Photo via Evan Guest / Flickr Remix by Max Fleishman

Why Donald Trump’s jokes are cracking up America

Two 'Second Amendment people' walk into a bar...


Aaron Sankin


Published Aug 11, 2016   Updated May 26, 2021, 6:59 am CDT

The known first person aghast at Donald Trump‘s comments about what “Second Amendment people” could do to stop Hillary Clinton‘s judicial nominees was located directly behind the GOP candidate when he said it.

“Hillary wants to abolish, essentially abolish, the Second Amendment,” the Republican nominee said earlier this week during a rally in North Carolina. “By the way, and if she gets to pick—if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.”

The gentleman in the red shirt was not the only person to react viscerally to Trump’s statement, which was viewed across the political spectrum as an insinuation of violence aimed at Trump’s political enemy no. 1. The Clinton camp also reacted quickly, calling Trump’s rhetoric “dangerous.”

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman reached for a historical analogy, beginning his article on Trump’s comments, “And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin got assassinated.”

Quickly entering into damage control mode, the Trump campaign has put forth a number of defenses—arguing that he was merely talking about political organization and blaming the media for making a mountain out of a molehill.

For his part, House Speaker Paul Ryan said that Trump’s comment “sounds like a joke gone bad.”

While the Trump campaign has insisted the candidate was serious, pushback against any attempt to label Trump’s statement as “just as joke” received traction online. Trump has a history of downplaying controversial statements by saying he was just joking—like when he urged Russia to hack Clinton and publicly release a trove of 33,000 emails that had been deleted from her email server.

For Jason Steed, the idea that Trump could have been making a joke when he quipped about “Second Amendment people” set off alarm bells. Before becoming an appellate lawyer, Steed was an English professor teaching at Western Oregon University; Brigham Young University; and University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Steed’s dissertation focused on the construction of American Jewish identity in literature and film through the use of humor. He looked at how American Jews used comedy to define what it meant to be, and not to be, Jewish.

For Steed, there’s no such thing as “just joking,” so he took to Twitter with a tweetstorm that instantly went viral.

Steed was initially surprised his tweets garnered as much attention as they did.

“People … [told me] that I was saying what they’ve always thought without really knowing that’s what they thought,” he says. “I think because I spent a couple years thinking hard about this for my dissertation, I’m just articulating a theory of what humor does that we [all] experience in our daily lives.” 

For Steed, the core purpose of humor is a method of relating to other human beings. “It’s a tool we use to form groups, to form our individual identities, and to form the identities of the groups we’re in,” he says. “Sometimes it can be used against a group or another group’s identity. Humor is just something that we do socially to work our way through the world to figure out who we are and where we belong.”

The issue, he insists, is that most of this happens at a subconscious level. People use humor in much they same way they use language itself—without really thinking about how and why they’re saying what they’re saying. A joke told among a group of friends helps to assimilate everyone in the group into a cohesive unit, often against someone or something on the outside. However, that’s rarely done with a lot of conscious thought or intent, which is what gives rise to the “just joking” defense—someone experiencing a disconnect between the in-group the joke was intended for and the out-group it was at the expense of.

It’s the same fight that exists over the relationship between “offensive” humor and “political correctness”—a super-villain in the realm of Trump 2016.

As the trope goes, people who fight against the supposed scourge of political correctness argue that being overly concerned with people’s feelings or getting offended necessarily rounds all the sharp edges off of good jokes, thereby robbing them of what actually makes them funny. However, Steed argues that tension is something that necessarily comes from giving people from marginalized groups a seat at the table and allowing them to join the conversation.

Basically, punching down at marginalized groups isn’t something people in those groups would necessarily find particularly funny. 

“When you’re laughing, it’s hard to understand why someone is offended. This has to do with what makes something actually funny.”

“It’s the idea that we should be a little more careful about how we talk about certain racial groups or women or homosexuals. It’s the idea that we should be mindful of what we’re saying because words matter. And that’s sort of what I’m trying to say about humor,” he says. “I’m not saying humor is bad at all. I think humor is wonderful, it’s a great thing, it’s what brings us together as a family or a group of friends or as a nation. Like I said, it’s how we form our identities. It’s a good thing, generally. But we should be mindful about it because it can involve alienating or marginalizing forces.”

Behavioral economist Peter McGraw has spent much of his career trying to figure out precisely what makes something funny. The founder of the University of Colorado’s Humor Research Laboratory (or, appropriately, HuRL), McGraw has published academic papers determining, with scientific accuracy, when it becomes officially OK to joke about a sensitive topic—and why people even laugh at anything in the first place. 

In his book The Humor Code, McGraw tried clowning in the Amazon (the place, not the store) and went on a quest to find the funniest person in Palestine.

McGraw subscribes to the so-called benign violation theory, which posits that humor is how human beings communicate that something that deviates from some social norm isn’t really worth being too concerned about. Jokes are academics’ macro-societal equivalent of “chill the fuck out.”

