Among the many remarkable exhibitions of abnormal behavior on stage Monday night, one of the most peculiar was that Donald Trump never once displayed a sense of humor. For the entire evening—ninety-five minutes of bombast, accusations, defensive maneuvering and confounding explanations—Trump’s countenance morphed from deep concentration to deep disdain, from periodic sneers to pointed indignation. There were moments of levity on stage, to be sure, but it seemed as if Trump possessed an almost categorical aversion to smiling, to laughing for even a minute at the absurdity of the situation, and indeed some of his own absurdist commentary.
The same could not be said for his opponent: Clinton, perhaps more than at any time this campaign (excepting her recent appearance with Zach Galifianakis on Between Two Ferns) was relishing in a sort of comic levity, made initially evident in this exchange:
Clinton: I have a feeling that by, the end of this evening, I'm going to be blamed for everything that's ever happened.
Trump: Why not?
Clinton: Why not? Yeah, why not?
Hey, why not? Therein began Clinton’s meta-routine, which was comprised not of laff lines, per se, but a series of joking asides that amounted to a rhetorical subtweet for the audience at home: Can you believe this guy?
Trump: And I think I did a great job and a great service not only for the country, but even for the president, in getting him to produce his birth certificate.
Holt: Secretary Clinton?
Clinton: Well, just listen to what you heard.
You could almost hear Clinton elbowing moderator Lester Holt in Dangerfield-esque disbelief, as if to say, Can you getta load of this one? The Clintonian comedy softshoe continued on, reaching its apex towards the end of the evening:
Trump: I don't know who you were talking to, Secretary Clinton, but you were totally out of control. I said, there's a person with a temperament that's got a problem.
Holt: Secretary Clinton?
Clinton: Whew, OK.
The “Whew, OK” was accompanied by a shoulder shimmy that quickly became one of the defining GIFs of the evening, a sort of Shake It Off for American politics: Players gonna play / Haters gonna hate / I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake it off. If the broad consensus is that Clinton was more prepared on Monday night, it is also true that she was having a lot more fun. Both served her well.
Granted, a lot has been made of Hillary Clinton’s sense of humor—her laugh is shrill, too many of her jokes have seemed too prepared for far too long. But undoubtedly, at the first presidential debate on Monday, it was confirmed: Her sense of humor exists! And this mattered, because humor showed Clinton to be as self-aware as she was serious, and served to isolate Trump, making him seem like an angry spider caught in a tangled dystopia of his own construction.
This isn’t to say that Trump can’t get laughs. It’s simply that when he gets them, he’s humiliating people—whether “Low Energy” Jeb Bush, “Lyin” Ted Cruz or “Little” Marco Rubio. Humor borne out of cruelty happens to be the easiest and therefore lowest form of comedy: It is cheap stuff and it does not elevate the candidate, nor make him a more fundamentally sympathetic character. And when Trump does manage to grab laughs, his smile is a forced, flat line—a concession to facial spasm more than a natural expression of amusement or mirth.
Contrast this with the behavior of the current president, also on display this Monday. President Obama appeared at the Tribal Nations Conference the same day, swathed in a blanket and straw hat given to him by the Crow nation—giggling and beaming at his own apparent absurdity:
This would seem to be a truism in contemporary American politics: The electorate opts for serious leaders, but almost always men who are able to poke fun at themselves—and the gravitas of their position. Nobody has proved quite as adept as laughing at himself as former President George W. Bush, who willingly conceded to being a class clown, even as a candidate in 1999.
From the New York Times:
Someone congratulated Mrs. Bush for an award that she had just been given by her alma mater, Southern Methodist University, and asked the couple if Mr. Bush had ever received a similar distinction from one of the schools that he attended.
“If they honored me,” Mr. Bush said, with a touch of mischievous pride, “the teachers might boycott.”
Bush, no policy expert, sought laughs for his intellectual and rhetorical shortcomings. At the 2001 White House Correspondents Dinner, he conceded, “Now ladies and gentlemen, you have to admit that in my sentences, I go where no man has gone before.” Bush became even sillier in his late-presidency, as he channeled the spirit of the dance while visiting with the Kankouran West African Dance Company in 2007:
To be fair, in his post-presidency, this jocularity has not always served him as well (for example, when he couldn’t stop dancing during the Dallas memorial service for slain police officers this summer).
President Clinton was an entertainer who used his sense of humor easily and often. In October of 1995, while negotiating Bosnian peacekeeping forces with Russian President Boris Yeltsin, Clinton’s bellyaching laughter and gleeful backslapping at Yeltsin’s jokes—despite their lingering disagreements—was itself a form of frothy diplomacy:
It is very nearly impossible to imagine Trump and Putin getting close to this sort of mirthful rapport, and not just because Putin has an evidently terrible sense of humor and engages in a form of solipsism so extreme that it has found him crooning Fats Domino songs to live audiences without even a shred of irony:
No, it is hard to imagine Yeltsin-Clinton-style engagement between Putin-Trump, (despite whatever inclinations may already exist), mostly because it is impossible to imagine Trump ever really laughing that hard, or that freely.
Trump has offered a vitriolic diagnosis of the state of affairs in the United States, and his ability to convincingly channel populist rage has gotten him very far. Almost to the top, in fact. But Americans are not a joyless people, and have—for the last quarter century, at least—elected men who could offer (however legitimately) some hope of good humor in the middle of chaos and complication. Trump has never offered this to the public, and Monday night found him on his biggest stage yet—still unable to wipe the scowl from his face, unswervingly furious about society’s miseries. It is hard to imagine the American public offering the next four years of leadership to a man so taken, so entirely consumed, with dark tragedy.