Following Donald Trump’s stunning win, America’s knee jerk reaction has been to “find humour in it all,” which JOHN VON SOTHEN finds downright pathological, especially considering it was partly responsible for Trump’s victory in the first place.
On the night of the election, I, like so many other American journalists in Paris, was running around the city, talking on panels, giving radio interviews, and appearing on TV as “the expert” when all I really do is own an American passport and read the New York Times like everyone else.
Around 1:00 AM, I found myself on stage of the Yann Barthès hosted Quotidien (The French equivalent of The Daily Show), along with a motley bunch of other American expats weighing in on the election. It was a festive affair, lots of music, lots of lights, lots of carrot cake passed around the table and lots of laughs. I’d come on the show expecting to give maybe an analysis of what swing states to watch for, or if the African American vote would be as strong as it was in 2008 and 2012, only to be met by a couple of superficial questions like “Give us one word to describe each candidate” or “Did you really write jokes for Bernie Sanders?”
Before long there was a break in the action, and both the guests and audience sat back to watch a four-minute film about Donald Trump, edited I assume by the show’s producers and broadcast on the big screen inside the studio. The film was a mini synopsis of Trump done in the same way we’ve seen for years now throughout all media, one that made fun of Melania, the divorces, the bankruptcies, the casinos, the hair, and of course the Donald.
Three minutes into the film, I noticed everyone in the audience was laughing, but it was a jittery laugh more than a genuine one, everyone looking up at the monster on screen, with a “Ha ha ha, look at Trump!” type nervousness. The audience was there for a party, and the Trump clown was the main event.
At that very moment I glanced over at Barthès, who wasn’t looking at the screen but his laptop. His face had grown a bit pale and ashen since our break. And it was only when he turned his computer around to show the rest of us at the table what he’d seen, that I realized what was going on; that Trump was winning Florida by a decent margin.
It was a watershed moment for all of us at the table, and as the film blared on and everybody kept laughing, a damp cold rushed up inside me. I was realizing in real time, that the joke was not on Donald Trump, but on all of us.
Since my specialty is usually humor-based pieces, I’ve been asked since Wednesday morning to write something funny about the election. The pitch is usually the same from each editor, that “it’s a difficult time for us, and we must all face this with some sort of humor John.” I understand that impulse, and I agree that comedy can be a cathartic process, which somehow gives us hope and helps us put things in perspective.
But since my appearance on Quotidien, I don’t want to be funny. Not because I’m not capable or above it all, but because I realize now our constant need for humor is partly responsible for Trump becoming the 45th president of the United States.
For eighteen months now, we’ve laughed and joked about Donald Trump. We’ve laughed at Alec Baldwin’s impersonations of him on SNL. We chuckled at the Dirty Dancing Hillary/Donald crooning montage which almost broke YouTube. We roared when Trump sang Drake’s Hotline blink on SNL, and We LOVED sending all those URL’s of Trump’s speeches slowed down 20%, making him sound drunk when he spoke.
A day didn’t pass this past campaign, where we didn’t feed ourselves and our friends on Facebook clips of the realty TV star stumbling and bumbling his way towards the presidency, always with the assurance he couldn’t possibly win, because why? He was such a joke.
When I followed the Sanders campaign for VF this Spring, each bus ride with my fellow journalists featured long talks not about Sanders’s recent speech or Hillary’s Michigan strategy, but what Trump (who was halfway across the country) just said and how outlandish it was.
“He’s insane!” one said, re-tweeting to his thousands of followers something incendiary Trump had mentioned that day.
“I know. Can you believe he went there? OMG!” giggled another as she typed it into her piece.
As these people were from NBC, the New York Times, CBS, the bastions of American journalism, I assumed I was the one who’d been in Europe too long and didn’t get the joke. And I admit it. I laughed along with them on the bus. I forwarded on the same shit. We all did. “Melania’s a wax figurine!” “His kids are so trashy.” “Look at his hair! OMG!”
Because if you laughed at Trump or passed on a Trump clip or insult, you somehow gave yourself a pat on the back. You were letting your small audience of friends and followers know in a weak way that you were educated and smart and, let’s admit it, better than Trumplandia.
The jokes themselves were told with such a smugness, I can see now how more than fifty million Americans who voted for him might find it nauseating. Because there’s a condescendence inherent in that humor. By forwarding and re-tweeting and regurgitating Trump’s gaffes, you were not only giving him free exposure, you were treating his followers as a joke, and in a way, you were saying their beliefs and their anger was a joke; that their lives were a joke.
And the more we laughed at him and told ourselves how crazy he was, the more unified I realize his followers became and the more entrenched they believed in his rhetoric. The more the jokes flowed from Seth Meyers and The Daily Show and from Stephen Colbert or Bill Maher, the less Trump voters cared about him grabbing pussy or what he said about Muslims or women or Mexicans or leaving NATO. Each joke drove that conviction even deeper.
And if the laughs weren’t condescending, they were nervous, almost as if the Trump jokes we shared were trying to cover a deeper fear we all had, but couldn’t quite identify.
Laughing at or about Trump for me, somehow erased the danger and suppressed the ominous feeling I felt starting in August. Laughing at Trump was not addressing the actual Trump movement. It made it fringe. Making him a joke was ignoring the reality on which he stood on and only reinforced our own echo chambers.
