By Nick Butler, Associate Professor, Stockholm University

Fox News anchor Sean Hannity interviewed Donald Trump in front of a studio audience in Iowa in December 2023. Hannity asked Trump to guarantee he would not abuse his power or seek retribution if he was reelected in 2024. Trump nodded and replied: “Except for day one.” The audience laughed at Trump’s answer.

Trump is obviously joking. The image of being a dictator for a single day is absurd – after all, a despot tends to rule for a lifetime. But evidence suggests that Trump may, in fact, abuse power and seek retribution if he regains the presidency.

For example, Trump hinted that he will use the Department of Justice to persecute his political adversaries. He is also planning to install loyalists in federal agencies. So Trump’s jokey response may tell the truth, or at least a distorted version of the truth.

Research suggests that a joke is rarely just a joke. Humor eases stress. Humor strengthens relationships. Humor is good for your body and your mind.

Humor is also a way to score political points. Consider Democratic governor Ann Richard’s quip in 1988 that George H.W. Bush was “born with a silver foot in his mouth.”

Humor has always been a part of the rough and tumble of politics. But what is different is the type of humor that Trump and the politicians that follow him indulge in. Trump tells norm-breaking jokes that punch down at the victims of discrimination and abuse: prisoners of war, trans athletes, the disabled, sexual assault survivors.

These kinds of jokes poke fun at the principles of equality, diversity and inclusion. This is why such non-PC humor is strictly off-limits to the liberal left. Trump and his political supporters, however, are comfortable offending those that previous Republican presidents would not have done.

A month after the US Supreme Court ruling on abortion rights overturned Roe v Wade, Republican congressman Matt Gaetz mocked the physical appearance of pro-choice activists in a speech to conservative students: “Why is it that the women with the least likelihood of getting pregnant are the ones most worried about having abortions?”

It was not an original joke – it was borrowed, subtly amended, from the comedian George Carlin. But it was notable because a politician was telling it.

Republican presidential candidate and conservative radio host Larry Elder joked that Democrats were currently drafting “a law restricting the use of assault hammers” following the attack on Paul Pelosi (husband of then House speaker Nancy Pelosi) by a hammer-wielding assailant. For team Trump, jokes about violence and human rights issues are just part of their “war on woke.”

Academic research often views joke-telling as a way to enact positive social and political change. Certainly, humor can create solidarity, challenge inequity and speak truth to power. Humor is a resource of hope for those who face discrimination or persecution in their daily lives – a means of “creative nonviolent resistance.”

But it is important not to overstate the case.

In my book The Trouble with Jokes, I argue that humor is a political discourse that thrives on transgression and outrage. In the public sphere, jokes obscure the line between silliness and sincerity. As a result, jokes lower our defenses against objectionable ideologies and fuel some of the most worrying political trends today.

Transgressive humor is particularly well equipped to aid extremists because it embodies a rebel attitude that refuses to take itself too seriously. By contrast, liberals are perceived to have a crippling fear of causing offence. Boundary-pushing jokes are a way for Trump to characterize the left as humorless and uptight.

Right-wing humor has traditionally been ignored or downplayed by academic researchers and media commentators. Just a few years ago, it was possible to claim that political satire was inherently liberal in orientation. Think about the dominance of Jon Stewart’s long-running The Daily Show, a Democratic-leaning comedy talk-show.

But a different kind of satire has now gained popularity. According to academics Matt Sienkiewicz and Nick Marx, there now exists a “right-wing comedy complex,” which includes conservative radio shows, podcasts and internet memes. And in this comedy complex, alt-right trolls mix with elected politicians.

The more extreme the politics, the more humor is useful. Telling an offensive joke serves up prejudice and hatred with a side order of irony. Delivered with a nod and a wink, humor reassures us that it’s all just “a bit of fun.”

Joking aside

The deeper question is this: why is offensive humor so appealing as a form of political discourse? One answer can be found in the work of Sigmund Freud.

In his 1905 book The Joke and its Relation to the Unconscious, Freud argued that jokes – especially offensive ones – reveal our inner urges. We are trained from an early age to be kind and polite to other people. Over time, we learn to restrain our selfish desires and feral instincts. But offensive jokes let us temporarily pause social prohibitions and flirt with our innermost fantasies.

Freud wrote that, when we laugh, we do not really know what we are laughing at. We think we are amused by clever wordplay or absurd imagery. But Freud thinks we are fooling ourselves. In reality, we are gaining pleasure from trampling on social taboos.

Offensive jokes encourage us to laugh at something we are not supposed to laugh at. And lifting this restriction gives us an illicit thrill of joy. This is why offensive jokes are more enticing than dad jokes or cheesy puns: they permit us to open a door marked “no entry” and peep inside.

This type of joke is not meant to be taken literally. But neither is it completely meaningless. The extremist tells offensive jokes to skirt as close to the line as possible – and to pull back at the last second. After all, Trump was only joking about being a dictator. Wasn’t he?

For many voters, taboo-busting humor is an exhilarating proposition. And this is one reason why the outcome of the 2024 presidential election will be decided not only by dry political debate, but also by internet memes, online trolls and offensive jokes.

“Our Cartoon President” (via SHOWTIME)

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