Opinion | Donald Trump Isn’t Funny Anymore

Opinion | Donald Trump Isn’t Funny Anymore

In 1986, when I was a college student, I bristled every time I saw yet another fawning profile of a certain arrogant young real estate developer. The person of whom I speak is, of course, Donald Trump. As polarizing as he is now, Mr. Trump was then enjoying a press honeymoon — even Mike Wallace, the resident bulldog at CBS’s “60 Minutes,” went easy on him, breathlessly declaring in a 1985 profile, “He talks of millions the way most of us talk of nickels and dimes.” This repellent man needed to be knocked down a peg and I thought I knew of one effective way to do it: with jokes.

So when I came across a fledgling satirical magazine, Spy, that articulated precisely what I was thinking, I was smitten. In its inaugural issue, Spy named Mr. Trump one of the “10 Most Embarrassing New Yorkers,” noting his tackiness, his shady tactics as a landlord and his “hustler-on-his-best-behavior manner.” Yes! My people!

I was so smitten, in fact, that I cold-called the magazine’s office, offering myself up for a summer internship. I joined the staff full-time in 1989 and we continued to chronicle Mr. Trump’s offenses against taste and decency. We came up with a slew of epithets for him, including the one that stuck, “short-fingered vulgarian.” Then, as now, Mr. Trump was thin-skinned, and obsessed with his press coverage. He sent angry, threatening letters to Spy, which only heightened our joy.

So you might think I’d revel in our current golden age of Trump mockery. When “Saturday Night Live” returns this week, we’re likely to see him incarnated by the comedian James Austin Johnson, who uncannily recreates Mr. Trump’s fragmentary locutions and deteriorating speaking voice as it whipsaws from a bellow to a gargle to a whisper.

But — no offense to the talented Mr. Johnson — I’m done laughing. We’ve reached a point where the guffawing has to stop.

By now, many of us have had a good chuckle at Mr. Trump’s ridiculousness: the talk of injecting bleach into the bloodstream, the hand gestures that make him appear to be playing an accordion. But the stakes are too high to treat him as a figure of fun — and I say this as someone whose foundational story as a professional writer involved concocting Trump jokes. We need a moratorium on making fun of Mr. Trump.

For one thing, ridiculing Mr. Trump is no longer an effective tool against him. Like some kind of cyborg insult comic, he’s developed a knack for absorbing and redirecting the barbs hurled his way. He internalized and weaponized Spy’s tactic of using belittling epithets, propagating such nicknames as “Crooked Hillary,” “Sleepy Joe” and “Cryin’ Chuck Schumer.” He pulled a similar trick with the term “fake news,” which was popularized by Jon Stewart as a lighthearted description of “The Daily Show.” In Mr. Trump’s vindictive mind, “fake news” was reprocessed and deployed to mean media outlets and news coverage that he doesn’t like.

What’s more, in the Spy magazine era, Mr. Trump was just a local nuisance, a braggart presiding over a foundering casino-hotel empire. When he reconstituted himself as an entertainer, starring in “The Apprentice,” he began to pose a danger of a different magnitude.

The media would often dismiss him as just another kooky TV personality, despite his racist assertions that fanned the flames of the anti-Obama birther movement. For years, he benefited from prolonged attention without real scrutiny. People treated him as spectacle and failed to take him seriously, even when he ran for president. In 2016, Les Moonves, then the chairman of CBS, exulted in “the ride we’re all having right now,” telling an audience at a business conference that Mr. Trump’s political ascent “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” Whee!

Suffice to say, Mr. Trump’s victory in 2016 sobered up the yucksters real fast. Yet it did not spell the end of Trump-based humor. Arguably, we needed that humor more than ever — the Alec Baldwin version, the Anthony Atamanuik version, Mr. Johnson’s — as a coping mechanism during the chaotic Trump presidency and its immediate aftermath.

Had Mr. Trump shuffled off into quiet exile like Richard Nixon, maybe we could continue to find him funny. But he remains his party’s leader. He’s still spreading the lie that the 2020 election was stolen. He’s ratcheted up his rhetoric, labeling his political opponents “vermin” and promising vengeance. Now is really, really not the time for yet another bit in which Mr. Trump is portrayed as a nutty blowhard who overuses the words “frankly” and “many people are saying.”

I realize I run the risk, in making this case, of looking as if I’m missing the whole point of political humor in a free country. Isn’t laughter what gets us through our darkest hours? Isn’t one of the purposes of satire to shine a light on the folly of the wicked and misguided?

Well, sure — in normal times. But not when the foundations of our democracy are under threat from a former president who wants to be a dictator on “Day 1.” Charlie Chaplin boldly satirized Adolf Hitler as Adenoid Hynkel in his 1940 film “The Great Dictator,” capturing Hitler’s twitchy body language and toddler petulance as adeptly as today’s Trump impressionists nail their guy. The difference is that Chaplin, an Englishman who made his name in America, was operating from a position of moral strength. His adopted homeland was the world’s beacon of democracy, while the guy he was sending up ran a country that had gone terribly wrong.

This time, we, the United States, are the country that runs the risk of going terribly wrong. The Hynkel-ing is coming from inside the house. So let’s treat this situation as seriously as it warrants.

We Spy alumni have become accustomed to hearing people say, “If only Spy were around today” and “Please bring back Spy — we need it more than ever.” But we don’t need a Spy revival. We need sobriety, probity and focus.

I understand that Mr. Trump is funny, sometimes not even inadvertently. Let’s just hold off on the laughter until he is defeated.

David Kamp is the author, most recently, of “Sunny Days: The Children’s Television Revolution That Changed America.”

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