How to Tell When Donald Trump Is Joking

The presidential candidate’s attempts at humor, deconstructed.

Wednesday afternoon, Donald Trump invited a foreign power to hack Hillary Clinton. “Russia, if you’re listening,” he said. “I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 e-mails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.” In a statement, Clinton aide Jack Sullivan succinctly declared the remark “a national security issue.”

So it was. It was also, according to Trump, a joke. Early Thursday, the Republican presidential nominee had this exchange with Fox News’ Brian Kilmeade after Kilmeade told him that a second Clinton aide, Robby Mook, had called the comment a “national security issue.”

Trump: You have to be kidding. His client, his person deleted 33,000 emails illegally. You look at that. And when I’m being sarcastic with something—

Kilmeade: Are you being sarcastic?

Trump: Of course I’m being sarcastic.

He then recited his usual talking points about how “disgraceful” the Clinton email situation is.

Some have been quick to identify this as another of Trump’s embarrassing reversals. “Trump walks back dare for Russia to hack Clinton email,” reads CBS’s headline. It’s very clear to me, though, that Trump was trying to be funny. “If his comment about Russian hackers really was intended as a joke, it clearly missed,” my colleague Josh Voorhees wrote on Thursday. This is absolutely correct: It was a failed, destructive attempt at humor, but an attempt nonetheless. We can say this was a joke without dismissing its gravity, and we can say it was a joke without excusing him. But we have to say it was a joke, because it was a joke. A very, very bad one.

Trump’s joke on Wednesday was borne of two specific, pre-existing shticks. The first, about hacking, originates with Trump. The other, about Clinton’s emails, is a GOP staple.

First, the hacking. As others have observed, Trump has literally called on hackers to target his enemies.

These are jokes. Their tone is sardonic. Trump’s attitude here is like that of a teacher with a soft spot for a louse. His address to them—“Attention all hackers”—is a stand-up bit. It is not intended to be taken seriously by the world’s leading experts in internet black ops.

Hacking can be a type of spying. For Trump, the important thing to understand about spying is that everybody does it.

Getting spied on is a great indignity. It is very sad when it happens to you.

But it is amusing when it happens to other people. This is in reference to the many failures of the Obamacare website healthcare.gov:

Hacking is, in other words, a kind of prank. Asking Russia to hack Clinton’s emails—that’s a funny idea, in Trump land.

Trump’s other source material here is Hillary email jokes, which are not local to him. When Clinton told Trump to “delete” his account on Twitter, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus had a witty comeback:

So did South Carolina congressman Jeff Duncan:

A writer for AM New York counted seven Clinton email jokes at the Republican National Convention. This was Chris Christie’s:

[Clinton] went to the Kremlin on her very first visit and gave them that stupid, symbolic reset button. You know what I think that button should have read? It should have read, “Delete.” You know, she’s very good at that, by the way. And it should have read “delete” because, she deleted, in four years, the safety and security it took us to build in 40 years.

Some Hillary email jokes are not structured as jokes. They just involve the use of the word email in connection with Clinton. Darryl Glenn, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado who spoke at the convention, cracked this knee-slapper.

A transcript:

Hillary Clinton is unfit to be president. And we all know she loves her pantsuits. [Crowd laughs.] Yes, you know it’s coming. [Glenn chuckle-snorts.] But we should send her an email and tell her that she deserves a bright orange jumpsuit. [Crowd cheers.]

Glenn’s email “joke” here is simple and effective—at least, it worked on its intended audience. Trump tried, and failed, to pull off something more complex.

If you go to an improv comedy show, you’ll likely see the performers operate in a structure known as a “Harold.” Most Harolds are composed of three three-scene sections, or beats. Each beat takes place in three independent worlds. In the first beat, those three worlds are introduced. In the second beat, they are developed. In the third beat, they collide.

The resulting combination of familiar, incongruous elements makes people laugh, even when it is facile. The plumber from the first scene has reappeared as the ring-bearer in the eighth scene? Hilarious! The lover from the second scene, now a part of the seventh scene, must use the outrageous CPR technique established in the third scene? Ha ha ha!

Trump’s joke on Wednesday was the third beat of a Harold. The first beat was hacking. The second beat was Hillary’s emails. In the third beat, he synthesized those two shticks into a megashtick. “Attention all hackers” became “Russia, if you’re listening.” Spying was imagined as a prank. Email was mentioned. This joke had it all.

The intended effect was surprise, cleverness, and even faint surreality, the plumber reappearing as the ring-bearer. Newt Gingrich got it.

Trump supporters on Twitter got it. The media mostly refused to get it. But it was, indeed, a joke. It was nasty, it was dangerous, and it was calculated, but it was a joke. A joke can be all those things, especially when it comes out of the mouth of Donald Trump.

Read more of Slate’s election coverage.