On Sunday, the president of the United States tweeted out a video. The grainy clip featured old footage repurposed for a new world: It depicted a pre-White House Donald Trump engaged in a bit of theatrical violence that played out during a 2007 WrestleMania event. In it, the pre-president, clad in a suit, body-slammed and then repeatedly punched another man—a man made anonymous because his face, in the edited video, had been obscured with the familiar logo of the Cable News Network.
The tweet was, in one sense, yet another volley in the White House’s long-running battle against the American media—one that has in recent days noticeably ratcheted up. And it was yet another example of the president’s seemingly gladiatorial approach to the world and its doings: a Darwinian environment where life’s inherent rivalries resolve themselves in violence. But the tweet was also something much simpler than any of that: It was, on the most basic level, a joke. The video was absurd on its (logo-obscured) face. The president, fighting CNN! Or, rather, FNN, because fake news! Trump had sent out, essentially, a nationwide wink.
So the tweet took Trump’s longstanding animosity toward the news media in general and CNN in particular and distilled it down to something relatable and recognizable and, in theory, unobjectionable: laughter. It washed hatred over with humor.
The WrestleMania-ed tweet in that sense was both extremely bizarre—“an unorthodox way for a sitting president to express himself,” The New York Times dutifully summed it up—and completely at home in the media environment of the present moment. Jokes, after all, have long been used to soften political point-making: There they are at political protests, and there they are on late-night television, shaping Americans’ knowledge of the political debates whose outcomes will determine our collective future. And hatred, too, has eagerly adopted the guise of the joke to spread its messaging. Richard Spencer, the white nationalist, has a sly sense of irony. So does 4chan. This is a time in which the most recognizable symbol of white supremacy in American culture is a loopy-grinned cartoon frog.