There’s a common conception, among foes of Donald Trump, that the 45th president tweets every day in a kind of fevered state: alone by his bedroom TV set, wrapped in a smoking jacket or maybe a satin Snuggie, typing in fits of narcissism, defensiveness and self-aggrandizement. And maybe that is his mood, much of the time. It certainly has been for most of this past week, as the president took to Twitter to attack the “degenerate Washington Post” and the “Impeachment Hoax”—and to drum up votes for “very loyal” Sean Spicer on Dancing With The Stars.
But if you’re paying as much attention to all of his tweets, not just his angry, appalling and self-serving ones, you’ll find some striking moments when Trump isn’t just raging outward, but making fun of himself—even showing a wry acceptance of the caricatures favored by the left. He has challenged his followers to find the secret meaning behind his famed “covfefe” accidental tweet. He’s made light of the notion that he would seek a third term, joking about leaving office “in six years, or maybe 10 or 14 (just kidding).” In August, as he was floating the purchase of a certain Danish territory, he tweeted a picture of a gold-plated Trump hotel photoshopped onto a craggy shore, along with the words, “I promise not to do this to Greenland!” He makes cracks about himself in person, too; at a rally in Louisiana this week, he poked fun at the rambling rhetoric that sometimes gets him into trouble: “I do my best work off script … I also do my worst work off script.”
These were genuine, self-aware, sometimes even self-deprecating jokes—if you were in the mindset to receive them. Of course, many Trump opponents aren’t. And given his impeachment-triggering behavior and his penchant for crossing the lines of decency, it’s no surprise that many find Trump to be no laughing matter, or have trouble finding lighthearted spots in an ongoing stream of hyperbole and bile. One New York Times column called his “A Presidency Without Humor.” Comedy writer Nell Scovell, who has written jokes for David Letterman and Barack Obama, once declared that if Trump does have a sense of humor, it’s confined to the instances when he “clearly chuckles at the misfortune of others.”
But Trump’s winking stance, jarring and inconsonant though it may be with the rest of liberals’ conception of him, is one of the essential, even primal ways the president keeps his base on board, laughing along. For Trump and his defenders, a little gentle self-mocking does more than just warm up a room. It can neutralize his opponents’ attacks. And it can let Trump off the hook even when he probably isn’t joking, as when Marco Rubio argued last month that Trump was only kidding when he declared that China should investigate Hunter Biden.
But it’s most powerful when it makes his supporters feel that they’re in on Trump’s jokes in a way the establishment isn’t. In a sense, this effect is an extension of the 2016 campaign formulation, likely coined by GOP strategist Brad Todd and popularized by Peter Thiel, that Trump’s supporters “take him seriously, but not literally.” Because Trump’s fans take him seriously, they recognize when he isn’t being serious, and laugh when his opponents miss the joke. In the same way “Fox and Friends” can make viewers feel as if they’re part of a knowing club, Trump’s jokes give his supporters a way to feel superior to the elites, to mock what they see as a humorless and predictable political establishment. After Trump’s Greenland tweet, one fan on Twitter captured that feeling: “I can picture President Trump sitting in the OVAL, after a productive day, chuckling as he tweets to trigger the left. BEST POTUS EVER!”
This split-screen reaction to Trump’s jokes—fans seeing a twinkle in his eye, opponents seeing creeping authoritarianism—happens offline, too. At a veterans’ event in Louisville last August, Trump joked about wanting to give himself the Medal of Honor: “I wanted one, but they told me I don’t qualify,” he said of his aides. “I said, ‘Can I give it to myself anyway?’ They said, ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea.” His foes freaked out, and some news outlets covered the crack as if it were a serious statement. But as the Louisville Courier-Journal, the local newspaper, reported from the scene, “Trump was smiling as he said it, and the crowd laughed.”
Throughout history, most presidents have displayed moments of wit—it’s part of the charisma required to hold the job—but few have tried as much as Trump to maintain a comic presence. In part, that’s because he holds so many performative, campaign-style rallies, where he revels in the crowd’s reaction. In part, it’s because he communicates so much on Twitter, a platform overloaded with amateur comedians, lobbing their best one-liners into the void.
On Twitter and beyond, Trump is best known for insult comedy, and for his tendency to pick demeaning names for his opponents. (The latest, for obvious reasons, is “Shifty Schiff”—which isn’t as clever as some of his opponents’ nicknames for him, like “Prima Donald” and “Cheetolini.”) Some would say it’s not comedy at all; most would at least agree that’s it’s on the less sophisticated end of the president’s humor attempts.
But even on days when he’s under attack, he often finds ways to slip in notes of self-awareness, sometimes accompanied by a built-in commentary on the political environment. In a recent press conference with the president of FIFA, he joked about wanting to “extend my second term” until the United States hosts the World Cup in 2026, then turned to the press and quipped, “I don’t think any of you would have a problem with that.” On the day of a contentious meeting with congressional Democrats, as the impeachment inquiry accelerated, Trump posted a photo of a frowning Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer and Steny Hoyer, accompanied by one line: “Do you think they like me?”
