Last week, after Donald Trump announced at a live press briefing that he was having his top medical advisers investigate whether light could be brought “inside the body,” or if, perhaps, people might clean out their lungs with disinfectant “by injection inside or almost a cleaning,” the memes soon overtook the news itself. Bleach companies and reputable news operations were forced to warn Americans not to ingest disinfectant. Twitter melted down, more than it usually does. The insanity of this particular escapade threatened to end the daily press extravaganzas altogether. (That ended up only lasting until Monday night.)
Trump responded to the uproar with his customary deflection: It had all been a huge joke—a joke aimed at a vicious press that has been unkind to him. Or, as he put it on Friday, because he wanted to “see what would happen,” he was actually just being hilarious when he suggested this. “I was asking a sarcastic—and a very sarcastic question—to the reporters in the room about disinfectant on the inside,” he said. “But it does kill it.” He repeated the word sarcasm four times just in case anyone missed it. Then, after an incomparable Twitter rant against the press again on Sunday, in which he seems to have confused the Pulitzer Prize with the Nobel Prize and the Nobel Prize with something he called the “Nobles,” he dragged all of us back to his well of hilarity with a tweet asking, “Does anybody get the meaning of what a so-called Noble (not Nobel) Prize is, especially as it pertains to Reporters and Journalists? Noble is defined as, ‘having or showing fine personal qualities or high moral principles and ideals.’ Does sarcasm ever work?”
Now of course the short answer to his question is that sarcasm really only works as sarcasm if it is sarcastic, and nobody believed for an instant that the president was being sarcastic when he suggested ingesting disinfectant, just as nobody believed he was being sarcastic when he talked about suing media outlets that didn’t cover him favorably. But the problem is less that the president doesn’t seem to comprehend what sarcasm actually means and more that he seemed to relish the deployment of his dubious comedic stylings just as the COVID-19 death toll in the United States was hovering at about 55,000. That is: 55,000 American people who have died from this disease so far. The number will be higher at the end of today. The problem, then, isn’t that Donald Trump doesn’t understand sarcasm specifically or comedy generally, but that after a lifetime in which “humor” for him has ranged from insult comedy to revisionist history, he has decided to make this the moment to dabble in subtle wordplay with the truth. And this alleged “joking,” possibly more than almost anything we have witnessed (and we have witnessed a great deal), reveals what is important to this president, even as thousands die and millions suffer.
What is important to this president, it turns out, is unchanged: “owning the libs,” and trashing the press. But humor requires that at least someone—preferably everyone, but certainly one person, and at least Trump enthusiasts—be in on the joke. And as this president continues to push miracle cure after miracle cure—including unproven drugs whose misapplication has already killed—it simply stops being humor. It starts to look like sociopathy.
This might be where Donald Trump’s alleged COVID-19 “jokes” keep failing—humor really demands some kind of theory of mind. And the president is so incapable of forming imaginative relationships with others that his listeners are not always in on it, especially when his “sarcasm” is vented when people are dying. Shakespeare may have captured at least some of the problem of Trumpian “jokes” in Love’s Labour’s Lost when he observed that “A jest’s prosperity lies in the ear/ Of him that hears it, never in the tongue/ Of him that makes it.” Trump asked, on Sunday, via a tweet, “Does sarcasm ever work?” What he was asking, really, was “What’s wrong with an America that doesn’t find my efforts to humiliate the press hilarious?” But the answer is that neither America nor the press was ever in on this joke. Jokes are funny if the listener laughs. The reaction to the disinfectant “joke” ranged from panicked despair for some to apparent genuine questioning of whether this medical advice was meant to be followed.
Humor as a defense for the unforgivable is a pattern we’ve seen before from this president. Trump and his apologists have used “sarcasm” as an all-purpose damage control explanation for everything from his call for WikiLeaks to steal Hillary Clinton’s emails in 2016 to his claim that he was “the chosen one.” Windsor Mann observed last year that Donald Trump’s handful of “sarcastic” “jokes” have only ever been defined as such in hindsight, and only when they have failed to function as the serious attempts to distort reality that they were intended to be: “When certain words come back to haunt him, he claims he didn’t mean them. Retroactive sarcasm gives him plausible deniability—a way to make shameless statements without being held accountable for them.”
To be a pedant, whatever it is Trump has been performing as of late, it certainly isn’t sarcasm. As the Merriam-Webster definition attests, sarcasm requires “a sharp and often satirical or ironic utterance designed to cut or give pain” or “a mode of satirical wit depending for its effect on bitter, caustic, and often ironic language that is usually directed against an individual.” The president has the giving-of-pain element down pat. But there is of course nothing sharp, or satirical, or ironic about his insults or his reckless medical advice. Those are just falsehoods or bullying, covered up after the fact as jokes. In trying to fathom why Trump’s latest claims of sarcasm come across as more abusive than usual, it’s possibly because even sarcasm demands an agreement that what is being lampooned is absurd. And unless you are truly without empathy, there is no space for mockery when bodies are being stacked up in trucks behind hospitals and as researchers scramble for cures and vaccines that are not coming.
Trump’s older “jokes” may have been more democracy-threatening—including prior threats to stay in office “at least for 10 or 14 years“—but on only a few occasions have they appeared to be actively sadistic, actively reveling in the pain of those being abused (one previous example: his call for police officers to abuse criminal suspects). But these past few weeks have been different: Regardless of politics, there is something akin to overt sadism in even attempting to make jokes right now, and the fact that the president seeks to import humor into a catastrophic and isolating human tragedy feels psychologically different this time. This is no “Ha! Suck it libtards” moment. There is only suffering, grief, economic collapse, and death right now.
And whatever your views of the media itself, in this moment the media is one of the only reliable sources of truthful information about a life-or-death pandemic. Even pretextual claims that this is a good time to dunk on the press are demented. In this instance, shooting the messenger amounts to something close to shooting the public as well. The sadism in this week’s assaults on the free press are astounding. There is the basic sadism in directing those jokes at a media that is expected to report Trump’s statements as truth. Whether it was Fox News or MSNBC reporting the “joke” was immaterial. Trump prefers that journalists take uncritical dictation. But in this instance, doing so would kill people. Even if bleachgate had been intended as humor, it is sociopathy to imply that the media would suffer from a presidential announcement that Americans should digest poison. That wasn’t a joke at the media’s expense; it was a joke at the expense of Americans. And it reveals that the president has no understanding of how—in his alleged effort to “own the fake news”—he was perfectly willing to use the public as collateral damage. Nobody was laughing because only sociopaths believe that the death of the other side in a moment of national catastrophe is funny.
Mel Brooks once said “tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” It captures perfectly why Trump’s attempts at nasty put-downs sting—the differences between “you” and “me” are immaterial right now, because this lethal virus threatens us all. The heartbreak here isn’t that Donald Trump now says he told a joke. That’s an old, old play, one that barely registers as noteworthy anymore. The heartbreak is that even in the midst of global suffering, he still finds scraps of joy in the suffering of those he despises.