Donald Trump’s Mysterious Sense of Irony

The president is even further from the definition than Alanis Morissette was.

Alanis Morissette in 2001
Anthony Bolante / Reuters

Alanis Morissette is getting another look. The singer who’s associated with sex acts in a theat-urr and vengeance against Dave Coulier is also a political visionary, at least according to the jukebox musical Jagged Little Pill that’s now running at Harvard’s American Repertory Theater. Diablo Cody’s script uses Morissette’s raging rock to touch upon Women’s March–like protesting, gender fluidity, sexual assault, interracial adoption, the opioid crisis, and porn addiction. If that description makes the play sound like an indigestible slop of would-be wokeness, well, it is. But at least it can claim to be on trend, given that Donald Trump just ratified the political significance of Morissette.

“Isn’t it Ironic?” the president tweeted Thursday morning. “Getting ready to go to the G–7 in Canada to fight for our country on Trade (we have the worst trade deals ever made), then off to Singapore to meet with North Korea & the Nuclear Problem … But back home we still have the 13 Angry Democrats pushing the Witch Hunt!”

Whether he’s intentionally referencing Morissette’s “Ironic” with that opening question is, perhaps, a mystery only Robert Mueller can tackle (subpoena those Apple Music logs!). But inadvertently or not, he’s offered a presidential verdict in one of the long-running debates of our era—over the meaning of irony, and over the meaning of “Ironic.”

It’s long been clichéd to carp that Morissette’s “Ironic” isn’t actually ironic, and that the events it describes—having 10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife, meeting the man of my dreams and then meeting his beautiful wife, etc.—are just bad luck or coincidence. Morissette has surrendered on this issue, delivering a 2015 update of the song on James Corden’s show that included the line, “It’s singing ‘Ironic’ / But there are no ironies.” In Jagged Little Pill the musical, one character performs the song in her high-school classroom while her peers heckle her that she’s misusing the word. “I’m probably laughing the hardest in the audience” during that bit, Morissette told The New York Times.

I’ve always thought that the song got a bad rap on this front, and agree with Michael Reid Roberts at Salon that most of the lyrics come pretty close to describing situational irony. Moreover, Morissette was singing about the same feeling that such classics of dramatic irony as Oedipus Rex were meant to evoke: the idea of life as a grand joke, and a sense of grim amusement at helplessness against fate. In our everyday lives, this sort of existential ha can feel apt for even more minor frustrations. Who hasn’t been faced with a traffic jam when you’re already late that felt like a prank by the universe, meant to teach you your own hubris?

Trump is using ironic this way, kind of, sort of. He thinks he’s doing good things, and some people think he may have done bad things, and that’s kind of like having a black fly in your Chardonnay. Well, okay, maybe not at all. In the U.S., he’s being investigated for possible obstruction of justice, and abroad he’s pursuing his policy agenda, and it’s really not apparent why there’s any irony in the two things happening at the same time. In fact, you might argue it’s anything but ironic—appropriate, fitting, normal—that a president under investigation would face scrutiny as he goes about his job. Maybe the irony here is unintentionally of the verbal sort: He’s saying one thing but means another, which is, after all, what Morissette was always accused of doing.