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Is nothing funny, Mr President?

President Trump does not possess the sense of nuance a well-told joke requires

David Littsept | NYT 

Donald Trump
US President Donald Trump Photo: Reuters

almost never laughs. The leader of the free world frequently displays a tight-lipped smile, but mirth-wise, that is as far as he will go. Except for the fact that don’t seem to mind him too much, Mr. Trump is the Captain von Trapp of commanders in chief.

It would be easy to dismiss this as a personality quirk. Some people are just hard laughs. Perhaps Mr. Trump is simply the hardest laugh of all. But the president’s laughter, or lack thereof, is a window into the way he views the world’s most difficult job. For the first time in recent memory, we have a commander in chief without a sense of humor — and America is paying the price.

For most presidents, humor is a tool for building bridges, especially with voters who may not be persuaded by their policy goals. When I wrote speeches for President Barack Obama, we would often open with a throwaway line, something about sports, the weather or the best barbecue joint in town. These were not exactly comedy gold. Still, they served a purpose. Even audience members who didn’t vote for Mr. Obama could appreciate one of his harmless asides.

The presidential equivalent of dad jokes — safe, well-placed quips that crowds are well primed to laugh at — are a bipartisan Oval Office tradition. Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and especially Ronald Reagan knew how to use laugh lines to win over skeptics. On his way into the operating room after a 1981 assassination attempt, Mr. Reagan famously declared to his doctors, “Please tell me you’re all Republicans.” The head surgeon, a Democrat, replied, “We’re all Republicans today.” Even at that moment, the president deftly cleared a patch of common ground.

Mr. Trump, to put it mildly, lacks this ability. With no talent for gracious one-liners, he finds himself ill at ease in front of all but the most adoring audiences. This is not to say that he is without charisma. The difference lies in the way his charisma is deployed. Surrounded by followers at rallies, he uses his well-honed sense of timing as a cudgel. He jeers. He mocks. His goal is to insult, rather than to entertain.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Mr. Trump governs the way he delivers a punch line: consolidating support among the hard core while alienating everybody else.

It’s not only in front of a crowd that laughter matters. Whether in public or in private, politicians use humor to identify, and ultimately to uphold, unwritten norms. This is best explained using what the University of Colorado, Boulder’s Peter McGraw, founder of the Humor Research Lab, has called “benign violation theory.” We laugh when something breaks one of life’s many rules. This is why, at the White House Correspondents’ dinner, President Obama could chastise Republicans for failing to reach beyond their base (“Call me self-centered, but I can think of one minority they could start with”), or pretend to lose his cool over climate change deniers as “Luther, my anger translator” tried and failed to calm him down. By stepping up to the line without crossing it, a commander in chief tacitly acknowledges that a line exists.

President Trump does not possess the sense of nuance a well-told joke requires. He does not seem to know when he is pushing the envelope. Even worse, he does not appear to realize that there is an envelope. It’s one thing, for example, to do an end-run around Washington reporters by appearing on “Between Two Ferns” to promote your health care bill. It’s another thing entirely to mock a disabled journalist or to suggest that Megyn Kelly asked a tough question because she had “blood coming out of her wherever.”

This refusal to recognize the unwritten rules that govern us, so evident during Mr. Trump’s failed attempts at humor, is a central feature of his presidential tenure thus far. If a leader does not understand the idea of benign violations, blatant violations inevitably occur.

Humor helps us recognize, and cope with, life’s absurdities. While I certainly never asked him directly, I got the sense Mr. Obama appreciated that the modern American presidency is in many ways a fundamentally bizarre proposition. Commanders in chief must accept the responsibilities that come with holding the fate of the world at their fingertips, while simultaneously admitting that they are only human. Presidents can either laugh at the strangeness of their circumstances or be consumed by them.

Without the qualities that laughter both demonstrates and fosters — a willingness to find common ground, the respect for agreed-upon norms and the awareness that we are all only human — Mr. Trump’s attitude toward the presidency is defined by the one characteristic that remains: a lust for power. And this is perhaps the most troubling thing about what passes for a sense of humor with Mr. Trump. Thanks to the power of the internet, there is proof that our president has indeed laughed at least once. This was during a campaign rally in January, when Mr. Trump’s speech was interrupted by a barking dog.

“It’s Hillary!” an audience member shouted. And the candidate tilted his head back, opened his mouth wide and laughed without reservation, quite possibly for the first time in his political life.

This documented incidence of Trump laughter is as illuminating as all the grim smiles that preceded it. For they reveal a president who is constantly, endlessly preoccupied with status. A craving for power isn’t unique to the politician currently holding the Oval Office — on the contrary, it is more or less a requirement for entry into the field. But a craving exclusively for power is.

It is not too late to undo the damage our humorless president is causing to American democracy. Democrats (and some Republicans, these days) are already thinking about who might replace him in 2020. And if there is one thing all Americans should be able to agree on, it is this: Whomever we nominate to replace President Trump, it is time to put an easy laugh back on top of the ticket.
© 2017 The New York Times News Service

First Published: Sun, September 17 2017. 15:55 IST
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