Opinion: Donald Trump is a walking punch line. Democrats need to learn that this is their greatest weapon

Photo illustration of Donald Trump
(Photo illustration by Doug Chayka / For The Times)

The president of the United States has always been a target for comedy. When the office has been held by someone eloquent and empathetic, someone who goes eight years without a scandal, the comedy is fairly tame, even a little dull. But when he embodies each of the Seven Deadly Sins, the gloves come off.

Donald Trump has been a cosmic gift to comedy. His daily torrent of umbrage, attacks, lies and lame excuses is odious — often unbearable — but it also provides fodder for the hilarity that helps us through these dark days.

Much of the great Trump humor comes from the late-night hosts who have become our most trustworthy newscasters, among them Stephen Colbert (“The greatest presidents ... end up on our currency. Donald Trump could end up on our hush money”), Trevor Noah (“Mr. President, we’re sorry we called you a Russian pee-loving pumpkin-headed colludasaurus. Portions of that name were not accurate”) and Seth Meyers (“Sometimes Trump lies for the obvious reason like, you know, to cover up crimes”).


And it’s not just the professionals. The internet allows everyone to join in the national lampooning, which is why we have red caps emblazoned with “MAKE ORWELL FICTION AGAIN,” memes that say, “HE’S JUST GOING THROUGH HIS TERRIBLE SEVENTY-TWOS,” and tweets like “MARKED SAFE FROM WINDMILL NOISE CANCER TODAY.”

Of course, for all of this Swiftian satire, the ultimate clown of the Trump era is Trump himself. For all the scathing epithets flooding social media (“Hair Hitler,” “Pignocchio,” “Wussolini”), the most precise comes from journalist and author Kurt Andersen, who dubbed the president “the greatest self-parodist of all time.”

Is there any image of him we could create that would be more ridiculous than that orange face with the white raccoon eyes, topped by that insane architectural comb-over? Yet that is the way he has chosen to present himself to the world.

Can anyone make up anything funnier than his traipsing up the airplane steps with toilet paper stuck to his shoe, or putting his Sharpie to the weather map, or inviting the Taliban to Camp David three days before 9/11. (As Colbert said, “That’s like ... there’s nothing that’s like that. That is only that. Nothing else is like that.”)

And then there are his thousands of preposterous lies: that 58,000 noncitizens voted in Texas; that the administration’s child-separation policy was just like Obama’s; that New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez “called our country and our people garbage.”

He claims expertise on subjects about which he knows nothing (“I know more about ISIS than the generals do”). He tweets away his mistaken reference to Apple’s CEO as Tim Apple rather than Tim Cook as having been intentional, “an easy way to save time & words.” He boasts that “China has total respect for Donald Trump, and for Donald Trump’s very, very large brain.” He informs us that Hurricane Florence was “one of the wettest we’ve ever seen, from the standpoint of water.” There has been no more absurd public figure in our lifetime.

Yet, even as he has become America’s comedy muse, Trump himself is the definition of humorless. Yes, he can smirk at mean-spirited things, but if he has ever genuinely and joyfully laughed at anything, we’ve yet to see that footage. He is devoid of the irony, humility or self-awareness that a sense of humor requires. He has no perspective on the ludicrousness of his every word and deed, no idea that his every accusation, every denial, is understood by the sentient to be a confession.

Moreover, unlike most presidents, who have developed tough enough skins during their time in politics to at least pretend to shrug off the humor at their expense, Trump’s skin makes paper seem thick. There’s nothing he hates more than being mocked. Ridicule is his kryptonite.

The Democrats need to appreciate that this is their greatest weapon. The surest way to beat Donald Trump is to get voters laughing at him. His overreactions to being made fun of invariably make him double, triple, quadruple down on his original idiocy, further highlighting his lunacy. Instead of letting him define them as socialists, they must define him as the national buffoon.

As we learned in 2016, people will vote for a racist. They’ll vote for a sexist. They’ll vote for a narcissistic maniac.

What they won’t vote for is a punch line.

Paul Slansky is the author of “The Clothes Have No Emperor” and other books.