Was Donald Trump making a joke Saturday when he told supporters at a private fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago that America should consider the idea of a president for life just like China? Yep. But if you think Trump’s joke didn’t reveal his true feelings, you simply don’t get comedy.
There are different forms of comedy. You have the scripted type like Trump engaged in at Saturday night’s Gridiron dinner. Those jokes are written in advance, typically by professional comedy writers. We don’t know if Trump had any input into the crafting of the comedy material, but clearly he reads them in advance and has to approve them. For example, this joke Trump told at the dinner was funny and calculated to make Trump more likable because of its self-deprecating nature: "My staff was concerned that I couldn't do self-deprecating humor." Trump then quipped, "And I told them not to worry, nobody does self-deprecating humor better than I do."
Then there are the jokes that people tell that are not part of any script. Rather, these jokes often reveal what the person truly believes. We’ve all told jokes or made comedic comments that are simply truth wrapped in humor.
We have all heard the concept that there’s often truth in jest. That’s not just a line often attributed to Shakespeare’s King Lear (“In jest, there is truth”) but more importantly, psychologists have backed up this theory.
As one psychologist and college professor laid out in an article for Psychology Today, Sigmund Freud believed that jokes very well could “indicate the teller’s true feelings.” These jokes, as Freud noted, served the purpose to “expose unconscious desires” of the joke teller, such as a lust for power or a simply a lust for lust.
Freud would’ve had a field day with Trump. He could’ve written volumes of books about Trump analyzing everything from his words to his youthful sexual exploits, which Trump has likened to his own personal Vietnam.
But you don’t need to be a world renowned mental-health professional to get that Trump would love to wield more unrestrained power. This is a guy who has openly attacked the safeguards of democracy, from the judiciary to the free press to even bemoaning minor protections like the 60-vote rule in the Senate to pass legislation. Add to that, Trump has publicly applauded strongmen leaders who have little regard for democracy, from Vladimir Putin to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who shut down numerous media outlets and imprisoned political adversaries and journalists.
And before you consider Trump’s praise of China's President Xi Jinping on Saturday, keep in mind under Xi’s leadership, “China has purged thousands of his political opponents, strangled civil society and established a 21st-century surveillance state.” In fact, as one foreign policy expert put it, Xi has upended traditional rules of China’s politics in a way that “makes him unchallengeable by other politicians” for the rest of his life.
So what did Trump “jokingly” tell the crowd at his private country club? Trump first commented about Xi’ power grab: "He's now president for life. President for life. No, he's great. And look, he was able to do that.” Trump then added, “I think it's great. Maybe we'll have to give that a shot someday."
Yes, the crowd in the room laughed as Trump delivered those lines with a smile. But outside the regal walls of Trump’s castle/country club, not everyone was laughing--and nor should they be. As Joe Scarborough bluntly put it on MSNBC Monday morning, “When Republicans ignore the fact that this man [Trump] is talking about being president for life, if they think that Donald Trump is joking, then they’re fools.” Others in the media echoed Scarborough’s concerns.
But not all media outlets were worried. As you might have guessed, Fox News, Trump’s de facto state-run media, defended Trump on Sunday morning. Rachel Campos-Duffy, one of the weekend co-hosts of Trump’s sycophant TV network put it: “It’s a joke! It’s a joke. And the President loves to, you, know, entertain wherever he’s at.”
Fox News unintentionally makes me laugh all the time, undermining the notion that there are no conservative comedians. (Of course, Fox News is trying to be serious.)
Do you think Fox and their friends would have defended President Obama if he joked about taking away people’s guns? They would’ve gone ballistic! We would have heard Fox News’s hosts equating this to the end of days as Obama was coming to get you. But when Trump “jokingly” praises a communist leader who has increasingly grabbed power and now made himself president for life, it’s a giggle fest.
I love comedy. And I’m the first to push back against the instant, faux outrage over a joke that was clearly well-intentioned. But given Trump’s history, if you think he was just joking about following Xi's lead of becoming an authoritarian president for life, you are laughing at your own peril.