Comic in Chief: Watch Trump scorch rivals while humoring the faithful

Donald Trump relishes comic opportunities, usually at the expense of his critics.

Updated: May 29, 2020 - 7:44pm

Donald Trump is hardly the first U.S. president to deploy humor as part of his political repertoire.

JFK and Barack Obama often displayed an urbane wit that, whether scripted or not, evoked an aura of intellectual sparkle and sophistication they hoped would help define their administrations as the best and the brightest.

Perhaps no American chief executive ever gained more political mileage from his sense of humor than Ronald Reagan.

With the seemingly effortless delivery of the polished actor, the Gipper could defuse tensions around a polarizing social issue with a broadly relatable one-liner: "As someone once said, ‘As long as there are final exams, there will be prayer in schools.’”

Or neutralize his own greatest political vulnerability with a self-deprecating quip about his age: “Just to show you how youthful I am, I intend to campaign in all 13 states.”

Or simply elicit healing, reassuring laughter in a scary time, as he did in confessing to First Lady Nancy Reagan in the uncertain hours after the 1981 attempt on his life: “Honey, I forgot to duck.”

But has any previous president ever made comic schtick such an integral part of his political persona as Donald Trump?

With his cutting style, the president uses humor less to bridge ideological divides than to clarify them, less to expand his political base than to consolidate and mobilize it for political warfare.

But the Trump comedy arsenal is varied: replete with the scathing, rapid-fire put-downs of an insult comic or shock jock; the dissenting, stream-of-consciousness riffing off headlines of a latter-day Mort Sahl; the double-takes and mugging of a Vegas warm-up act; and, above all, the president’s comedic signature: an ensemble of characters known only by their Trumpian nickname.  

There's Sleepy Joe, Crazy Bernie, Mini-Mike and the rest. All populate a comic universe that might come to life in spontaneous scene work, or perhaps a sight gag like the latest addition to the Trump comedy canon — Mini-Mike shrinking on the debate stage under the withering assault of Sen. Elizabeth Warren until no more than a crescent of scalp remains visible above the lectern.

With its (sometimes startlingly) blue language, antic improvisation, and raucous audience participation, the Trump-on-the-stump monologue evokes everything from late-night workout of edgy new material for the knowing regulars at a New York comedy club to superstar arena tour endlessly recycling the fan-friendly hits for the faithful.

Shop Our Store