BERLIN – Donald Trump’s triumph in the race for the Republican nomination is no reason to stop seeing his act as stand-up comedy. Perhaps his remarkable run, however it ends, is a harbinger of things to come, and future races may well be won by the person with the best stand-up routine.
Don Waisanen of the Baruch College School of Public Affairs, who has devoted himself to the study of political humor, wrote in a 2013 article that until the 1990s, “by and large, the public thought politicians were supposed to be serious.”
“From the 1990s through the present, comedy and politics have become inseparable, with candidates like Arnold Schwarzenegger announcing their gubernatorial ambitions on ‘The Tonight Show,’ and figures like Sarah Palin paradoxically both being mocked by and interjecting themselves into programs like ‘Saturday Night Live.’ This evolving trend of what some have termed infotainment continues unabated through popular programs like ‘The Daily Show.’ “
Trump raised the stakes. As I watched his performances in the primaries — each to a fuller house than the previous one — I often felt as though I were at a performance by French comedian Dieudonne M’Bala M’Bala, a black convicted anti-Semite whose shows run to enthusiastic crowds unless they’re shut down by the authorities. At any moment, I expected Trump to perform the “quenelle” gesture, the Dieudonne-created salute that went viral among French anti-establishment, politically incorrect types. Dieudonne is banned from entering the U.K., just as Trump would have been had the U.K. parliament heeded a petition that garnered over 500,000 signatures.
Like Dieudonne, Trump is a bit of an evil clown. Oftentimes he’s been too stringent, or too hateful, to be funny. Yet he improvised in the same way between rehearsed punch lines, came up with comic labels for his rivals (“low-energy Jeb,” “little Marco,” “lyin’ Ted”), wasn’t above joking about genitals, and was always fishing for a laugh. In Indiana, after hearing Ted Cruz attack his old target, Carrier Air Conditioners, for moving its production lines to Mexico, he did a superb imitation of a child who doesn’t want to share his favorite toy: “Carrier’s my baby! I want to do the number on Carrier, folks!”
These performances got better as Trump campaigned. Now, professionals feel the urge to assess him as one of their own. “Comedy isn’t pretty, it’s ugly,” Michael Blackman, a comedian in southern California, wrote. “And that just so happens to be Trump’s defining characteristic.” I suspect the digs at him from other professionals aren’t just about his politics: They also reflect displeasure at being upstaged.
Trump has beaten a field of rivals so unfunny they could have been selected for that quality. Introspective, increasingly desperate Jeb Bush; angry, blustering Chris Christie; lethargic Ben Carson; earnest Marco Rubio; sermonizing Cruz; boringly down-to-earth John Kasich — none of them could make voters laugh. Rubio tried some low comedy to taunt Trump, and it contributed heavily to his loss. The public picked the funniest man; so what if he was maybe a little racist, slightly misogynist, not always coherent, less than consistent?
As Waisanen layed out in this 2013 paper, comedy has severe limitations as a political vehicle. Debate can become trivialized and the politician able to avoid presenting any evidence for his claims. It also favors caricature and oversimplification; complex information or policy nuances don’t lend themselves to ready punch lines. Comedy loves negativity and is bored by consensus or solution-seeking. And it’s highly distorting; it works best when reality is exaggerated for effect.
Trump’s campaign has exhibited all these tendencies. He has oversimplified and trivialized debates, he’s been misunderstood, he has shocked with his negativity, he has bragged and exaggerated — and been called on it. And he still won with his own party, because his perceived failings were native to the genre.
If the best comedian wins, Hillary Clinton is in some danger despite her big lead in the polls. Her attempts at comedy on the stump have been disastrous. There was the story she told about training a dog to bark when Republicans lie — but the clip that Trump used against her later was one of her barking like a dog at the end of her anecdote. There was also the “cringe-worthy” routine with New York Mayor Bill de Blasio that contained a riff on “colored people’s time” — a joke that even President Barack Obama criticized as one white people shouldn’t make.
If Clinton wins the election, it will be at least in part because the U.S. public hasn’t been won over to the idea that comedic talents are sufficient qualification for America’s highest office. If she loses, then next time around both parties will think twice before backing a candidate who fails to get a laugh.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a Berlin-based writer, author of three novels and two nonfiction books.
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