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Donald Trump's Comedic Genius

Why liberals and conservatives alike find him so funny—if not for the same reasons

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All humorists know that Donald Trump is a gift from the comedy gods. Even before his presidential run, he was a standard target for late-night television quips, and his ascendency in both the polls and public visibility have left some retired gagsters regretful that they can’t keep  jabbing at him. David Letterman has said that quitting his show before Trump’s campaign started was “the biggest mistake of my life” and made a special post-retirement top ten list devoted to Trump: “He wants to build a wall? How about building a wall around that thing on his head?” Jon Stewart, during the twilight of his run as The Daily Show host, expressed gratitude to Trump as a comedy cornucopia, saying, “I really feel like he’s some sort of Jewish holiday waiting to happen. Like, ‘We thought the craziness would only last a day…’” 

Politicians of all stripes are constantly targeted by satirists, but there is something different about Trump. As the campaign wears on, it’s increasingly apparent that Trump is not just fodder for comedians, but himself a stand-up quipster of no mean talent

The remarkable fact about Trump is how consistently amusing he can be even to people who despise his xenophobic politics. For liberals, it’s hard not to chuckle when Trump, at Thursday’s press conference, said about his rival Jeb Bush, "It's a little bit sad. He was supposed to win but he doesn't have the energy.” To be sure, there’s a strong dose of partisanship in the mirth Trump elicits from leftists: He’s making a mockery of much-heralded, more respectable GOP candidates who are supposedly much more qualified than he is, while also throwing the party’s nomination process into chaos. The whole spectacle is unbelievably entertaining.

Yet liberals are far from alone in laughing at Trump’s quips, since the Republicans in the audience of his speeches and at the debates can be heard cackling in delight (although perhaps at different points than liberals do). Despite being one of the most polarizing figures in American public life, Trump is also, quite unexpectedly, a comedian who can unite the country in laughter.

Trump responds to Mike Huckabee's closing remarks during the first GOP debate.

Listening to a Trump speech or watching him in a debate is an unexpectedly exhilarating experience, because amid the staid rules of politics his entire presence is refreshingly unpredictable. Letterman-style quips about Trump’s ridiculous hair only capture what is superficially amusing about the Republican frontrunner. There’s no denying that his tics and manners—his constant stream of lavish self-praise, his gesticulations and mugging to the camera, his exaggerated New York dialect (“yuge”), and, without question, his singular approach to coiffing—all make make him comical. 

But there is more to Trump’s humor than his outsized personality. He excels at the fundamentals of comedy: disrupting cultural norms with his outrageous insults and generally unruly behavior. His style of comedy is by no means unique to him. You can hear it up and down the radio dial all day and night from a wide array of right-wing bloviators. Trump’s innovation is to bring this crass rhetoric into the political mainstream.

Disruption is at the very essence of comedy. Amusement is produced by the thwarting of expectations, by the breaking of rules. Pies are meant to be eaten, but become funny if thrown in the face. The clown is the figure who does what we are socialized not to do: If we are generally taught to be respectful of others, the clown is loud, obnoxious, boundary-crossing and in-your-face. What’s true of clowns applies to comedians in general. Comedy is Charlie Chaplin whacking a cop, the Marx Brothers turning an opera into a shambles, Flounder vomiting on the Dean in Animal House, Borat and his producer wrestling naked through the hallways of a hotel, or Lillian defecating in the middle of the street in Bridesmaids.

Analyzing Borat, the late writer Aaron Swartz noted that the film “is about the existence and enforcement of cultural norms. In place after place, Borat goes somewhere and does exactly what you’re not supposed to do. By doing so, he demonstrates exactly what our cultural assumptions are, makes us laugh uncomfortably at their violation while we start to question their legitimacy, and then documents the punishment inflicted for violating them.” Aside from the fact that he suffers no punishment—indeed, goes from triumphant poll to triumphant poll—Trump exactly fits Borat model. 

Trump describes himself as a “non-politician,” an all too familiar political pose. But what sets Trump apart from other supposed outsider candidates like Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO, is that Trump is constantly saying things that are not just unpolitical but really outside the normal boundaries of decorum. Speaking to a large crowd in Mobile, Alabama, Trump crowed about the money he expected to win from a lawsuit with Univision. “I sued them from for $500 million,” Trump boasted. “I want that money. I want that money.” Slobbering after a big settlement is unsettling enough in a normal litigant, but really startling coming from aspirant to the White House. 

In that same speech, Trump proposed getting America’s allies such as Germany, Japan, and South Korea to pay for the protection the U.S. military provides. He noted that some object to this idea because it’s the equivalent of acting like the mafia. Trump’s response? “Don’t worry about it, okay? The mafia is not so stupid.” It’s possible that there are other American politicians who admire the mafia, but Trump is surely the only one to openly say that the shrewdness of gangsters is worth emulating. 

What’s disruptive about these statements is that they completely overturn the standard ideals of civic-mindedness and statesmanship. Unlike typical politicians, Trump makes no effort to hide human emotions like greed, spite, selfishness, and vengefulness. The comedy of having base emotions so nakedly exposed has the added benefit of reinforcing Trump’s claim that he’s much more honest than the pre-programmed candidates who usually run for high office.

Trump’s comedy stylings have a lineage. His spiel owes much to the tradition of insult comedy, which flourished after the Second World War and was best exemplified by figures like Don Rickles and Joan Rivers. A bohemian challenge to the polite rules of suburban life, insult comedy was brassy, aggressive, and urban, a jolting assertion of personality and will. In later incarnations, insult comedy infused the works of shock jocks like Howard Stern (whose show Trump has been on). Originally apolitical, insult comedy has taken on a conservative coloration in the last 20 years because it can be presented as a revolt against the supposedly stifling rules of progressive political correctness. Broadcasters like Morton Downey, Jr., Rush Limbaugh, Dennis Miller, and Michael Savage have shown that insult comedy can easily go hand in hand with the politics of white male resentment.

Trump’s major innovation has been to realize that this politicized version of insult comedy doesn’t have to stay on the margins of talk radio, but can become the fuel for actual electoral politics. It’s not clear whether Trump is knowingly mimicking the shock-joke approach or just picked it up by osmosis. He’s appeared on Howard Stern’s show and has expressed admiration for Limbaugh, and certainly his own career as a reality show star on The Apprentice has helped him master his showbiz chops. This explains why Trump is able to deflect any criticism of his bigotry and misogyny by saying that he’s not politically correct. That’s a standard defense stand-up comedians use, and one that suits Trump as a comic presidential candidate. Not surprisingly, right-wing talk radio has been a strong bastion of pro-Trump sentiment

Trump’s merger of comedy with politics is troubling. We properly grant comedians a license that doesn’t extend to other public figures. Comedians like Chris Rock, Amy Schumer, Sarah Silverman, or Louis CK can say all sorts of bigoted things as part of their act because art has to explore unruly emotions, to voice troublesome thoughts, and to mirror sometimes ugly social realities. As a comedian-politician, Trump is borrowing the permission granted to comedians but using it to voice bigotry rather than interrogate it. Because of his general clowning around, Trump has created a space whereby his xenophobia and sexism can be forgiven or extenuated as “just kidding around.” But if Trump is a clown, he’s a menacing one, a clown who uses laughter for sinister ends.