And don’t worry. None of the people on SNL were convincing the Trump electorate they were backing the wrong guy. The sketches were a salve for educated elites like myself that the wolf was at the door, but he couldn’t possibly get in. Our sense of humor wouldn’t let it happen. It’s not really happening, you see, we’re laughing and laughing and laughing.
At the same time, the mainstream media, who’s going through it’s own existential crisis, seeing its numbers drop each year to the internet, pressed on with the funny Trump coverage.
If they weren’t making fun of Trump, Jimmy Fallon and other mainstream celebrity comics were fawning over him and painting him funny. Fallon famously yucked it up with Trump on his show without asking one pertinent question. The appearance was rebroadcast on every pop culture site in the world the next day, only cementing Jimmy’s role as American’s top talk show host and kiss ass.
Networks couldn’t help jump on the Trump comedic bandwagon, only because it was ratings made easy. Plus they were fascinated. We all were.
“Donald Trump is not just an instant ratings/circulation/clicks gold mine; he’s the mother lode,” said former Today host, Anne Curry, referring to the estimated 1.9 billion dollars of free air-time Trump had received before the primaries had even ended. “Trump stepped on to the presidential campaign stage precisely at a time when the media is struggling against deep insecurities about its financial future. The truth is, the media has needed Trump like a crack addict needs a hit.”
It’s true. The typical Trump joke in itself is a form of crack. It’s lazy comedy frankly. Trump is such a comedic character in himself; you don’t have to do too much to make it work. “Little Marco Rubio!” “Lyin’ Ted” “Low energy Jeb” already write themselves. Passing it on or re-tweeting it, anybody can do. And they did; over and over and over again up until Wednesday morning.
Actually, the one person I never saw make a joke about Trump during the election cycle was Bernie Sanders, who confided to us on a flight towards Maine, which I now realize was very prescient.
“90% of your (the media) coverage is process. It’s soap opera. I am running for president because we have a disappearing middle class and 47 million people living in poverty. The amount of time you guys pay to those issues is minimal. Look at the pain in America today, and look at how the candidates are responding to that pain. We have to pay attention and not treat it like a silly game. Campaigns and elections are not a game!”
And no matter how many mainstream press articles appeared which uncovered Trump’s sordid past, exposing him for the fraud he is, equal energy at these same outlets was spent making this reality show walk towards fascism funny.
If the past 18 months have shown us anything, it’s that our obsession with humor is something pathological now. We can’t not joke about something nowadays. I remember being in New York after 9/11, and literally one of the biggest debates that first week was how SNL was going to find something funny to say. And here we are now, watching Trump shake Obama’s hand, asking ourselves that same narcissistic question “How we can all be funny again?” And there’s something very disturbing about that.
I realized on the plateau of Quotidien, that “finding humor in it all” is a strange form of denial. It’s a way to reassure yourself what happened Tuesday night won’t be as traumatic as you fear.
Already people are feverishly passing around the Dave Chappell appearance on SNL from Saturday night and eagerly anticipating what Louis CK will have to say.
While pathetic comics nervously recite jokes on YouTube, only because they need to keep their brand going and remind you they’re still relevant, I’m cringing now at the four years in front of us, where every lame comedy writer with a pen and a blond wig will have something funny to say about the 45th President. “It’s going to be one big joke fest!” crowed a political commentator, visibly excited about the prospect apparently.
The same people that laughed so much at all the Trump memes are now on my Facebook feed saying it’s not a time to panic – that the system will keep Trump in place.
The same people that laughed so much at Drunk Trump are the self-righteous parents now who are posting how we should speak to our children about what just happened and try not to scare them too much.
We all laughed at Seth Meyers’s “How can you choose?” line not realizing there were many decisive voters in Michigan, in Ohio, and in Florida actually saying that line to themselves, without sarcasm. And the same smug journalists now writing articles like “the 5 obvious reasons Hillary Clinton lost” all say they saw it coming, which they didn’t, but they need to tell themselves and their audience that, because it’s just too unbearable to admit we’re now all in the dark.
Strangely since the election, I haven’t seen any jokes about how the US congress might be more radical than Donald Trump is, and that we might need Trump to hold them in check.
I also haven’t seen any jokes about how Mike Pence, an evangelical creationist who doesn’t believe in global warming is one heart attack, one bullet, one Donald Trump impeachment away from the oval office, which means for the time in US history, we’re one Donald Trump away from American evangelical government.
I haven’t seen any jokes about China no longer buying US dollars or interest rates rising or abortion becoming illegal, or how an major terrorist attack in the US could initiate temporary martial law, which yes, might actually affect those same sanctimonious people who’ve crowed that “Unfortunately Trump’s voters are the only ones who are going to be impacted by this.”
And for those who are finding comfort saying “Don’t worry, we’ll vote Trump out in four years. Here’s a joke for you. “What if elections aren’t held in four years?”
Yes please go ahead. Call me the alarmist and call me the wet blanket, but don’t ask me to say anything funny now to help you get through this. I’m done with being your monkey.
Because if you had told me Donald Trump would be US president two years ago as he rode down the elevator from Trump Plaza, I would have laughed in your face. Just the way we all laughed in the face of 50+ million who voted for him Tuesday night. We laughed and laughed and laughed while the results flooded in, and now we want to keep laughing while the smoke in the house comes through the door.
I know. I didn’t see it coming either. None of us except Michael Moore apparently did. And yet now we look around at the horror that’s in front of us, trying to find some humor in it all, only to realize the ones who are now laughing are Trump and those who voted for him.
The joke’s on us guys.
What? You don’t think that’s funny?