On Jan. 6, 2021, then-President Donald Trump delivered a pugnacious speech at the "Save America Rally" that became central to his second impeachment, based on accusations that he had incited a crowd to storm the U.S. Capitol with calls to "fight like hell."
But watching the speech itself, Trump could be mistaken for attempting to put on a stand-up comedy show, seeking to elicit laughter as much as he attempted to whip up rage. Gazing at his fans gathered in the Ellipse, Trump mused that Biden had “80 million computer votes” and sarcastically panned the president-elect for campaigning “brilliantly from his basement.” In the manner of a comic, Trump made constant references to the crowd and expressed concern about whether they’d get “bored.” He reprised recurring bits (“Where’s Hunter?”); did snarky impressions of party officials; satirized the ballot process (“If you signed your name as Santa Claus, it would go through.”); and roasted people he disliked, surmising that Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp was too small to have played high school football.
“I say sometimes jokingly, but there’s no joke about it, I’ve been in two elections, I won ‘em both, and the second one, I won much bigger than the first,” said Trump, admitting to the crowd that perhaps even the very reason they had gathered could be a gag.
Was Trump putting on a final show for his rowdy diehard fans, or was he shepherding an insurrection?
While the outward purpose of the gathering was to draw attention to something of grave importance to the nation — an allegedly stolen election — Trump’s instinct was to do what he always does: entertain his followers and couch many of his most extreme ideas in humor. Was Trump putting on a final show for his rowdy diehard fans, or was he shepherding an insurrection?
Jan. 6 marked the culmination of how Trump has profited from operating in a comedic register: It might sound counterintuitive, but the fact that Trump made people laugh — both intentionally and unintentionally — is key to understanding both his trajectory and potency.
That quality shaped the riot itself. As demonstrators dressed like vikings, patriotic ducks and Captain America began to surround and enter the Capitol, many commentators were struck by the absurdity of the unfolding crisis, calling it a “clown show.” One political analyst described the invasion as “circus performers” acting out a “dark comedy.” Another tweeted, “It’s like the Storming of the Bastille as recreated by the cast of National Lampoon’s Animal House.” But as news of increasing violence trickled out, it soon became clear that the situation was “not funny anymore” and “not a joke”; the volume of quips on Twitter began to dwindle. The clowns were mounting a coup.
Trump, too, has long embraced his own clown costume, even if he's not always been in control of whether people laugh with him or at him. His oratorical identity as an insult comic who was willing to blurt out what no politician could or should say out loud seduced his devoted fan base, who saw his derision of the establishment and taboo-breaking as a badge of authenticity. At the same time, his status as fool both made his critics underestimate him and provided him an escape hatch of plausible deniability: He could always say he was just joking when he crossed one too many lines.
Jan. 6 distilled how Trump's political career always involved disarming and confusing the public by taking reality as a joke. Shrouded in the haze of the question of whether he should be taken seriously or literally, Trump spoke the unspeakable, ridiculing principles essential to the maintenance of multicultural democracy — while offering himself as the figure to replace it. In other words, he sought to be both jester and king. And he left behind a world reshaped by his "lol nothing matters" ethos.
Trump framed breaking social taboos — a key imperative of the comedian — as a requisite for reviving the nation.
Perhaps the pithiest summary of Trump’s appeal can be found during his Family Leadership Summit appearance in 2015, not too long after his campaign kickoff speech where he infamously warned of an invasion of Mexican rapists. Interviewed by Republican pollster Frank Luntz, Trump constantly cracked jokes and looked to the audience for validation — and he almost always seemed to get it.
At one point, Trump turned his attention to dunking on Sen. John McCain. He elicited chuckles as he said he didn’t like McCain as much after his 2008 presidential loss to Barack Obama, before declaring that McCain was only a war hero “because he was captured.” The laughter mixed with gasps. He then said it was totally fair to mock McCain for his poor academic record:
[McCain] was upset; I said why, for telling the truth? See, you're not supposed to say that somebody graduated last or second to last in their class because you're supposed to be, like Frank says, ‘very nice.’ Folks, I want to make America great again. We want to get down to brass tacks. We don't want to listen to this stuff with being politically correct. We have a lot of work to do.
Here Trump presented truth-telling and sensitivity as a binary choice. In the process, he framed questioning and breaking social taboos — a key imperative of the comedian — as a requisite for reviving the nation. And the crowd roared in response.
As we all now know, Trump’s instinct for leaning into controversy with relentless and often bigoted put-downs helped him a great deal more than it hurt him. But pundits at the time predicted that Trump’s irreverence and disrespect for a beloved veteran would sink him. Mainstream media outlets treated Trump’s early presidential campaign as something of a joke. Reporters described his campy campaign kickoff as goofy, absurd and comical.
