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No Laughing Matter
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No Laughing Matter

We really shouldn’t take Trump seriously. But now’s not the time to take him humorously, either.

Remember all those Downfall videos? Weirdly the federal government doesn’t keep reliable statistics on the number of Hitler-in-his-bunker parodies, but the YouTube “Hitler Rants” channel alone has nearly 2,000 videos. There’s “Hitler Finds Out He was Not Accepted into Hogwarts,” “Hitler Is Informed His Pizza Will Arrive Late,” “Hitler Phones an Indian Call Center,” and of course “Hitler Finds Out About the ‘Downfall’ Parodies.” They still come out from time to time, but it’s a trickle compared to the torrent of a few years ago. 

It’s an interesting question of why they are so compelling and funny. One part of it is surely that it feels good to laugh at Hitler. But part of it is also more general. People who take themselves extremely seriously while making fools of themselves—sometimes known as “Going Full Gorka”—are almost always good for a laugh. (A brief digression: Before you invoke Godwin’s Law, please know that I’m not about to compare Trump to Hitler in this “news”letter.) Studies show that 72 percent of the comedy gold in The Office falls into this genre. It’s central to Christopher Guest movies like Spinal Tap and Waiting for Guffman, and if you took this stuff out of British comedy you’d be left with Eddie Izzard talking about Cake or Death, Russell Brand blabbing about drugs and capitalism, and Benny Hill chasing blondes with big boobs at high speeds. 

This tension of self-seriousness and silliness is why basset hounds are inherently funny and why we laugh when kids say the darndest things

I got to thinking about this when listening to the latest episode of National Review’s The Editors podcast this morning. As I would expect, my friends and former colleagues were uniformly appalled by President Trump’s claim of “total authority.” It’s a ridiculous claim and to contend otherwise is self-disqualifying. Charlie Cooke makes the very valid point that, while it’s important to condemn the claim, one needn’t take Trump very seriously when he says things like this because he won’t act on it. Indeed, as Ramesh Ponnuru explains quite well, Trump doesn’t know how to be an authoritarian—he doesn’t even know how to be a president. He doesn’t know how to use his actual powers effectively or get his own people to do his bidding competently. Look around the world: Competent leaders are using the pandemic to centralize power, Trump is still claiming to have total authority rhetorically, but in reality he’s punting to the governors

And for the most part, I’m glad he is—even if the disconnect between total authority while denying any responsibility or accountability is somewhat maddening. I would much prefer the federal government take the lead on a massive testing regime, but beyond that I’m very happy that Trump’s strongman talk is just that—talk. For instance, the other day the president threatened to forcibly adjourn Congress so that he can appoint a slew of interim officials. Mitch McConnell lifted his head from the giant mountain of Bolivian marching powder on his desk to say, in effect, “Uh, no.” And the whole thing went down the memory hole. 

Michael Brendan Dougherty makes the point that there’s something comic about Trump saying he has total authority when everyone knows it’s nonsense – or at least everyone who doesn’t take, say, Bill Mitchell, seriously. And I think he’s got a point. That’s what put those Hitler Downfall videos in my head. There’s something reminiscent of them in the way Trump talks like he has the ability to command forces to improve his fortunes when those forces don’t actually exist. 

I suppose I would seem less “obsessed” with Trump—to use many of my critics’ preferred adjective—if I could learn to laugh more at this kind of thing. The other week, I got a ton of Twitter grief for not finding Trump’s press conference joke about “models” funny. 

I’m willing to entertain the idea that I should have adopted more of a learn-to-laugh approach earlier in the Trump presidency. I guess my problem with this posture now is that this really isn’t a time for jocularity. I have a friend whose mom is dying from COVID-19. I have several friends whose businesses or livelihoods are collapsing before their eyes. And I hear from thousands of people telling me that my support for lockdowns and social distancing is contributing to similar wreckage in their lives. But when I say Trump’s strongman schtick or his “I banged a lot of models” insinuation isn’t appropriate or funny, many of these same people say I need to lighten up. And, frankly, I don’t get it. We’re supposed to take everything deadly seriously except the guy in charge of the effort to tackle the pandemic and save the economy?

Michael is right though, taken in isolation, there is something funny about Trump claiming unlimited power. But in context, there’s something perverse about it. I take a backseat to no one at laughing at Hans Moleman’s classic “Man Getting Hit by Football (in the groin)”:

And I have to admit that, if at the next press conference, Trump hucked a football at Mike Pence’s crotch, I’d probably laugh for a second. I’d laugh even harder when Pence gets up, thanks the president for his “broad-shouldered leadership,” and asks him to sign the football. But then I think about someone watching the whole scene from their hospitable bed, or waiting in an endless line at a food bank, and what would be funny in one context becomes something very different in another. If I had some terminal disease and my doctor kept going off on tangents or bragging about his ratings on Yelp or something, I would not be reassured. 

And part of the president’s job description is to reassure the public in a crisis. 

President Trump used to say he could be presidential if he wanted to, but that it would be “so boring.” And a lot of people used to believe him. We now know he can’t, at least not for very long, and the same people don’t seem to care. That said, if Trump had at least been the guy he was yesterday at the press conference he would be in much better shape. (And as we saw with his Friday morning tweets, he couldn’t be that guy for even 24 hours.)

The remarkable irrelevance of the relevant.

