people killed or overstaying his Constitutional term limits.
We understand he's joking.
We also understand what the joke is, to him.
And we don't think it's funny.
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