To be sure, Trump is not the first president to enjoy a little self-parody. But as with all aspects of his messaging, he prefers to do it on his own terms. Obama had an arsenal of dad jokes and good timing at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner; George W. Bush poked fun at his own malapropisms, even calling a White House meeting the “Strategery Meeting” after a “Saturday Night Live” joke. Trump, on the other hand, has griped about SNL impressions and skips the correspondents’ dinner entirely. If anyone pokes fun at Trump, it’s going to be Trump.
Self-mocking humor is riskier and harder to pull off than insult comedy—it requires better timing, more wit and a base of shared information between the teller and the audience. But it has also been a staple of American politics, says Gil Greengross, an evolutionary psychologist at Aberystwyth University in Wales who has studied self-deprecating humor. Greengross’s favorite example comes from Abraham Lincoln, who once, accused of being two-faced, shot back, “I leave it to you: If I had two faces, would I use this one?”
For a politician, self-deprecating humor serves some distinct purposes, says Frank McAndrew, a professor at Knox College in Illinois, who studies the psychology of social situations. Self-mocking is an icebreaker, a way to shrink the distance between a powerful politician and the general public, to give the impression that you’re approachable, despite your exalted address. It’s also a way to offset your foes’ most cutting attacks. McAndrew points to Ronald Reagan’s famous quip, in a 1984 presidential debate against Walter Mondale, in response to a question about his age. Reagan promised to not make a campaign issue out of “my opponent’s youth and inexperience”—a line that at once acknowledged Reagan’s major campaign weakness and neutralized the subject for the night.
With a self-deprecating joke, McAndrew says, “You lead with the thing they were going to trap you with. It takes away their ammunition.” Seen that way, Trump’s joke about the Medal of Honor, told to a room of veterans, was a kind of preemptive strike. A man who had never served in the military was making light of his weakness before an audience of people more deserving—neutralizing a line of critique that someone in the room could have raised.
But the power of self-deprecating humor goes even deeper, Greengross contends: You could actually credit it with helping to perpetuate the species. He points, as explanation, to a peacock. Females are drawn to males with vivid, symmetrical tail feathers, he says, because, on a biological level, a beautiful tail takes a lot of energy to produce. If a peacock with top-notch feathers can be healthy anyway, in spite of trading away some precious physical resources, he’s got to be especially strong; a catch. In the same way, a famous quarterback can afford to mock himself on TV; he has such an abundance of cool that he can afford to give some of it away.
In evolutionary psychology, Greengross says, this idea is known as the “costly signaling theory” or “handicap principle.” If someone with high status is able to thrive in spite of highlighting a weakness, he’s actually displaying strength. According to this principle, a joke from Trump about his political rivals’ hatred of him conveys more than a sense of humor. It also underlines the fact that Trump has become president of the United States while facing down deep hostility—and is now in a strong enough position that he can joke about it.
A decade ago, Greengross conducted a study at the University of New Mexico, where he worked at the time, to test whether self-deprecating humor fit the “costly signaling” framework. Participants listened to audio recordings of people repeating stand-up comedy routines. Some of the joke-tellers were identified as having high status in society; some were described as low-status. Some of the routines were self-deprecating; some were full of put-downs of others. Then, participants were asked to rate the comics on various measures of attractiveness, from intelligence and presumed physical allure to potential as a sexual partner. The study’s subjects consistently ranked the people who used self-deprecating humor as more attractive—but only if they were also described as having high status. If a teller was seen as weak, the act of putting himself down just reminded the audience of his weaknesses.
This is what happens to Trump, it’s clear, when he drops his self-aware jokes on an unwilling audience. In September, for instance, Trump tweeted what seemed like a winking reference to his much-maligned description of himself as a “very stable genius”—followed by a cryptic “Thank you!” It was clear, from the volume of “Mr. Ed” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” memes in the responses, that while some people were laughing with him, a lot were laughing at him.
Evolution might also give a reason, beyond some kind of innate humorlessness or “Trump derangement syndrome,” that Trump’s opponents aren’t inclined to laugh him off. Yes, liberals see Trump as dangerous, which makes them more likely to take his jokes about thwarting democracy at face value. But they also see him as low-status—undeserving of the presidency— so his jokes about himself only confirm their low opinion. He thinks of himself as a peacock; they think of him as a turkey.
In front of a friendly crowd, though, Trump is free to unleash his self-mocking self, knowing he’ll get the reaction he wants—provided the subject is right. It’s notable, after all, that Trump’s moments of self-aware humor tend to stem from subjects where he feels on top: his ability to plop a Trump hotel in any location; his ability to win an improbable election; his ability to grab attention with a single, well-placed tweet. These are areas where he can afford to take himself down a notch, and revel in the roars of his supporters.
So far, he hasn’t made many cracks about impeachment.
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