When Hatred Is a Joke

On Sunday, the president posted a video making light of violence. The move was both highly unusual and completely at home in this turbulent political moment.

Sergey Uryadnikov / Shutterstock

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.

What happens, though, when hatred renders so easily as a joke? And what happens, in particular, when the president of the United States uses his vast platform not only to celebrate violence, but also to suggest that violence is funny? As the writer Wajahat Ali noted at a recent panel at the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-sponsored by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, “Trump, as the commander in chief, uses the pulpit and the platform of the office to tweet hate.” The president eschews the one-America logic that has guided the communications strategies of so many past presidencies—the language that aims to unify the nation in its measured appeals to the mass public—and uses his platform instead both to pick fights and to maintain the ones he has started. Trump has put the “bully” in “bully pulpit.”

It’s a significant shift—not merely because presidential angry-tweets have, in their reach, the potential to incite violence, and not merely because they are, as CNN put it in a statement about the WrestleMania video, notably “juvenile.” Tweets like that video, and the many others that have preceded it, also normalize hatred itself. They suggest a zero-sum world: a world of friends and enemies, a world of winners and losers, a world in which struggle is not the exception, but, by pugilistic necessity, the rule. The president, with each 140-character message, takes that old, optimistic bromide—there is more that connects us, as Americans, than divides us—and flips it. He suggests that division and tribalism and fear and hatred will guide America’s politics and its future.

What’s even more troubling: He might have reason to make that suggestion. Grainy video of a sucker-punching president neatly captures a shift that has transpired slowly and then mind-bogglingly quickly in recent years: Hatred has come into the mainstream. Fear and its common companion, animosity—directed toward immigrants, toward minorities, toward women, toward the news media—are becoming more and more normalized in our cultural conversations. They are living less and less at the margins of American life.

Hatred, of course, has always been part of that life. As Heidi Beirich, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, pointed out on the same panel, “the country was obviously white supremacist from its founding.” In recent years, however, Ali noted, hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan (the SPLC currently counts 54 such groups) existed for the most part at the outskirts of society. They hated, as is their constitutional right, but they were judged for it and ostracized for it by the broader body of American politics. Their ideas were, in the Overton sense, unthinkable. The window of acceptability was closed to them.

No longer, Ali suggested. The rise of social media has allowed hatred to be both concretized—sharable tracts, meme-able images, Pepe—and, then, amplified. Digital capabilities have meant, as well, that haters can find likeminded people, across the distance. Which has meant in turn that hatred has become empowered as never before. Recent months have seen acts of hate directed against transgender women, Jews, African Americans, Latinos, Muslims, Hindu Americans, Sikh Americans, and others. Acts of anti-semitism, a recent study from the Anti-Defamation League found, spiked 86 percent during the first months of 2017—an increase from what had already been a surge of such incidents the previous year.

Into that environment comes a president who regularly makes light of hatred—who implies, one tweet at a time, that hostility is normal and, worse, kind of funny. When the president mean-tweets about Mika Brzezinski, or about Frank Luntz, or about CNN, he is doing it, it seems, out of a sense of real rage, but also because he assumes that animosity itself is entertaining. Slob. Loser. Failing. Psycho. The insults and epithets reduce people to the thing the president best understands: media brands. They treat humans, collectively, as actors in an epic war story in which Trump will always be—must always be—the victor. But they also assume that even war stories can be funny, and that violence, when presented with the right kind of wink, can be a great source of humor. Calm down, the president’s tweets say. It’s all just a joke.