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The butt of the joke: David Cay Johnston explains how the Dems can beat Donald Trump in 2020

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David Cay Johnston
David Cay Johnston

When will the Democrats realize that Donald Trump’s Twitter rants create an opportunity to stop his drive to become our Emperor? It’s an opportunity the Democrats (and the few Never Trump Republicans) squander every time they respond with moral outrage.

The opportunity is to mock Trump, which will goad him into ever more crazy behavior. In turn, that will eat away at the facade that got him into the White House.

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To be sure, Trump’s flocks of tweets attacking minority members of Congress and Baltimore, a predominantly black city, are moral outrages. So were his racist attacks on Chicago and Detroit, on African countries. Ditto every other time he associated non-white people or places with rats.

Democrats should create their own game, by goading Donald. He doesn’t know how to respond to a smart one-liner, a well-crafted joke, a disarming parody.

No decent person behaves the way Trump does. But Trump has never been a decent person so trying to shame him will never work. Outlandish claims, nonsense claims, racist claims, vicious attacks on critics, calling neo-Nazis “fine people” and attacking law enforcement—that is Trump’s shtick. His attacks on what makes America America are what endear him to his base, sickening as that is to contemplate.

Significantly, millions of Americans who have no interest in racial equality, write off his racist rants, his crazy statements and his fake “facts.” They buy to his nonsense claims of the “greatest economy ever” because it justifies their support, even it is begrudging.

His supporters fail to see how reckless deficit spending to pump up the economy today is creating disaster down the road. They don’t see how freeing polluters to poison the air and water that we spent decades cleaning up will cause misery and death because those butchers bills won’t come due for decades.

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By going into high dudgeon when Trump starts a tweetstorm, the Democrats only deepen Trump’s ties to these voters. Their smug responses virtually force news organizations into pointless “is he, or isn’t he, a racist” coverage.

Trump wins this game because he designed it. He decides when to move the pieces. He writes the rules. His task is to get his critics and opponents to alienate voters, driving them to him. He’s good at his own game.

A Better Game

A smarter strategy? Stop playing Donald’s game. Stop being reactive. Start making Trump play your game. Instead, learn to be political entrepreneurs—see a need and fill it.

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Democrats should create their own game, one where America wins by goading Donald into ever crazier conduct. How? By forcing him to deal with what he cannot stand—poking fun at his foibles. He doesn’t know how to respond to a smart one-liner, a well-crafted joke, a disarming parody.

Let’s call this new game Fun With Donald. The keys to winning are humor and class.

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Donald, whom I have covered for more than 31 years, is a mess of insecurities. He is 73 years old but emotionally stunted.

He turned 13 the summer he was shipped off to a military academy known for humiliating younger boys. Since then Trump has endured six miserable decades in a Dantesque version of Groundhog Day. Bill Murray’s weatherman, Phil Connors, eventually grows into a complete human being. But Trump remains trapped in his own dystopian nightmare. Unable to connect emotionally, he remains empty inside, self-absorbed, treating women and everyone else as mere objects.

Laughter the Best Political Medicine

Probe your memory for the last time you heard Trump laugh.

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You won’t find a video showing him chuckle. James Comey realized this the night that Trump tried to lure the FBI director into serving Trump rather than America.

 

“Months later, the thought of a man whom I had never seen laugh stayed with me. I wondered if maybe others had noticed it or if in thousands of hours of video coverage, he had ever laughed,” Comey wrote in A Higher Loyalty.

“I suspect his apparent inability to do so is rooted in deep insecurity, his inability to be vulnerable or to risk himself by appreciating the humor of others,” Comey wrote. That is “really very sad in a leader, and a little scary in a president.”

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This inability to laugh, to tell a joke, is indeed sad. For more than 31 years, I’ve always felt sorry for Trump because I realized early on that he is incapable of joy. He has never experienced joy’s more durable companion—contentment.

A few videos do show Trump laughing. It is obviously forced laughter, not an emotional release and certainly not an uncontrollable belly laugh.

Trump can’t tell a joke, either. Now and then he throws off one-liners that in the shorthand of news reports are labeled jokes. They’re not.

He rarely gets jokes—and never when he is the butt of the joke.

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Consider the sublime words of Barack Obama, roasting Trump ever so delicately at the 2011 White House Correspondents dinner:

“Donald Trump is here tonight. Now I know that he’s taken some flak lately. But no one is happier—no one is prouder—to put this birth certificate matter to rest than The Donald. And that’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter: Like, did we fake the moon landing? What really happened in Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac?

“All kidding aside, obviously we all know about your credentials and breadth of experience. For example [laughter] just recently, in an episode of Celebrity Apprentice, at the steakhouse the men’s cooking team did not impress the judges from Omaha Steaks. And there was a lot of blame to go around, but you, Mr. Trump, recognized that the real problem was a lack of leadership. So ultimately you didn’t blame Lil Jon or Meat Loaf, you fired Gary Busey.”

For eight years Trump has stewed over those words, determined to exact revenge. In his book Think Big, Trump says his life philosophy boils down to a single word: revenge.

This is the time to take advantage of Trump’s inability to laugh at himself. For Democrats (and the dwindling numbers of principled Republicans) here’s some advice: don’t get mad, get funny.

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Make fun of Trump and his hyper-inflated ego, but do it with flair the way Obama did. This may require hiring some great speechwriters who can come up with smart and funny lines in a hurry. [Hint: A former head writer for Saturday Night Live, a very smart guy by the name of Al Franken is available.)

When Trump fires back with vile words, which he must, don’t take the bait. Just laugh it off. Just make the laughter at Trump’s expense.

Spitting righteous blood may feel good. It may engender a sense of moral superiority. But it won’t get the job done. The job is not to feel justified. It’s to vanquish Donald Trump at the polls in 2020 and save our Republic from this kleptocratic wannabe dictator so our progeny enjoy individual liberty.

There are other ways to play this game than with humor. But the surefire way to lose in 2020 is to continue playing Trump’s game by Trump’s rules.

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