A lot of ink has been spilled over President Donald Trump’s continuous stream of outrageous words, with the commentary tending to take one of two tracks. The first concerns the offensiveness of Trump’s coarse and crude language, the atrocity of having a president who routinely spews hateful and divisive rhetoric. The second focuses on Trump’s penchant for lies, his constant habit of changing his story from one day to the next – and sometimes even within a single sentence.
But less noticed about the words coming out of the White House, yet made all too plain in the ridiculous uproar over Michelle Wolf’s comedy routine at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner last weekend, is how often Trump’s team excuses or downplays what the president has said by contending that he was “just joking.” While Wolf was pilloried for doing her job – that is, telling jokes – apparently we have a regular standup comedian in the White House. Unlike Wolf’s performance, however, no one is laughing at Trump’s lines.
Like so many of the abuses coming out of this administration, a column like this doesn’t provide the space to cover every time Trump’s lackeys have explained away the president’s words as mere jokes. But a partial recounting of the instances shows how insidious the habit has become.
Trump was “clearly joking,” the White House maintained in February, when the president accused Democrats of treason for not applauding his State of the Union address. He was “joking,” Sean Spicer insisted last year, when Trump asked Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s email account during the 2016 campaign. He was also “joking” when Trump said that passing a health care bill would be easy. And he “was making a joke at the time,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders said last summer, after the president told a group of police officers to be “rough” on suspects. On and on the list goes of things Trump has publicly stated that his cleanup crew later dismissed as just jokes.
No doubt, with Trump we’re a long way from Teddy Roosevelt’s “bully pulpit” presidency. (Sadly, we’re just stuck with the bully.) Roosevelt had coined the term in 1909 when, while speaking to a group of reporters at the White House about several issues he deeply cared about, he suddenly exclaimed, “I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit!”
The phrase stuck, becoming shorthand for the particular power the presidency granted to move the nation to action with words alone. Lyman Abbott, a minister turned magazine editor who was at that meeting with Roosevelt, later described Roosevelt’s words as showing “a distinctly ethical character” – something surely never to be said about any of Trump’s pronouncements.
Like Roosevelt, every American president before Trump has operated with the sense – if not always the practice – that every word they said in public had vital and profound significance and by the conviction that their words had the potential to shape world events and alter history. When running for president in 2008, Barack Obama reflected on that power. “Don’t tell me words don’t matter,” Obama said to an audience of Wisconsin Democrats. “‘I have a dream’ – just words? ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself’ – just words?”
Trump has brought a much different sensibility to the presidency, one warped by his self-assessment that he has the “best words.” It is also influenced by Trump’s belief that speaking his mind is what got him elected in the first place; by his sense of himself – shared by his unflagging supporters – as a tell it like it is straight shooter who was slicing through a culture of political correctness with common sense and hard truths the American people craved to hear.
And yet, for all his self-promotion as the unvarnished truth-teller the country needed, it’s striking that so many of Trump’s words as president have been chalked up as just jokes.
Perhaps it’s all just shrewd politics. Trump gets to say outrageous things that please (and stoke) his base while White House staffers clean up the mess with the press by brushing it all off as simply the president ribbing his audience. That probably works for surviving a news cycle. But ultimately it’s a strategy that diminishes the presidency and imperils America’s standing with the world.
Or maybe this is just another one of the privileges of white male heterosexuality – that nothing you say can be held against you, that there is no accountability for your words.
Either way, a White House staff routinely engaged in dismissing the president’s words as only jokes isn’t helping Trump get out of uncomfortable scrapes. They are telling the American people over and over again not to take this president seriously.
It’s one thing for Americans – not to mention leaders of other nations – to view Trump as a buffoon on their own assessment. But it’s an entirely different matter for an administration to so frequently present its own president as a jokester whose words don’t matter, a shocking development in the history of the American presidency.
If, as it has been said, there is truth in all humor, the truth of Trump’s humor is all too clear. He is a racist. He is a demagogue. He is no respecter of persons, of principles or of democratic institutions.
But there is perhaps an even greater truth in the White House’s continual characterization of Trump’s words as just jokes: His own advisers do not take the president seriously.
And why should they? As Sanders tellingly explained in yet another disastrous press conference on Thursday, “We give the very best information possible at the time.” In working for a man of such pathological dishonesty and venomous hostility, often it’s easiest to argue everything is just a joke.
That’s an understandable decision given the unbearable task at hand. But the only fact these excuses make clear is that the biggest joke of all is sitting right in the middle of the Oval Office.
Neil J. Young is a historian and the author of We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics. He hosts the history podcast “Past Present.”