President Trump is serious.
He was serious in 2016 when he asked Russia to search for Hillary Clinton's emails. And he was serious last week when he stood in front of the White House and urged Ukraine and China to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a possible rival for the presidency in 2020. Trump really did want Russia to interfere in the 2016 election, and he really does want foreign countries to take out Biden for him before next year's campaign.
Republicans know this. The problem, though, is that they cannot defend the indefensible. They don't want to endorse the idea of inviting foreign interference in American elections, but they aren't ready to abandon the president, either. So they've decided that the best way to defend Trump from impeachment is to tell the world he cannot be taken seriously — that the word of the president of the United States is meaningless, because he's too busy trolling the world. The president of the United States is a jokester.
Consider these comments made over the weekend by various congressional Republicans:
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.): "I doubt if the China comment was serious, to tell you the truth."
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.): "I don't know that that's a real request or him just needling the press, knowing that you guys are going to get outraged by it. He's pretty good at getting everybody fired up. And he's been doing that for a while and the media responded right on task."
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio): "You really think he was serious about thinking that China's going to investigate the Biden family? I think he's getting the press all spun up about this."
Nonsense. Joking requires a punch line, a surprise at the end of a story. Good jokes require an audience ready to laugh. Jokes need context — a wink, a nudge — to land correctly. Really good jokes often involve a degree of misdirection. Most importantly, though, jokes need to be funny. The Republicans' "just joking" defense is a way to let the president have his cake and eat it too — to ask for foreign intervention in American elections without having to be held responsible for making that request.
Feminists long ago identified this kind of behavior for what it really is: gaslighting. It's a way that abusers, usually men, manipulate and control their victims by making them believe they can't trust the evidence relayed by their own senses. Trump may not be a master of gaslighting, but he is a frequent practitioner of it — and now the broader Republican Party is taking his cue.
So watch carefully the video of Trump asking Ukraine and China to investigate Biden, and ask yourself if you'd think any of this was funny — or a put-on — without Republicans rushing to assure you that he didn't really mean it:
It sure looks like he means what he says. So why pretend otherwise?
Trump, of course, has long sought advantage by keeping his listeners off-guard and guessing at his meaning. Selena Zito advised observers in 2016 to take Trump "seriously, but not literally," a formulation not just confusing and wrong, but also advantageous: It forced pundits to spend unnecessary time trying to interpret what was happening in plain sight. The New Yorker's Emily Nussbaum got closer to the heart of the matter after the election, in a piece that asked: "How do you fight an enemy who's just kidding?"
The humor deployed by Trump and his supporters during the campaign, she suggested, should properly be understood as authoritarian, cloaking their intentions in a fog of joking-not-joking memes and Pepe the Frog cartoons.
"The Big Lie is a propaganda technique: State false facts so outlandish that they must be true, because who would make up something so crazy?" Nussbaum wrote. "But a joke can be another kind of Big Lie, shrunk to look like a toy."
Indeed, the latest invocations of the "just joking" defense are trying to persuade Americans of an easily debunked lie — to suggest, against all available evidence, that the president's critics simply don't understand the man, that they're gullible, humorless scolds who should be embarrassed for taking his words so seriously. It's a ruse designed to foster second-guessing and help Trump elude his critics.
But Trump has rather plainly stated his intentions: He wants the help of foreign governments to investigate and undermine his political opponents. There is no winking or nudging. He isn't pulling a gag. He means what he says. The only funny thing about the matter is that Republicans think they can persuade us the whole thing is just a big joke.
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