“I really do respect the press,” President Barack Obama joked at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner in 2013, shortly after his second successful election campaign. “I recognize that the press and I have different jobs to do. My job is to be president; your job is to keep me humble. Frankly, I think I’m doing my job better.”
Obama’s comedic skill has, itself, been a key ingredient of his political success. Yet neither of the current presidential candidates appears to have much interest in following in his footsteps. “Wit and humor have been drained from our politics,” the Washington Times lamented earlier this month.
The emptying of humor in the current U.S. election campaign is striking, reflecting both the personal limitations of the current candidates and the exceptional gravity of the moment. Whether or not we are witnessing the rise of American fascism, the end of the Republican Party or the disintegration of freedom in the Western world, there is clearly a crisis in U.S. democratic culture.
In this dark political climate, displays of humor – for centuries, a mainstay of leadership – have become increasingly out of place.
A serious turn
Hillary Clinton, it is true, has attempted the occasional humorous barb. Donald Trump, she observed wryly this June, “says he has foreign policy experience because he ran the Miss Universe pageant in Russia.”
But – Saturday Night Live appearances notwithstanding – she has hardly been distinguished by her comic touch. Confronted with deeply embedded prejudices against women in politics (and in comedy), it’s understandable that female candidates may find it shrewd to display gravitas. Nonetheless, Clinton’s ventures into humor seem manufactured.
Equally, Trump’s particular brand of populism is scarcely to be confused with comedy. While he has sometimes been treated as a buffoon, and Trevor Noah has hailed his stand-up’s sense of timing, Trump’s appeal to voters rests less on humor than on the performance of anger.
The “serious turn” in U.S. presidential politics marks a break from the past – from Reagan’s cinematic smile, Obama’s skilled performances at White House Correspondents’ Dinners and American political norms that, according to one study, value smiling much more than the Chinese.
In Europe, on the other hand, politics seems to have retained some levity, even in the wake of the meltdown unleashed by Brexit. Though questions about new British Prime Minister Theresa May’s sense of humor “tend to elicit a diplomatic pause,” laughter and smiles appear more prominent in British parliamentary life. More than one observer described David Cameron’s final Prime Minister’s Question Time as a stand-up comedy routine.
In a dig at the beleaguered Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, hugely popular among party members but targeted by many of his own parliamentary colleagues, Cameron observed: “He’s reminding me of the black knight in ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’! He’s been kicked so many times but he keeps saying ‘Keep going, it’s only a flesh wound!’”
For his part, Corbyn brought laughter from both sides of the aisle by thanking Cameron’s mother for her advice on “ties and suits and songs.” (Cameron had previously suggested that his mother would have told him to “put on a proper suit, do up your tie and sing the national anthem.”)
Centuries of smiles
It’s not just in the homeland of Monty Python that humor continues to reign. In Spain, in the run-up to the June elections, the electoral slogan of the new progressive party Podemos was “La Sonrisa de un País” (“the Smile of a Country”).
The phrase was designed not only to capture a sense of optimism and possibility, but also to move beyond the image of the Old Left in Spain as dour, humorless revolutionaries.
Podemos (“We Can”) recognizes that the image of the “Angry Leftist” persists, evoking longstanding historic fears of the Spanish Civil War. And like Barack Obama (whose own campaign slogan was “Yes We Can”), the leader of Podemos, Pablo Iglesias, has mastered the telegenic smile.
Indeed, a glance at European history reminds us of just how long humor has been an integral component of leadership. In the 13th century, many rulers subscribed to a leadership ideal of the “rex facetus” – a “laughing king,” using humor as a political tool. Even the pious, crusading king Louis IX cultivated a reputation for hearty royal guffawing.
This strategy was not just a means of keeping one’s courtiers and subjects happy, although some rulers, like Spanish king Alfonso the Wise, were indeed committed to the pursuit of happiness and joy. It was also a way of exerting influence, enhancing the charisma of the ruler and undercutting the claims or standing of enemies.
Remarkably, King Alfonso – best known today for commissioning and composing hundreds of songs about the Virgin Mary – was also involved in the production of obscenely comic songs of slander, in which he accused his noblemen of buttery cowardice and his courtesans of sexual transgression.
In contrast, neither wisdom nor saintliness nor good humane jokes are much in evidence in the current U.S. electoral campaign. Even professional comedians like Jon Stewart and John Oliver have been sucked into the seriousness, drawing on their social capital to deliver righteous tirades. On June 15, at the Radio and Television Correspondents Association Dinner, comedian Hasan Mihaj unexpectedly turned the tables, lacerating Congress for its inaction on gun control.
“Let us not talk falsely now,” says the joker to the thief in Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”; “the hour is getting late.” The presidential debates, beginning at Hofstra University on September 26, will take place in a context of frightening urgency. This is not politics as usual: American politics is beyond a joke.
And if the principal parties have lost their sense of humor, it’s because – for now – the party’s over.