A Humorless President

Donald Trump is determined to get some of his border wall built before the 2020 election and, according to Nick Mirhoff and Josh Dawsey of the Washington Post, he is prepared to illegally seize land from private citizens and disregard environmental laws.

When aides have suggested that some orders are illegal or unworkable, Trump has suggested he would pardon the officials if they would just go ahead, aides said. He has waved off worries about contracting procedures and the use of eminent domain, saying “take the land,” according to officials who attended the meetings.

“Don’t worry, I’ll pardon you,” he has told officials in meetings about the wall.

Asked for comment, a White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Trump is joking when he makes such statements about pardons.

Notice that the White House official didn’t deny that Trump had offered to pardon people who followed his orders, but merely suggested that the president was joking. That is an excuse we’ve heard before. Just last week Trump said he was joking when he anointed himself “the chosen one.”

The president actually has a habit of claiming that he was joking when he gets caught saying something outrageous. Here are some of the things he has said he was joking about.

The reason why “I was just joking” works is that it is impossible to prove otherwise. I would guess that Trump pushes the boundaries as far as possible and then, when even he determines that he’s gone too far, claims it was all a joke. That’s because I see no evidence that this president actually has a sense of humor.

The one place presidents typically get a chance to be funny on purpose is at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, which Trump has refused to attend. He did, however, attempt a comedy routine at the Al Smith Dinner in 2016. It was pretty much a disaster, because Trump assumed that the kind of cruelty on display at his campaign rallies would go over well with a more enlightened audience.

Another indication that the president is humorless has been identified by several people—including an expert on the topic, Al Franken. Trump never laughs. Leslie Savan went on a search to find out if that was true and uncovered one exception.

At a rally in New Hampshire in 2016, a dog barked and someone in the crowd shouted “Hillary!” That met with a bit of a laugh from Trump.

Some news outlets reported that the president laughed recently after an audience member at one of his rallies suggested that we should shoot immigrants. It was telling that Trump smiled, but he didn’t laugh.

Savan goes on to research the possible explanations for the fact that Trump doesn’t laugh, which is where this topic becomes significant. In addition to the fact that laughing makes you vulnerable, this is the explanation that best captures Trump’s condition.

The less honest you are with yourself, the less likely you are to laugh.

That’s what Robert Lynch, an anthropologist at the University of Missouri, and evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers at Rutgers University, found and published in a 2012 paper, “Self-deception inhibits laughter.”

“There’s a huge correlation showing that people who score high in self-deception laugh less,” Lynch told me.

Another cost to distorting the truth is that you’re less likely to even get why something is funny, much less laugh at it.

We’ve seen that Donald Trump’s delusions about himself are epic and that he seems fundamentally incapable of being honest—even with himself. That is precisely why the president is humorless.

It probably won’t rise to the top of anybody’s list of qualifications, but one thing we might learn from this is that the lack of a sense of humor could be an indication that a candidate for president is unfit for office. Not everyone needs to be a comedian, but the ability to find humor in something other than cruelty goes hand-in-hand with the ability to be honest—especially with oneself.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.