As with September’s memorial services for John McCain, expressions of mourning for George H.W. Bush — extolling America’s 41st president’s humility, loyalty, temperance, decency, bravery and devotion to public service — have contained thinly veiled rebukes of the current president. The sharpest one, I thought, came in Alan Simpson’s splendid eulogy at Washington National Cathedral.
“He never lost his sense of humour,” the former senator from Wyoming said of his friend of more than 50 years. “Humour is the universal solvent against the abrasive elements of life. That’s what humour is. He never hated anyone. He knew what his mother and my mother always knew: Hatred corrodes the container it’s carried in.”
Did United States President Donald Trump catch any of this as he sat there in the first pew? Lindsey Graham, the episodically spineful Republican from South Carolina, has claimed that, in private, the 45th president is “funny as hell” and has “a great sense of humour”. If so, it’s a better-kept secret than his tax returns.
In public, Trump has almost no humour, even when the moment calls for it. At the Al Smith dinner in 2016, on the eve of the election, Trump turned an occasion for good-natured ribbing into a full-on assault of Hillary Clinton, peppered by dashes of self-pity. He was better at the Gridiron Club dinner in March, though the event wasn’t televised and his best jokes landed at the expense of his wife and his son-in-law. And he has already twice skipped the White House Correspondents’ Dinner — the first president voluntarily to do so since Jimmy Carter.
When Trump does make jokes, they tend to be flattering to his self-image. “Why do you want to leave your current job?” The Tonight Show’s Jimmy Fallon asked him in a mock job interview during the 2016 campaign. “Because,” Trump replied, “I’m sort of looking to make a lot less money.”
Or they are cruel — and not necessarily meant as jokes. “Like when you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put their hand over?” he told an audience of police officers last year. “You can take the hand away, OK?”
Why is Trump so humour-averse? There are people who are unfunny because they are witless: Think of 2nd Lt. Steven Hauk, the Bruno Kirby character in Good Morning, Vietnam. And people who are unfunny because they are joyless: The Sgt. Major Dickerson character.
But Trump, I suspect, isn’t unfunny. He’s anti-funny. Humour humanises. It uncorks, unstuffs, informalises. Used well, it puts people at ease. Trump’s method is the opposite: He wants people ill at ease. Doing so preserves his capacity to wound, his sense of superiority, his distance. Good jokes highlight the ridiculous. Trump’s jokes merely ridicule. They are caustics, not emollients.
This brings me to Simpson’s second, connected point: “Hatred corrodes the container it’s carried in.”
In June 1971, former US president Richard Nixon sent a memo to the then chief-of-staff Bob Haldeman complaining that his good-natured appearance at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner had been followed by a press conference in which “the reporters were considerably more bad-mannered and vicious than usual”.
“This bears out my theory,” the 37th president wrote, foreshadowing his current successor, “that treating them with considerably more contempt is in the long run a more productive policy”.
The press, of course, mostly hated Nixon and he repaid them in kind. His mistake was to suppose that his only choice lay between ingratiation and hatred, rather than indifference and humour. It left him incapable of rising above. Till the end of his presidency, Nixon was trapped by a thirst for approval he would never get and an appetite for destruction he could never achieve.
It’s the same with Trump. He hankers for media adulation and boils with rage for not getting it. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that the surest invitation to mockery is humourlessness. Or that self-deprecation pre-empts derision. Or that the best way to undermine his media critics is to make light of their pomposity, not thunder at their impudence. Or that presidential charm trumps media vituperation every time.
In sum, that humour in democratic politics is also its most effective weapon: the strongest shield and the sharpest blade. It doesn’t just amuse, leaven and comfort. It defangs, attracts, and mobilises. Winston Churchill was a wit, as were Jack Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. Nixon and Jimmy Carter weren’t.
Does any of this make a dent on Trump? I doubt it. His character is what it is. And his style of politics isn’t democratic so much as it is cult-of-personality. Trump appeared engaged throughout the service, but I suspect that Simpson’s speech flew right past him.
It shouldn’t fly past the rest of us. This is an angry age, in which Trump’s critics also simmer in rage, ridicule, self-importance, self-pity — and hatred, too. They think they’re reproaching the president. Increasingly they reflect him. Simpson’s message contains a warning to us all.
— New York Times News Service
Bret Louis Stephens is an American journalist, editor and political commentator.