But the line between laughing at Trump and laughing with him grew blurry over time: Cable news channels across the political spectrum gave Trump campaign rallies wall-to-wall coverage, in part because Trump’s ability to entertain and shock was good for ratings. (CNN President Jeff Zucker later expressed regret for his network’s volume of Trump coverage.)
“The money’s rolling in, and this is fun,” Leslie Moonves, then-chairman of CBS, said of Trump’s campaign in 2016. “It’s a terrible thing to say. But bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”
What made Trump “fun”? The man liked to stand behind a podium and make people laugh. He slogged through policy talk at his rallies; it was only when he started mocking and ridiculing enemies that he and his crowds came alive. He wore makeup, did impressions, danced and engaged in crowd work. His scripted remarks were often just a backdrop for casual ad-libbing about topical issues or something irritating he saw on TV the night before. He liked dunking on opponents on Twitter and, in Republican primary debates, tagging rivals with belittling monikers that stuck, like “low-energy Jeb Bush.”
A New York Times study found that Trump earned roughly $2 billion worth of free media attention during the 2016 campaign — six times as much as his closest competitor, Sen. Ted Cruz, and 2 1/2 times as much as Hillary Clinton. The media world’s addiction to the Trump show — something it found amusing and profitable but unlikely to alter a presumed-to-be-doomed GOP bid — helped him win the White House.
Trump's right-wing populist and white nationalist worldview was embedded in the objects of his mockery. And his humor often sugarcoated an extremism that may not have animated his base in the same way had he presented as an unsmiling, self-serious authoritarian.
Robert Rowland, a scholar of presidential rhetoric at the University of Kansas, pointed out to me last year that Trump had two sets of targets — “dangerous others” and “elites” — and that he used negative humor as a way of “protecting status” for his core base of working-class whites. Trump’s humor was mostly expressed in insults and derision, and often he was punching down: making racist jokes, joking about shooting undocumented immigrants, doing vile impressions of people with disabilities, trafficking in grotesque misogynistic innuendo.
But he also punched sideways when he put down members of American political dynasties, like the Bushes and the Clintons, or made quips about a lawmaker who could’ve conceivably replaced him as president. (He also could punch both down and sideways at the same time: for example, deploying sexist attacks against a powerful Fox News host.) Rowland emphasized that the way Trump insulted elites was not policy-centric in the way Sen. Bernie Sanders’ diatribes against the 1 percent are. Rather, he attacked elites on the “basis that they disrespect ordinary Americans — i.e., the white working class.” Trump's jokes offered no solutions; instead he identified feelings of disenfranchisement among a reactionary set and helped them let off steam.
So Trump’s use of humor not only entertained, it created solidarity and the sensation of community with his followers, affirming their worldview, the sense that things were coming apart and that they were the victims of a world changing too quickly. Simultaneously, it constantly allowed him and his followers to circumvent responsibility for his most extreme remarks, often by claiming they were mere jokes.
This is not to suggest that everyone was always fooled by Trump’s routine — of course his rhetoric and policies caused alarm and received pushback throughout his time in office. But Trump’s mode of speaking in caricature and exaggeration complicated the ability of political observers to detect his true intentions, his true goals and precisely how much of a threat he presented throughout his tenure. In the final chapter of his presidency, as journalists and scholars debated how seriously to take Trump’s rejection of the 2020 election results, his buffoonishness made a coup attempt seem improbable in the eyes of some.
On Jan. 6, this all played out on a micro scale. Trump sprinkled jokes between blatant election fraud lies to rile up his supporters. He wasn’t trying to convince them with data; he was trying to convince them that their feelings that something that belonged to them was slipping away was right, and that the system was a joke. As his army of prankster white nationalists stormed the Capitol, it was unclear to many what was really going on until it was too late.
Ultimately one never needed to choose between Trump as aspiring strongman and Trump as joker — these identities were not only not at odds with one another, they were intertwined and fed off each other within his persona. While Trump lacked the competence, resources and institutional environment required to actually disrupt a peaceful transfer of power, the process by which he tried to do it — pairing will-to-power politics with nihilistic flippancy — has left an irrevocable mark on our polity, and changed the contours of American conservatism.
Trump has created a model, and already we see other Trump-wing Republicans like Rep. Lauren Boebert using jokes about Rep. Ilhan Omar being a terrorist to dodge accountability for mainstreaming Islamophobia. But what may be even more disturbing is the rise of activists and lawmakers like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene who are true believers, parroting Trump's ludicrous vision completely earnestly.