President Rickles

Like all right-thinking Americans, Emily Nussbaum is suitably horrified by Trump’s election. But she grasps his appeal better than most. He won by being a better stand-up comic and shrugging off criticism by claiming he was just joking:

“Trump was a hot comic, a classic Howard Stern guest. He was the insult comic, the stadium act, the ratings-obsessed headliner who shouted down hecklers. His rallies boiled with rage and laughter, which were hard to tell apart. You didn’t have to think that Trump himself was funny to see this effect: I found him repulsive, and yet I could hear those comedy rhythms everywhere, from the Rodney Dangerfield ‘I don’t get no respect’ routine to the gleeful insult-comic slams of Don Rickles (for ‘hockey puck,’ substitute ‘Pocahontas’) to Andrew Dice Clay, whose lighten-up-it’s-a-joke, it’s-not-him-it’s-a-persona brand of misogyny dominated the late nineteen-eighties. . . . Trump was that hostile-jaunty guy in the big flappy suit, with the vaudeville hair, the pursed lips, and the glare. There’s always been an audience for that guy.”

Trump’s most talked-about gaffes had the structure and rhythm of jokes. He suggested that Russia send over Hilary’s emails. Nussbaum writes that it’s a classic form: “Take two stories, then combine them: as any late-night writer knows, that’s the go-to algorithm when you’re on deadline. . . . He claimed that his imitation of the disabled reporter Serge Kovaleski was a slapstick take on the reporter ‘grovelling because he wrote a good story’ . . . He did it when he said that Megyn Kelly had ‘blood coming out of her wherever’ a joke, he insisted, and he actually meant her nose. ‘I like people who weren’t captured,’ about John McCain: that had the shape of a joke, too.”

Nussbaum pinpoints the problem: Whether you support or oppose him, how do you deal with a leader who always leaves open an “I was joking” escape route?

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