I have often believed (along with others) that the last president we had who really wanted the office was Bill Clinton. George W. Bush seemed not that interested but pushed into it, owing to his name. And in 2007 Barack Obama seemed to be testing the waters for a 2016 run in order to let his daughters first grow up in Chicago, not in the White House. But once exploratory committees and listening tours get established, candidates are urged into the horse race, becoming a little like the horse: one can see at a racetrack that the horses themselves want to win. It’s not merely the jockey’s riding crop providing the motivation. The horses find within themselves some desire for the race and become as competitive as their riders. Though I also once read somewhere that a horse is no smarter than a turtle.
Trump’s presidential run, as we know, was a piece of performance art to bolster his brand. A joke and showpiece of disruption, which his base was somewhat in on but not always. “What have you got to lose?” Trump shouted to crowds in 2016, and I became alarmed because perhaps what did they? They apparently thought not much, or at least were willing to find out. Trump did not actually want to be the president. He had little interest in government—too complicated!—but did have an interest in malignant entertainment. And we have watched him over the last five years trying to get applause; this was first arranged in his 2015 descent down the Trump Tower escalator with actual paid actors making up the “crowd.” (To what extent this paid-crowd business has continued, who knows.) One of the things that has truly backfired on him, however, is his attempt to get laughs. Jokes should be funny. And comedy takes practice and discipline he doesn’t have. He is so often working against his actual skills; whatever they are, joke-telling is not one of them. Though sometimes his crowds howl like hyenas anyway.
Trump does not laugh himself—has anyone ever seen him laugh? perhaps a fleeting chagrined chuckle—but he appears to enjoy laughter that he has generated in others, if not at his own expense. Yet that has been minimal. His unscripted speeches are feats of meandering free association, like a plane in fog looking for a place to land: where is the punchline? He circles without a landing strip in view and then just plops down in a puddle. Stand-up is too complicated! But he appears not to want to work with writers. I will admit that years ago, when for the first time he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas,” I laughed out loud. It is easier to laugh at people you admire (Warren) than people you don’t. Plus, it was funny. But funny once: repetition is not the key to wit, though it can succeed with a sight gag. Perhaps he got the Pocahontas line from someone else; he clearly doesn’t read (except headlines), but he repeats versions of what others tell him in the various rooms he sits in. “Lady Gaga. I could tell you some things about Lady Gaga . . . ” I guess his supporters feel pulled up to the table. Strangely, in the final debate when Biden referred to Trump as “Abraham Lincoln here,” Trump didn’t seem to get the joke—he protested in an ostensibly puzzled manner, seemingly forgetting he’d compared himself to Lincoln—though it was a version of his own Pocahontas line.