Sometimes a joke’s violation relates to the rules of how language works, in the case of puns, and other times it contrasts Trump’s apparent threat of violence against his political rivals with how much people should care about bringing back the ’90s sitcom Seinfeld.

“I think a big part of this is that it’s very difficult … to understand why someone is laughing at a joke when you find it offensive—and vice versa,” McGraw says. “When you’re laughing, it’s hard to understand why someone is offended. This has to do with what makes something actually funny. If humor arises from a benign violation—conceiving something as wrong yet OK by virtue of laughing suggests that you see that as wrong, yes, but OK. When you’re offended, you just see it as wrong, and it’s hard to see why it would be OK.”

He continues: “When you’re on the right, Hillary and these new lefty judges are psychologically distant. You don’t care about them. You might not ever like them. Creating innuendo when something bad happens to them, it can be OK. When you’re a member of the left, and you’re the target of the joke [it feels much different].”

It hearkens back to a concept in psychology called cognitive illiberalism.

Cognitive illiberalism is the idea that when two people come to different conclusions while looking at the same piece of evidence, they’ll have a natural tendency to assume something is fundamentally wrong with their counterpart—be it that they’re not intelligent enough to fully comprehend what’s right in front of them, or they’re making the argument in bad faith for some undisclosed reasons.

One example of cognitive illiberalism at work is how a Seattle Seahawks fan and San Francisco 49ers fan can watch the same play with one seeing an obvious touchdown and the other coming away 100 percent convinced it was pass interference.

The concept is most closely associated with a study published in the Harvard Law Review about the 2007 U.S. Supreme Court case Scott v. Harris. In that case, the court looked into whether a Georgia police officer was justified in using a ramming maneuver during a high-speed chase that left the suspect paralyzed. Looking at the dash-cam video from the pursuit, the court found that “no reasonable juror” could have come to the conclusion that the suspect didn’t pose an immediate threat to public safety. The justices were so sure in their conclusion, they took the unprecedented step of posting a video of the chase online so people could see for themselves how obvious it was.

The researchers behind the study showed the video to 1,350 Americans and found that, while a majority agreed with the court, it was by no means universal. “Within the sample there were sharp differences of opinion along cultural, ideological, and other lines,” the authors wrote. “Its insistence that there was only one ‘reasonable’ view of the facts itself reflected a form of bias—cognitive illiberalism—that consists in the failure to recognize the connection between perceptions of societal risk and contested visions of the ideal society.”

It should also be noted that that Supreme Court’s decision in Scott v. Harris wasn’t unanimous—there was one lone dissenting justice. 

This all comes back to humor. People bring their entire set of life experiences into each joke they hear but rarely assume other people are doing the same. As a result, there’s a natural reflex to dismiss someone who finds offense in something in which you solely find hilarity. That can be a problem because, for people within a joke’s intended in-group, turning something into humor can have the effect of rendering its target violation benign—thereby shifting the window of acceptability.

“I’m not saying we can’t joke. I’m not even saying that people can’t make racist jokes. If they want to, that’s fine.”

“Sometimes trivializing effects can be good,” McGraw says. “That’s the whole thing about humor being a good way to cope [with adversity]. If you can make jokes about your illness, does your illness affect you as much as if you just complained about it?”

Tom Ford, a professor at Western Carolina University who has done a considerable amount of work on the effects of sexist comedy, found that humor can also normalize problematic behavior. In a 2007 experiment, Ford’s team showed a collection of comedy sketches to a group of male subjects. Some of the clips made jokes about women in “stereotypical or demeaning roles” while others did not. The subjects were then asked to look at a budget for various student organizations and decide which ones should get funding cuts. The men who had watched the sexist comedy were more likely to make cuts to organizations focused on women’s issues.

“Sexist humor is not simply benign amusement. It can affect men’s perceptions of their immediate social surroundings and allow them to feel comfortable with behavioral expressions of sexism without the fear of disapproval of their peers,” Ford said in a statement. “Specifically, we propose that sexist humor acts as a ‘releaser’ of prejudice.”

Something similar happened after Trump made his “Second Amendment people” comment. On the alt-right message board 8chan, users were ecstatic. As Mic reports, users praised Trump for “broadcasting a reminder that the Second Amendment’s entire purpose is for overthrowing corrupt government.”

For Steed’s part, his intention isn’t to stop people from making jokes that skirt the boundaries of appropriateness. Rather, his goal is to encourage people to think a little harder about the message their jokes are actually conveying, because jokes are too important a part of culture to be dismissed as just jokes.

“I’m not saying we can’t joke. I’m not even saying that people can’t make racist jokes. If they want to, that’s fine,” he says. “But we should be mindful about what it is, what it means, and why we’re laughing at it, or why we maybe shouldn’t laugh at it. I’m not saying people can’t do it. I’m just saying, here’s what happens when you do it.” 

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*First Published: Aug 11, 2016, 10:41 am CDT