Donald Trump is a serial liar. But there’s one setting where Trump tells the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth: when he tells “jokes.” This goes for Trump’s actual attempts at being funny together with the ones where he later claims it was a “joke” because the remark sparked a backlash. We’ve all heard the expression “many a true word is spoken in jest.” Well, Trump is just taking that idea from the comedy club stage to the world stage.
The latest example came at what I like to call Trump’s White Lives Matter rally Saturday, where he spoke of the “double-edged sword” of mass testing for COVID-19, stating, “When you do testing to that extent, you are gonna find more people, you’re gonna find more cases.” Trump then said, “So I said to my people, slow the testing down please.” He then added, “The young man is 10 years old. He’s got the sniffles. He’ll recover in about 15 minutes. That’s a case!”
The Trump campaign defended the comments as a joke, but still the backlash to this remark during a deadly pandemic was rightfully swift, with CNN’s Brianna Keilar asking a Trump campaign official Monday if Trump thinks 120,000 dead Americans is “funny”? But here’s the thing: Trump was indeed joking when he said this, or his idea of joking, anyway. As much as it pains me to say, Trump can actually be intentionally funny at times. The comments were delivered in a manner designed to elicit laughs from the crowd and in fact did.
However, more importantly, Trump was sharing his truth with America. As Trump sees it, more testing—while it will save lives since we can quarantine the sick—looks bad for him politically because it means more confirmed cases and solidifies the perception that he handled this crisis horribly. Any doubt was eliminated Tuesday morning when Trump was asked about “joking,” to which he responded bluntly, “I don’t kid.”
Trump doesn’t mean he never tells jokes. He is simply affirming that in his jokes, he’s sharing his truth. And that truth is that he’s more concerned with the political consequences of a higher number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 on U.S. soil than with saving the lives of Americans.
As a reminder, Trump told us that very thing in early March, when the Grand Princess cruise ship was stranded off the California coast with over 3,500 on board. Despite the passengers being primarily U.S. citizens, Trump remarked about letting those infected with coronavirus back on U.S. soil, “I’d rather have the people stay [on the ship],” adding, “I like the numbers [of confirmed COVID-19 cases] being where they are. I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn’t our fault.”
Another example of Trump intentionally joking while sharing the truth was his remarks about wanting to be president for life. At a March 2018 dinner for GOP donors, Trump was in fact trying to be funny about the idea of following China’s model of making their leader, Xi Jinping, president for life, jokingly telling the audience, “I think it's great. Maybe we'll have to give that a shot someday." But since then on at least five more occasions, Trump has spoken—often in very serious tones—about staying as president for life or at least well beyond the two terms permitted by the 22nd Amendment.
Does anyone doubt that Trump, who loves authoritarian leaders from Russia’s Vladimir Putin to Saudi’s MBS to Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, would love to be unshackled from the limits of our Constitution, allowing him to rule and remain in power like these figures? As authoritarianism expert Ruth Ben Ghiat explained to me, Trump’s “jokes” about remaining in power for life are actually trial balloons and efforts to prime his base to prepare them for the time when he may seriously ask them to support him in these efforts.
Ghiat added that other authoritarians used "jokes" in the same way, noting that, “When Mussolini was a prime minister of a coalition government in Italy, he used to joke about becoming a dictator and staying in office for 20 years.”
You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to get that Trump’s jokes reveal his unfiltered truth. But If Freud were alive, he would tell us that in his view jokes, like dreams, are nothing more than the unfulfilled desires of the subconscious. At their essence, to Freud, jokes are “wish fulfillment.” I imagine Freud could’ve spent his career writing about Trump, from his obsession with his small hands to creepy relationship with his daughter to bragging about grabbing women by the genitals.
In the above situations, Trump was actually trying to be funny--at least at first—although he caught flack for his comments. Then there are times when Trump says things not at all intended to be funny, but then retreats to the “I was just joking” defense after igniting a firestorm. A striking example of this came in April after Trump suggested Americans should inject themselves with disinfectant to fight COVID-19. In response to the massive backlash, Trump then claimed he was simply joking about injecting Lysol, as it came to be known.
Same goes for when in 2017, Trump told a large crowd of police officers to stop being “too nice” when they arrest people. How do we know Trump was telling his true feelings to the police? A few days later after a growing backlash, the White House claimed the comment was a “joke.” We are adults—we know when someone is joking and when they are being serious. In these cases, Trump was not joking at all, he was simply sharing his unfiltered truth.
The lesson is clear: Anyone who dismisses Trump’s “jokes” as simply attempts to be funny does so at their peril. In fact, these “jokes,” while no laughing matter, are just Trump at his most truthful.