He’s going to make America great again. There’s going to be so much winning, we’ll get tired of it. He’ll pay off the national debt (not reduce the deficit, pay off the debt) in eight years. Donald Trump is the Republican nominee for President, in large measure because a sizeable number of Americans are convinced that this guy, more than anyone ever before, knows how to fix the American economy. For everyone. No tradeoffs, no trickle-down, no pain, pure gain.
How is that not funny?
When Stephen Colbert took over the late show on CBS, he knew he would be covering the election. He was desperately afraid that Donald Trump’s candidacy would end before he had the chance to make fun of him. I remember a similar sentiment back in 2004, when, on David Letterman’s show, one of his writers came out and announced his support for the re-election of George W. Bush. His reasons? “I’m sixty one years old, and a professional comedy writer. And frankly, I just don’t want to work all that hard anymore.” It’s our right, as Americans, to make fun of politicians.
In Ohio, it is against the law to knowingly and recklessly lie about an opponent or policy or ballet initiative. This law was challenged in court by a non-profit, the Susan B. Anthony List. Their suit is winding its way through the court system, with one finding, by the US Supreme Court, that the non-profit did have standing to sue. What I love about this lawsuit is an amicus brief filed by the Cato Institute and comedian P. J. O’Rourke. Can government criminalize political statements that turn out not to be true? O’Rourke argued that the answer has to be no. As O’Rourke put it: “This case concerns amici because the law at issue undermines the First Amendment’s protection of the serious business of making politics funny.”
This Politico article includes the O’Rourke amicus brief in its entirety. If you read it, don’t skip the footnotes; they’re funnier than the brief itself, which is plenty funny. But O’Rourke makes a serious argument:
While George Washington may have been incapable of telling a lie, his successors have not had the same integrity. The campaign promise (and its subsequent violation), as well as disparaging statements about one’s opponent (whether true, mostly true, mostly not true, or entirely fantastic), are cornerstones of American democracy. Indeed, mocking and satire are as old as America, and if this Court doesn’t believe amici, it can ask Thomas Jefferson, “the son of a half-breed squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” Or perhaps it should ponder, as Grover Cleveland was forced to, “Ma, ma, where’s my pa?”
In modern times, “truthiness”—a “truth” asserted “from the gut” or because it “feels right,” without regard to evidence or logic—is also a key part of political discourse. It is difficult to imagine life without it, and our political discourse is weakened by Orwellian laws that try to prohibit it.
The preposterous overstatement, the unsupported assertion, the ad hominem attack, the construction of various straw men, they’re all an accepted and essential part of our political discourse. As, of course, is the outraged denial, the counter-accusation, the competing fantasy narrative. And, yes, it’s true that The Donald exemplifies everything coarse and ugly about our politics. But also everything ridiculous, foolish and preposterous. Human beings, are, after all, pretty ludicrous. Shouldn’t that be reflected in our most elevated discourse?
Is Donald Trump a serious threat to American democracy? Of course he is, through his xenophobic nativism, his astounding ignorance, his buffoonish notions of foreign policy. But aren’t those same qualities–ignorance, prejudice, buffoonery–also pretty funny? Trump is literally clownish. Best of all, he’s astonishingly thin-skinned. And that’s funny too.
We wouldn’t want to live in a country where we can’t make fun of our leaders. And we need to recognize exactly what country it is we do live in. This is America, home of hucksters and flim-flam artists. This is the country of tacky late night commercials and used car salesmen and televangelists. This is the country that invented the mullet. We’re named after Amerigo Vespucci, for heaven’s sake. Have you read his book describing this cool place he discovered? It’s pure P. T. Barnum.
And that’s why Trump’s candidacy strikes me as so . . . American. He’s salesman, first and foremost. I mean, his signature achievements are a whole bunch of hilariously over-decorated hotels with his name on them. The name Trump isn’t so much associated with success as tackiness. And, again, that’s funny.
So we have a Republican candidate for President who isn’t remotely qualified for the job. A thin-skinned, obsessively litigious, sexist bozo. Surely laughter is our best response.
As long as he doesn’t win.