Sometimes, a joke changes the more times you hear it — and precisely because of that, it stays fresh and funny. And sometimes, as you keep telling it, the joke goes from satire to farce to black comedy to, finally, pathos.
That's exactly what's happened with Donald Trump's joke of a candidacy. It's become downright sad.
A year ago, I asked the question: Why not Trump? It was a funny question for me to ask, I wrote, as I had "barely ever thought about [Trump] over the past 30 years, and never seriously," and that "Trump's greatest weakness as a candidate has always been the utter ridiculousness of the proposition."
But the 2016 election desperately needed Trump. Before his entry, it looked likely that in the end former President Bill Clinton's wife would face off against former President George W. Bush's brother. The election would have been pure trench warfare, with both candidates aiming to vindicate their party's preexisting positions, and avoid any reckoning with the ways in which they have failed. Trump changed all that. Suddenly, what was going to be a slog turned into a circus.
This wasn't the dispiriting clown car of 2012 in which candidate after delusional candidate did their pandering little tap-dance before the cane pulled them off into the wings. Trump was different. From the moment he descended his golden escalator, Trump dominated the stage — not merely because he was entertaining, but because he exposed the folly of his betters. As Jan Kott said of the Fool in King Lear, Trump also "does not follow any ideology. He rejects all appearances, of law, justice, moral order. He sees brute force, cruelty, and lust. He has no illusions and does not seek consolation in the existence of natural or supernatural order, which provides for the punishment of evil and the reward of good."
It felt like America needed to hear from a fool like that. From foreign policy to trade to immigration, Trump punctured the comfortable Washington consensus that everybody knew was right even though anybody could see it wasn't working.
It didn't matter that Trump was fabricating his own opposition to both the Iraq and Libyan wars, or that he invented spurious economic statistics on the fly, or that he merrily trafficked with racists and xenophobes. So what? By saying what you couldn't say, he was forcing the establishment to defend its own consensus views, rather than merely repeat them like a mantra. And anyway, he wasn't a serious candidate.
Then he won.
The GOP had failed the merry prankster's challenge: It had neither changed its mind nor stood its ground. Now, the joke changed. The barbarian Trump sacked the capital and seized the throne. Now it was their turn to dance and caper for him, in the hopes that, eventually, they would get to call the tune.
But in the meantime, Trump was the Lord of Misrule. He treated New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie like a glorified manservant, because everybody likes having a fat guy around. After selecting Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his running mate, he leaked to the press that he doubted his own decision, and publicly stated that he chose Pence mainly for reasons of party unity. Then he put on a thoroughly embarrassing convention seemingly designed to repel anyone who wasn't already a loyalist.
There was something wickedly funny about this, watching those who had conspicuously failed to muster the will to rescue their party from this travesty wrestling with their consciences over just what it would take to cause them to abandon ship. And there was something especially delightful in watching them realize that they had sold their birthright for a mess of potage that wouldn't even be served.
As I said back in June, apropos of Trump's denunciation of Judge Curiel:
Trump is ranting about Curiel's bias not because doing so is part of any kind of rational political strategy, but because he is going to lose the case. And if he loses, it must be somebody else's fault. He's not just talking about himself instead of something that actually matters to voters. He's talking to himself, telling himself a story of how big a winner he is, no matter how often he loses. And he's doing it in front of the entire country. ...
Trump isn't interested in getting the best result for the party. He's got a whole host of strategies for convincing himself that he's a winner even when he loses, because the loss is always somebody else's fault. And he's got a whole host of strategies for making sure that, monetarily and psychically speaking, the bulk of his losses hits somebody else's balance sheet rather than his own. Historically, those have been his priorities, and from the look of things, they still are.
But the Curiel incident revealed something else about the Trump phenomenon — something darker than farce.
Trump has long trafficked in conspiracy theories, some unfortunately common among a distrustful populace, some tailored to partisan hysteria, some simply bizarre. But increasingly, Trump has prepared his supporters to believe that a conspiracy is afoot against him specifically — and, hence, against them. Warning repeatedly that the upcoming election will likely be stolen, Trump has protected his own psyche and public image against loss at the price of threatening the legitimacy of the democratic process itself.
Meanwhile, Trump's off-the-cuff speculation about abandoning NATO took on a more sinister cast in light of his own connections to Putin's Russia. If Trump was trying to undermine the legitimacy of a Clinton victory, he was also providing ample fodder for his opponents to question the legitimacy of any victory he might achieve.
Add into the mix Trump's gleeful introduction of some of the most unsavory elements into our political culture, and a new picture emerged, not of Trump the entertainer, but of Trump as The Joker, an agent of pure, uncontrollable chaos.
For a lot of people, the joke wasn't funny anymore.
Fortunately, Trump himself provided the perfect punchline to keep the joke going.
Trump began his campaign by highlighting the issue of illegal immigration, calling for the expulsion of undocumented immigrants and the construction of a huge wall — paid for by Mexico — to keep future migrants out. He relentlessly mocked primary opponents like Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush for being soft on the question, and promoted himself as the only candidate who would be serious about it. Even for some voters for whom immigration was far from the most important issue, Trump's firmness on a question that others feared to touch won their admiration.
Surely, Trump wouldn't undermine the one source of support he could absolutely count on. Right?
Well, last week, this happened:
"Now, everybody agrees we get the bad ones out. But when I go through and I meet thousands and thousands of people on this subject, and I've had very strong people come up to me, really great, great people come up to me, and they've said, 'Mr. Trump, I love you, but to take a person who's been here for 15 or 20 years and throw them and their family out, it's so tough, Mr. Trump.' I have it all the time. It's a very, very hard thing." [Donald Trump]
If he had waited until after winning the election to pass an immigration amnesty, the outrageousness of this betrayal would have been truly hilarious. For his supporters to have overthrown the entire Republican establishment only to see their champion adopt that establishment's most-hated policy — it doesn't get any funnier than that in politics. But Trump knows by now that he isn't likely to win, so this is the best he can do. And it's still pretty funny to watch Ann Coulter launch the shortest book tour ever.
But there's a price to be paid for the Donald, and that's the entry of pathos into his story. Even in defeat, Trump could have made history as a fascinating villain, a master manipulator of the media who conned an entire political party into placing their future in his little hands. Now, lurching from his usual offenses to an absentminded gesture of empathy, Trump actually inspires a measure of pity.
His supporters' anger will not be exorcized so easily — because the issues he raised at the start of his campaign are real, even if he had no coherent response to them. But Trump will no longer be their standard-bearer, and for that we can be thankful. It means, perhaps, that other, more responsible parties will be able to tackle them without being tainted by Trump's continued presence on the political scene.
And it's possible, once again, to picture Trump himself, post-election, returned to his former status as a colorfully obnoxious New York character, musing on a talk show about how he was misunderstood all along, and host and guest alike sharing a good laugh.