On Tuesday evening, at a rally in Mississippi, Donald Trump did what Donald Trump is so often apt to do: He dispensed with the former niceties. The Trump of last week had been, in public settings, generally respectful of Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who had come forward to allege that the Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her when she was 15. The Trump of this week, however, reverted to the mode that is his most common and, it would seem, his most comfortable: mockery.
“I had one beer,” the president, imitating Ford, said, thrusting his index finger upward to emphasize the number. He kept the digit upraised. “I had one beer!”
The president then added another character to his routine: an anonymous interrogator of Ford. “Well, do you think it was—” he began to ask.
“Nope!” he said, gleefully interrupting himself and his fictional questioner. “It was one beer.” The joke built speed. “How did you get home? I don’t remember. How did you get there? I don’t remember. Where is the place? I don’t remember. How many years ago was it? I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.”
At this, the crowd at the rally guffawed. They cheered. They broke out into applause. The president, thus galvanized, thus supported, thus loved, continued his one-man interrogation: “What neighborhood was it in? I don’t know. Where’s the house? I don’t know. Upstairs, downstairs, where was it? I don’t know. But I had one beer. That’s the only thing I remember.”
One could almost detect, lurking within the laughter, relief. This was the punch line, it seems, the crowd had been waiting for: the long-running, slow-building joke made at the expense of the woman who has been—by the president, and by so many other people in power in America—treated as an inconvenience. It was laughter, cavernous and cruel, that doubled as a kind of incantation: laughter that attempted to expand in its reverberations, seeking out Christine Blasey Ford in the realm that, over the past several days, she has come to occupy in the minds of many Americans—the realm of heroism, of self-sacrifice, of bravery—and then, once it had found her, to put her back in her rightful place. Last Friday, President Trump remarked that “I thought her testimony was very compelling and she looks like a very fine woman to me, very fine woman.” On Tuesday, he regressed to the mean. The president mocked. The crowd laughed. The status quo had maintained its status; order, echoing against the walls of the arena, had been restored.
There’s been a lot of talk, of late, about laughter. Laughter as power. Laughter as luxury. Laughter as empathy. Laughter as beauty. Laughter as philosophy. Laughter as complicity. Laughter as division. The current political moment has been in one way a lesson in how easily jokes can be weaponized: Jokes can win elections. Jokes can insist that, despite so much evidence to the contrary, lol nothing matters. Jokes can contribute to the post-truth logic of things. They can lighten and enlighten and complicate and delight; they can also mock and hate and lie and make the world objectively worse for the people living in it—and then, when questioned, respond with the only thing a joke knows how to say, in the end: “I was only kidding.”
What’s especially striking about Trump’s mockery of Ford is how breezily his routine upends the traditional architectures of political joke-making: the vertical dynamics that usually characterize the relationship between the maker of the joke and the butt of it. Americans tend to think of laughter, when it enters into politics, as a check on power’s ever-encroaching totality: the satirist speaking truth to the politician, the comedian as postmodernity’s public intellectual. Jokes that follow the form Hannah Arendt suggested, those long decades ago: “To remain in authority requires the greatest respect for the person or the office. The greatest enemy of authority, therefore, is contempt, and the surest way to undermine it is laughter.” What Arendt is getting at, in today’s terms, is humor that punches up. But this is a president and a government that are, as a unit, thoroughly accustomed to punching down. Fueled with delusions of their own victimhood, they often see fit to denigrate those with manifestly less power, not just for the sport of it, but also for the principle. It was at once shocking and deeply fitting, in that sense, that on Tuesday the president of the United States, his crowd cheering him on, mocked a citizen who has come forward to claim herself as a victim: of violence, of misogyny, of laughter itself.
And so Donald Trump has managed to find yet another way to say the quiet thing out loud: This is a moment, for some, in which cruelty and comedy have become indistinguishable. This is a moment in which a vote for a Supreme Court nomination has become a proxy battle in a far greater war—one whose skirmishes, it seems, will be fought through petty jokes and easy mockeries. A moment in which so much comes down to the question of who will get the last laugh.
“What is the strongest memory you have, the strongest memory of the incident, something you cannot forget?” Patrick Leahy, the Democratic senator from Vermont, asked Ford last Thursday, during her testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee. The professor of psychology, serving as her own expert witness in the attack that she alleged Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge perpetrated, replied: “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter. The uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense.”
“You’ve never forgotten them laughing at you,” Leahy said.
“They were laughing with each other,” Ford replied.
“And you were the object of the laughter?”
“I was underneath one of them, while the two laughed.”
It was an exchange that will very likely remain seared in the soft folds of the national memory: Ford’s description—familiar to so many viewers of her testimony—of the laughter, laughed at her expense, in the summer of 1982. Laughter that, in her telling, was cruel on its own, but laughter that also suggested the greater truth of the tragedy: In the alleged attack, Christine Blasey’s body would be treated as the sacrificial object upon which two teenage guys would seal their bond. Laughter is similarly villainous in the story Deborah Ramirez shares of the party in a Yale dorm where, she says, Kavanaugh exposed himself to her: “Brett was laughing,” Ramirez told The New Yorker. “I can still see his face, and his hips coming forward, like when you pull up your pants.” She recalled, as well, the way the laughter had spread—her humiliation converted, via the dynamics of sanctioned bullying, into a great joke. “Somebody yelled down the hall, ‘Brett Kavanaugh just put his penis in Debbie’s face.’”
“Men,” the adage goes, “are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” The tales told of Kavanaugh—Christine Blasey Ford, her body used so that privilege might ratify itself; Deborah Ramirez, the “vulnerable outsider,” reminded of her outsider status not only by the alleged actions of one of her classmates, but also by the complicit laughter of the others—have been ones that, on top of everything else, suggest moral asymmetries: the event for the one person lingering and metastasizing and solidifying as a lifelong trauma; the event for the other dissolving in the flimsy haze of the fleeting joke. So light. So easy. So inconsequential.
