“The most head-snapping moments of the Trump presidency make sense only as performance art.”

From a Washington Post column by Richard Zoglin headlined “Why do none of Trump’s ‘jokes’ feel like jokes?”:

Trump’s famous appeal during the 2016 campaign to “Russia, if you’re listening,” to help find Hillary Clinton’s emails, we learned only later, was simply a joke. His suggestion to police officers in 2017 to “don’t be too nice” when putting suspects into the backseats of squad cars was, according to the White House, another example of Trump’s joshing. . . .

“He made a joke,” press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters in 2017 after another of Trump’s loony comments (challenging Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to an IQ test). “Maybe you guys should get a sense of humor and try it sometimes.”

Part of the problem is a kind of misdirection. In his rallies and speeches, Trump looks and sounds like a traditional Borscht Belt comic: the mocking rhythms, the dripping sarcasm, the exaggerated expressions, the outlandish hyperbole. Yet, when it comes to telling an actual joke, Trump is fairly hopeless. As far as I can recall, he has gotten off precisely one good one since taking office. It came at the Gridiron Club dinner in March 2018, when he said he would be open to a one-on-one meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. “As for the risk of dealing with a madman is concerned,” Trump said, “that’s his problem, not mine.”. . .

Trump is pioneering a new kind of presidential humor, one so avant-garde and subtle that many Americans may just now be catching on to it.

His influences are not previous presidents, or even the insult comedians like Don Rickles whom he superficially resembles. Trump’s chief model, it seems to me, is the deadpan performance-art comedy of people such as Andy Kaufman and Sacha Baron Cohen. They created elaborate put-on characters, like Kaufman’s obnoxious lounge-lizard Tony Clifton or Cohen’s blundering Kazakh journalist, Borat. . . .

Trump, the Tony Clifton of presidents, has proved equally adept at sustaining the put-on. He never breaks character. He never laughs at his own jokes (or anyone else’s, for that matter). On those rare occasions when he feels compelled to backtrack from an especially ridiculous comment, he does so with a scripted monotone of can’t-miss-it insincerity.

That may be the key to understanding the most head-snapping moments of Trump’s presidency, from his insistence that his Inauguration Day crowd on the far-from-full Mall was bigger than Barack Obama’s packed throng eight years earlier, to his rambling explanation for that shaky ramp walk at West Point last month. These moments are so bizarre, so out of proportion, so brazenly at odds with visible evidence (he ran the last 10 feet!) that they make sense only as performance art. And in that respect, Trump is peerless. Even Tony Clifton and Borat couldn’t keep their acts running for four years straight.


Speak Your Mind