It’s one of the things that has made America great. Humor can be the great equalizer— from the wisecracking GI coping with wartime stress to the disaster victim refusing to submit to self-pity. It’s even prevalent in politics and government, though carefully rendered in political campaigns with mixed results.
We think of Ronald Reagan, 73, and the oldest person ever to run for President at the time (both Trump and Biden were older in the last election) in the 1984 debate against 56-year-old Walter Mondale, twelve years a senator and vice president at the time. The question of whether Reagan’s age might be a drawback was raised, and Reagan got a laugh and scored points with the following: “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Even Mondale laughed.
And if you want to go back to the Abraham Lincoln-Stephen Douglas debates in 1858, Lincoln, the first Republican president, must have racked up points when Douglas accused him of being two-faced: “I leave it to my audience,” Lincoln responded. “If I had another face, would I wear this one?” But that was long before television allowed millions of people who might appreciate the humor of that quip, and it is very likely Douglas didn’t offer up that straight line again.
With the return of Donald Trump as the overwhelming choice of Republicans in the preliminary rounds of the 2024 presidential race, we can already cite multiple samplings of his brand of humor that has come to be known as insult politics. We only have to return to his heyday for some examples of Trump humor:
√ “Mitt Romney had his chance to beat a failed president but he choked like a dog,”
√ “Lightweight Marco Rubio was working hard last night. The problem is, he is a choker, and once a choker, always a choker! Mr. Meltdown!”
√ “Truly weird Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky reminds me of a spoiled brat without a properly functioning brain,”
√ Trump called “Crooked” Hillary Clinton “a nasty woman,” but she seldom responded in kind, taking a hit in popularity by going after his supporters, labeling them “a basket of incorrigibles.” (Incorrigible: “Incapable of being corrected or reformed.”)Her nastiness was overstated by the nastiest presidential candidate ever. Who would have imagined the increasing war of words would result in a treasonous attack and attempt to violently overthrow their own government over a baseless belief that their candidate won the election?
√ Whatever effectiveness “Sleepy” Joe Biden had as vice president, Trump wittily surmised, was because “he understood how to kiss Barack Obama’s ass.”
By the way, Trump is never self-deprecating, because he takes himself too seriously. Trump made it clear what world he was living in when he responded, after losing to his sleepy Democratic opponent by some seven million votes in November 2020 despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, “No. I won!” When pressed by a reporter why he was taking this stand, he explained, “I’m the president and you’re fake news!” That was all the justification he needed for saying anything he wanted about anyone who challenged or criticized him over the interceding 18 months.
It looked as if he may have gone too far as the 2016 election neared when he proclaimed in that infamous videotape: “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything…. Grab ’em by the (meow). You can do anything.”
√ About Megyn Kelly who asked some tough questions about his character in one of the Primary debates: “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes. Blood coming out of her wherever.”
√ About attorney Gloria Allred, who represented a transgender woman barred from a beauty contest (Miss Canada Pageant) that Trump sponsored: “I think Gloria would be very very impressed with my (anatomical appendage).”
√ On the late Princess Diana not long after her fatal accident: “She had the height, she had the beauty, she had the skin – the whole thing. … She was crazy, but these are minor details.”
√ He has used the term “Miss Piggy” several times to describe women he regarded as unattractive or overweight.
√ On Rosie O’Donnell who criticized him on a talk show: “Rosie’s a loser. A real loser. I look forward to taking lots of money from my nice fat little Rosie.”
√ More on Rosie: “We’re all a little chubby but Rosie’s just worse than most of us. But it’s not the chubbiness — Rosie is a very unattractive person, both inside and out.”
√ Despite his own odd coloring and flaccid physique disguised by an oversized suit, he loves to insult the looks and intelligence of rivals, critics and reporters who ask questions he doesn’t want to answer. Among his favorite descriptive adjectives have been, and continue to be, horse face, slimeball, low IQ person, pig, lowlife, bimbo and, most favored of all, loser. Welcome to the club, Mister ex-President.
√ Ted Cruz, Trump’s chief competitor and early frontrunner for the Republican nomination in 2016, was dismissed by Trump as “Lyin’ Ted.” He disparaged the looks of Cruz’s wife, Heidi, and suggested, by reviving an unproven claim, that his father was linked to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
√ Sen. Lindsey Graham, another Republican who challenged Trump, was ravaged with nastiness by typical Trump taunts like: “publicity seeking”…“always looking to start World War III”…“no honor”… “Nasty!”… “I ran him out of the race like a little boy!”…“So easy to beat!”
Both Cruz and Graham were back in Trump’s camp not long after he won the presidency, briefly jumping off the Trump train after the January 6 uprising before re-boarding when they saw how powerful and loyal his base was and still is. Now they are among his most stalwart defenders. Political ambition or cowardice?
Rubio, one of the few to respond in kind to the insult humor of Trump in the Republican Primary, directed attention to Trump’s “tiny hands” and stated, “Donald is not gonna make America great, he’s gonna make America orange.” He was immediately criticized by fellow Republicans, as one stated, “for getting down in the mud with Trump.” In other words, when Trump does it, it sells. When another politician does it, it costs support among the public and peers.
Rubio later apologized and added, “That’s not who I am.” Ted Cruz also tried to respond in kind when he went after Trump before his last stand in Indiana, calling his opponent a “pathological liar,” “utterly amoral,” “a narcissist at a level I don’t think this country’s ever seen,” and “a serial philanderer.” All so true but none of that sticks when Trump takes the low road— even loudly applauded by evangelicals who are supposed to be preaching the language of Christian love.
Angry Attitudes Gain Favor with Some Voters
Tea Party conservatism gave rise to an angry attitude on the far right, attacking and insulting opponents before Trump’s emergence as a presidential hopeful. It was a preview of the dearth of decorum that was to come, but it wasn’t enough to radically change the direction of the party as Trump ultimately did.
American Democracy withstood its greatest threat since the Civil War, but the presidential election of 2020 and the resultant treasonous behavior in high places on January 6, 2021, could mean an even greater threat to a governmental experiment that has withstood so much over its 247 years as of this July Fourth. It seems Trump is back, stronger than ever, among Republicans.
I’ve called him the “insult comic of politics,” pointing out his thousands of lies over the past eight years— a tally that continues to be added up by nonpartisan fact-checkers and is unparalleled even in an arena that thrives on exaggeration and fabrication. He parries the lunges of his critics, not by witticism or great rhetoric, but by unfounded remarks and observations often disputed and disproved, but, by that time, the conversation has moved ahead at a dizzying pace, leaving critics sputtering in frustration.