In Shakespeare, the jester was often the only one who could tell the king the truth. In King Lear, for example, the court fool is the only character able to see Lear’s bluster for what it really was — madness — and the only one brave enough to say it to the king’s face.
But what happens when the jester becomes the king? When jokes are not used to tell the truth, but to bludgeon the truth en route to gaining power?
On Oct. 21, 1984, a presidential debate was held between President Ronald Reagan and former vice president Walter Mondale. It was the second such forum; the first had gone terribly for Reagan. His closing statement was so rambling and incoherent that people began to wonder if he was beginning to suffer from dementia.
Asked if he was up to the rigors of the office, Reagan replied, “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
Deflection, charm, humor — it was irresistible. Reagan won the audience over. He won the moderator over. He even won Mondale over. Everybody was laughing. And when the laughter stopped, nobody seemed to care that Reagan had sidestepped the question.
Reagan marked a shift in our expectations of the president. Policies and leadership were no longer enough. By the 1980s we began to demand that our presidents also entertain us. But the danger is that for entertainment to be effective, it doesn’t have to be true — it just has to keep you wanting more.
Political news began following the same logic. Cable news networks began blending journalism and entertainment to ever greater degrees, and by the 2000s, millions of people were getting their political news from comedians.
Satirists like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, or Samantha Bee see themselves as part of a long tradition of using humor to expose the absurdity and hypocrisy of contemporary politics. Emily Nussbaum, TV critic for The New Yorker, has written about the complicated role of humor in the 2016 election. She had long believed that “comedy was one of the main ways that you tell the truth to liars and bullies,” that jokes were a “machine that killed fascists.” But that also depends on who is wielding them — jokes can just as easily be “powerful accelerants for lies,” she said. Donald Trump’s deployment of transgressive and often misleading humor was central to his campaign’s success, she contends.
Like Reagan, Trump had a background in entertainment before entering politics. His most popular role was as host of “The Apprentice,” but he also frequently appeared in professional wrestling and films, usually as a comically exaggerated version of himself. Nussbaum sees Trump’s public image stemming from a kind of “Borscht Belt” stadium style of humor — mass jokes, crass jokes with a loud and often ludicrous delivery.
She and I spoke long before the president started tweeting about “Little Rocket Man.” But she thinks the danger of Trump is that his persona is so comical — the oversize suit, the loud bluster, the hyperbole — that people don’t take the things he says seriously, even when they should. And if citizens can’t determine the truth of what our political leaders say, then surely the joke is on us.Zachary Davis is the host of the new podcast “Ministry of Ideas.” Listen at ministryofideas.org, iTunes, or GooglePlay.