Opinion

Trump's most dangerous ideas always start as 'jokes'

Mike Pompeo's comment about a 2nd Trump administration wasn't a comedy act, it was a trial balloon

At Tuesday's State Department briefing, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo refused to acknowledge Joe Biden's election victory, a not uncommon position among Republican lawmakers and officials right now. Yet, when asked about the Trump team's delay in aiding a smooth transition to a Biden administration, Pompeo went even further, coyly responding, "There will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration." The line was greeted with stunned silence by the gathered reporters but quickly elicited fiery reactions on social media.

On Twitter, a few voices contended that Pompeo had been merely joking, pointing out the sly smirk on Pompeo's face as he spoke, as if that should be reassuring. But Pompeo's "joke" — and the cool rationalizations of it by those in the commentariat — should raise every alarm bell for those who are watching what is happening. Rather than a throwaway line or a cringey "dad joke," Pompeo's comments demonstrate again how often Trumpworld has used humor to mainstream and normalize its most anti-democratic and illiberal aims. Those aims now focus on challenging the 2020 election results and, ultimately, destabilizing the very bedrock foundations of American democracy.

From the start, Trump's enablers, including an all-too-gullible media, have excused Trump's worst statements as just jokes. When Trump outrageously boasted during the 2016 election that he could murder someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose any support, media outlets declared "Donald Trump Jokes He Could ‘Shoot Somebody'," helping smooth over a frightening fantasy of violence that should have been disqualifying of any presidential contender. This ready explanation of Trump's words worked to minimize the shock of what he was saying and distract from the actual harm he was doing. After it was found that Russia had attempted to hack Hillary Clinton's emails just hours after Trump asked them to do just that, Sean Spicer casually dismissed Trump's unlawful encouragements to the Russians as just "joking."

In office, Trump's defenders have continued to downplay every un-presidential comment and each direct assault on American democracy as inconsequential laughs. When he encouraged a group of police officers to be "rough" on subjects, when he accused Democrats of treason for not applauding his State of the Union address, when he ordered James Comey to end his investigation of Michael Flynn, when he let White House aides know he would pardon whoever had to break laws to build the border wall, when he told a Tulsa crowd he had instructed officials to slow down coronavirus testing … the list goes on and on. But every single time that Trump crudely breached the boundaries of proper presidential conduct, blithely announced his lawbreaking, and openly advocated violence, unconstitutionality, white nationalism, and more, his lackeys brushed it off as nothing real, chiding the media and American public for taking the words of a president so seriously.

Wrapping heinous and harmful words and actions in the thin veneer of humor is a go-to move for any schoolyard bully. It's also an avowed tactic of the alt-right. With their ridiculous memes, silly pranks, and ironic hyperbole, the alt-right works to strategically advance its white nationalist, anti-Semitic ideology into mainstream circles and conversations by disguising its hate as harmless. Andrew Anglin, the founder of the neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer, has explained that the alt-right's incredible "amount of humor and vulgarity confuses people," a purposeful ploy of distraction.

Pompeo is not a member of the alt-right, of course. But the president he serves has glad-handed white supremacists and brought many of their methods and messages into the presidency. Across the GOP, conservative politicians and pundits have incorporated the alt-right's trolling tendencies as their own, repurposing them as frat boy antics designed for "owning the libs."

Still, Pompeo's "joke" about the presidential transition shouldn't be seen as a troll, but rather a trial balloon, an attempt to push the conversation around the election to the Republicans' narrative and test the conditions for their attempts to keep Trump in power. In the absence of any evidence of voter fraud or election irregularities, confusion and chaos are the only path to carrying out their plans. Nudged by humor rather than sober declarations, out-of-bounds arguments enter the political slipstream almost unnoticed, clearing the way for unthinkable actions to follow.

To the friendly crowd of Fox News, though, Pompeo got to play it straight on Tuesday night, dodging Bret Baier's question about whether he had been serious earlier in the day and turning the conversation to "how the electors vote," a comment that suggests the Trump camp might still be hoping Republican state legislatures will overrule the voters and select their own slates of Electoral College electors.

That's the potential crisis that Democrats, journalists, and concerned Americans must keep their sights on. The internet spent Tuesday afternoon debating whether Pompeo had been joking or not. Meanwhile, the dead serious reality is that Republicans are attempting to stage a coup in defiance of the 2020 election, laughing as they do so in plain daylight.

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