Perhaps this is why so many people have gone out of their way, over the past week, to insist that the allegations against Brett Kavanaugh are nothing more than a punch line. Testifying to the Senate last week, Kavanaugh himself dismissed “the Swetnick thing” using the condemnatory language of comedy: Julie Swetnick’s allegations weren’t merely untrue, he said. They were a “joke” and a “farce.” Bob Corker, the senator from Tennessee, was approached last week by women who wanted to ask him, as an agent of the government entrusted with their safety, whether the Senate was doing enough for victims of sexual assault. Corker dismissed them thusly: “I know this is enjoyable to y’all.” The congressman Ralph Norman warmed up the crowd during a recent debate with a joke: “Did y’all hear this latest late-breaking news from the Kavanaugh hearings?” he asked, grinning. “Ruth Bader Ginsburg came out that she was groped by Abraham Lincoln.”
Laughter, weaponized as a tool against empathy and progress and change: It is not limited, of course, to the realm of electoral politics. Late on Sunday evening, just around midnight, the Comedy Cellar once again hosted a performance offered up by the comedian Louis C.K. The New York Post reported that the audience for this surprise set, given C.K.s failure to make a public acknowledgment of the ways he mistreated some of his women colleagues, had been “unhappy”—particularly because, as one viewer recalled it, “he made some comment like, ‘I’ve been off for a while, ’cause everyone needs a break.’” On Monday evening, however, The Hollywood Reporter posted audio of the beginning of the set, recorded ostensibly as C.K. strode onstage. All that is audible in the recording is cheers. Whoops. Whistles. It was the same brand of enthusiasm that would be on display in an arena in Mississippi on Tuesday evening. The complicity of a crowd prepared to laugh with Louis C.K. rather than at him, as he ensures, set by set, that the world will carry on as it always has. Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter.
Comedy, Hannah Gadsby reminded the world recently, is inherently a political exercise. It is about who has the luxury of laughter—who is distant enough from a fact of the world to find humor in it—and who does not. Comedy is also about who gets to tell the joke, to author it and frame it as they see fit, and who doesn’t. (See, for example: Roseanne’s revealing line about Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat. And, then, Roseanne’s just-as-revealing line about the former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett’s hairdo.) Laughter can bring people together; it can also, however, make insidious arguments about who belongs, and who does not.
Just after Ford testified about her indelible memories of sexual trauma, the actress who voices General Leia in the upcoming animated TV series Star Wars Resistance tweeted a video in which she repeatedly mocked Ford’s voice during the professor’s testimony. (The tweet has now been deleted.) Last weekend, on Saturday Night Live, Matt Damon, the man who once diagnosed #MeToo as part of a “culture of outrage,” parodied the Supreme Court nominee who made that outrage manifest—a performance that made light of Brett Kavanaugh’s anger while finding easy humor in it. Later in the show, Pete Davidson appeared as himself on “Weekend Update,” discussing his whirlwind engagement to Ariana Grande. Davidson’s jokes pivoted on the idea that Grande, being a pop star, is wealthier and more powerful than he is; one of the jokes’ punch lines, as a cap to the week in which women were confronted yet again with reminders of the multifront war against their bodily autonomy, was this: “Last night I switched her birth control with Tic Tacs … I believe in us and all, but I just want to make sure that she can’t go anywhere.”
This brand of humor—the humor that is used to put women in their place—might well find its inspiration in the vaudevillian comedy of the president himself. On Monday afternoon, during a press conference in the White House Rose Garden assembled ostensibly to discuss the renewed NAFTA deal, Trump called on ABC’s Cecilia Vega. As Vega rose to ask her question, Trump stage-whispered to the assortment of officials—Steve Mnuchin, Jared Kushner, and many others—who had been gathered as human backdrops to the president. “She’s shocked that I picked her,” he told them, amused at his observation. “She’s in a state of shock.”
Vega, microphone now in hand, replied to him: “I’m not, thank you, Mr. President.”
The president wasn’t finished, however. He had not yet come to his punch line. “I know you’re not thinking—you never do,” he told the reporter.
The human backdrops laughed once more.
It was a repetition of the way Trump had, during a press conference at the United Nations General Assembly last week, treated Sky News’s Hannah Thomas-Peter when she tried to ask him a question about geopolitics: He flirted, and joked, and finally refused to fully let her ask (and thus to fully answer) her question. The president who sought the presidency in the first place, the mythology goes, as a great revenge for a series of jokes made at his expense—the president who, last week, literally watched the world laugh at him when he boasted of the resulting administration’s efficacy—would have, he insisted, the last laugh. He would keep finding ways to belittle the agents of the media whose job it is to turn his tales into history. He would keep making fun of them, so that their assessments would seem less serious. He would keep mocking the others who question him, on behalf of those who do not. He would keep insisting that everything—politics, morality, good, evil, any person who comes forward to challenge the order of things—can be reduced to a great joke.
Those in the president’s orbit would do the same. This has been a week, after all, of farce. The concern theater that accompanied the testimony Ford delivered to the Senate on Thursday. The FBI investigation, called in response to that testimony, that is increasingly revealing itself to be a sham. A president, himself accused of abuse, who responds to a woman’s stated pain by making jokes, making light, making fun. A crowd that greets the cruelty with guffaws. “First as tragedy, then as farce,” the saying goes. What the old line doesn’t account for is what the events of the past week have made, for another time, so painfully clear: The two things don’t take polite turns. They mingle and tangle with each other, howling with laughter and wailing in pain, until it becomes impossible to tell where the comedy ends and the tragedy begins.