I’ve been harping on the point that the debate over whether to “open” the economy is weirdly disconnected from reality. If all of the state and federal edicts were lifted tomorrow, large numbers of Americans still wouldn’t go to restaurants, get on mass transit or get on airplanes. Matt Continetti has a very good column quantifying this. 

It was not media-induced panic but common sense that modified American behavior. The public is split on whether to trust the media. It is united in its embrace of social distancing. “About nine-in-ten U.S. adults (91%) say that, given the current situation, they would feel uncomfortable attending a crowded party,” says Pew. “Roughly three-quarters (77%) would not want to eat out at a restaurant. In the midst of a presidential election year, about two-thirds (66%) say they wouldn’t feel comfortable going to a polling place to vote.” Americans who attend church have turned to televised or online services. They have been praying for an end to the pandemic. And the prayerful include Americans who do not normally pray.

The overwhelming majority of Americans will not accept unquestionably assurances from Mike Pence or Andrew Cuomo or Joe Biden that the coast is clear. They will make their own decisions. “When asked how quickly they will return to their normal activities once the government lifts restrictions and businesses and schools start to reopen, the vast majority of Americans say they would wait and see what happens with the spread of the virus (71%) and another 10% would wait indefinitely,” wrote Gallup’s Lydia Saad on April 14. “Just 20% say they would return to their normal activities immediately.”

In other words, 80 percent of Americans wouldn’t go back to normal if the government sounded the all-clear. And guess what? If 80 percent of Americans won’t play ball, there won’t be enough players for the other 20 percent to play the game. 

That’s what makes the “debates” on cable and the shouting on Twitter so otherworldly. I put “debates” in quotation marks because the vast majority of cable commentary doesn’t involve debates. It’s one host interviewing a rotating group of guests who already agree with the host. 

These cable Rasputins think—or want you to think—that the government or Trump is like King Canute, capable of ordering the COVID tide to recede or the economic tide to rise, and they argue about when he should give the order they want. And because reality is being so stubborn they search out voices who will tell you that reality isn’t real. 

Here’s my theory: Lots of people I know have convinced themselves to play the Trump game—pro and anti—because it is so vitally important to be “relevant.” Influencing Trump or his fan base is self-justifying. Feeding the insatiable appetite for more resistance rhetoric fuels not only an eating disorder but a feeding disorder. Over time, the attention and profit one gets from this strategy reinforces the validity of the decision. The problem is that this approach doesn’t fit the situation we’re in. Continetti writes, “If traces of polarization remain in politics, they are absent from society.” My own quibble is the word “traces.” Some of the folks who’ve ridden the Red vs. Blue horse for so long have cut a groove in the earth so deep that it’s now a trench they can’t climb out of. They have to blame the media or Trump for everything, reading from a script that no longer fits the plot or the actors on the stage. And one of the funny things about trenches is that, when you’re in one, it becomes all the easier for people to see over your head. 

The old script was fun—or, yes, even funny—when the stakes were so low. Now it’s a sad ghost image on the screen.

Various & Sundry

Canine update: The beasts are in fine fettle. Though Zoë tried to hide a bone yesterday, and Pippa blew the op. We have Pippa’s brace and we use it for her big walks. That seems to be making a difference. The only problem is that we’re probably going to need several of them, because it’s kind of delicate and she gets it wet constantly. Still it’s nice to get back to some (limited) ball work with Pippa without her limping for the rest of the day. Though that hasn’t stopped her from her wanting TLC, ditto the Dingo

One common complaint from Twitter followers is that I usually (but not always) feed Gracie last at Treat Time. This morning, Ana Rosa Quintana (of the Heritage Foundation) asked “Why are you treating the cat like a second class citizen?!” 

I replied: “She is the queen. But there are delicate animal geopolitics in my household.”

To which Nick Pappas quipped:

Dogs = China 

Cat = Taiwan 

Jonah cannot acknowledge the existence of the cat in the presence of dogs.

As I told him, this is very close to the mark. But I think I should explain in more detail. Zoë is very much like China, a formidable superpower. But, like the Chinese, she is overly concerned with losing face and is quick to take unwarranted offense. She must assert herself to prove her acknowledged stature. Meanwhile, Gracie is like Taiwan, in that she once spoke authoritatively as the authentic voice of her kind. She has not forgotten that she was supplanted, and at times banished, like Chiang Kai-shek, from the rightful seat of power. But she has a long memory and is confident that history is on her side. In the meantime, China cannot abide anyone having cordial relations with Taiwan. Pippa, meanwhile, is more like Hong Kong. She clings to her vestigial English norms and traditions, but understands, and has maybe even made peace with the fact, that she is a kind of autonomous vassal of China. She can exert her independence, but she cannot flaunt it. She gets along fine with Taiwan—even sympathizes with and envies her—but she must not anger China. As for Ralph, he’s North Korea—unpredictable, quick to anger, with frustrated designs on the region. China tolerates actions from North Korea it would never abide from Hong Kong or Taiwan, in part because she’s a little afraid of what the Norks might do. Meanwhile, the late, great, Cosmo the Wonderdog was the U-S-of-frick’n-A, a benign hegemon and force of order and decency, enforcing norms for the betterment of everyone. In an earlier era, Cosmo was a great ally of Gracie’s. Indeed, they would conduct joint exercises in the neighborhood. And somewhere in here is a parable of our times.  


And now, the weird stuff

Photograph of Donald Trump by Jabin Botsford/Washington Post/Getty Images.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.