In the Warsaw Ghetto in October 1941 Mary Berg, then a teenager, wrote in her diary about the improbable persistence of laughter in that hellish place:

Every day at the Art Café on Leszno Street one can hear songs and satires on the police, the ambulance service, the rickshaws, and even the Gestapo, in a veiled fashion. The typhus epidemic itself is the subject of jokes. It is laughter through tears, but it is laughter. This is our only weapon in the ghetto—our people laugh at death and at the Nazi decrees. Humor is the only thing the Nazis cannot understand.

Berg here movingly expresses a common and comforting idea. Laughter is one of the few weapons that the weak have against the strong. Gallows humor is the one thing that cannot be taken away from those who are about to be hanged, the final death-defying assertion of human dignity and freedom. And the hangmen don’t get the jokes. Fascists don’t understand humor.

There is great consolation in these thoughts. Yet is it really true that fascists don’t get humor? Racist, misogynistic, antisemitic, xenophobic, antidisabled, and antiqueer jokes have always been used to dehumanize those who are being victimized. The ghetto humor that Berg recorded was a way of keeping self-pity at bay. But as Sigmund Freud pointed out, jokes can also be a way of shutting down pity itself by identifying those who are being laughed at as the ones not worthy of it: “A saving in pity is one of the most frequent sources of humorous pleasure.” Humor, as in Berg’s description, may be a way of telling us not to feel sorry for ourselves. But it is more often a way of telling us not to feel sorry for others. It creates an economy of compassion, limiting it to those who are laughing and excluding those who are being laughed at. It makes the polarization of humanity fun.

Around the time that Berg was writing her diary, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer were pointing to the relationship between Nazi rallies and this kind of comedy. The rally, they suggested, was an arena in which a release that was otherwise forbidden was officially permitted:

The anti-Semites gather to celebrate the moment when authority lifts the ban; that moment alone makes them a collective, constituting the community of kindred spirits. Their ranting is organized laughter. The more dreadful the accusations and threats, the greater the fury, the more withering is the scorn. Rage, mockery, and poisoned imitation are fundamentally the same thing.

Donald Trump is not a Nazi, and his followers are (mostly) not fascists. But it is not hard to see how this description resonates with his campaign appearances. Trump is America’s biggest comedian. His badinage is hardly Wildean, but his put-downs, honed to the sharpness of stilettos, are many people’s idea of fun. For them, he makes anger, fear, and resentment entertaining.

For anyone who questions how much talent and charisma this requires, there is a simple answer: Ron DeSantis. Why did DeSantis’s attempt to appeal to Republican voters as a straitlaced version of Trump fall so flat? Because Trumpism without the cruel laughter is nothing. It needs its creator’s fusion of rage, mockery, and poisoned imitation, whether of a reporter with a disability or (in a dumb show that Trump has been playing out in his speeches in recent months) of Joe Biden apparently unable to find his way off a stage. It demands the withering scorn for Sleepy Joe and Crooked Hillary, Crazy Liz and Ron DeSanctimonious, Cryin’ Chuck and Phoney Fani. It requires the lifting of taboos to create a community of kindred spirits. It depends on Trump’s ability to be pitiless in his ridicule of the targets of his contempt while allowing his audience to feel deeply sorry for itself. (If tragedy, as Aristotle claimed, involves terror and pity, Trump’s tragicomedy deals in terror and self-pity.)

Hard as it is to understand, especially for those of us who are too terrified to be amused, Trump’s ranting is organized laughter. To understand his continuing hold over his fans, we have to ask: Why is he funny?

This is not the 1930s or the 1940s, and we should not expect this toxic laughter to be organized quite as it was then. Trump functions in a culture supersaturated with knowingness and irony. In twentieth-century European fascism, the relationship between words and actions was clear: the end point of mockery was annihilation. Now, the joke is “only a joke.” Populist politics exploits the doubleness of comedy—the way that “only a joke” can so easily become “no joke”—to create a relationship of active connivance between the leader and his followers in which everything is permissible because nothing is serious.


This shift has happened in Europe, too. Think of Boris Johnson’s clown act, his deliberately ruffled hair, rumpled clothes, and ludicrous language. Or think of Giorgia Meloni, the first Italian prime minister from the far right since Benito Mussolini, posting on election day in September 2022 a TikTok video of herself holding two large melons (meloni in Italian) in front of her breasts: fascism as adolescent snigger. It is impossible to think of previous far-right leaders engaging in such public self-mockery. Only in our time is it possible for a politician to create a sense of cultlike authority by using the collusiveness of comedy, the idea that the leader and his followers are united by being in on the joke.

Trump may be a narcissist, but he has a long history of this kind of self-caricature. When he did the Top Ten List on the David Letterman show in 2009, he seemed entirely comfortable delivering with a knowing smirk the top ten “financial tips” written for him, including “When nobody’s watching I go into a 7/11 and stick my head under a soda nozzle”; “Save money by styling your own hair” (pointing to his own improbable coiffure); “Sell North Dakota to the Chinese”; “If all else fails, steal someone’s identity”; and “The fastest way to get rich: marry and divorce me.” This performance, moreover, was the occasion for Trump’s entry into the world of social media. His first ever tweet was: “Be sure to tune in and watch Donald Trump on Late Night with David Letterman as he presents the Top Ten List tonight!”

At the 2005 Emmy Awards, Trump dressed in blue overalls and a straw hat and, brandishing a pitchfork, sang the theme song from the 1960s TV comedy Green Acres. Trump is a terrible singer and a worse actor, but he seemed completely unembarrassed on stage. He understood the joke: that Oliver, the fictional character he was impersonating, is a wealthy Manhattanite who moves to rustic Hooterville to run a farm, following his dream of the simple life—an alternative self that was amusing because it was, for Trump, unimaginable. But he may have sensed that there was also a deep cultural resonance. The Apprentice was “reality TV,” a form in which the actual and the fictional are completely fused.

Green Acres, scenes from which played on a screen behind Trump as he was singing, pioneered this kind of metatelevision. Its debut episode set it up as a supposed documentary presented by a well-known former newscaster. Its characters regularly broke the fourth wall. When Oliver launched into rhapsodic speeches about American rural values, a fife rendition of “Yankee Doodle” would play on the soundtrack, and the other characters would move around in puzzlement trying to figure out where the musician was. Eva Gabor, playing Oliver’s pampered wife, admits on the show that her only real talent is doing impressions of Zsa Zsa Gabor, the actor’s more famous real-life sister.

The critic Armond White wrote in 1985 that “Green Acres’ surreal rationale is to capture the moment American gothic turns American comic.” Trump playing Oliver in 2005 may be the moment American comedy turned gothic again. Whoever had the idea of connecting Trump back to Green Acres clearly understood that “Donald Trump” had by then also become a metatelevision character, a real-life failed businessman who impersonated an ultrasuccessful mogul on The Apprentice. And Trump went along with the conceit because he instinctively understood that self-parody was not a threat to his image—it was his image. This connection to Green Acres was reestablished by Trump himself as president of the United States. In December 2018, as he was about to sign the Farm Bill into law, Trump tweeted, “Farm Bill signing in 15 minutes! #Emmys #TBT,” with a clip of himself in the Green Acres spoof. Hooterville and the White House were as one.

What is new in the development of antidemocratic politics is that Trump brings all this comic doubleness—the confusion of the real and the performative, of character and caricature—to bear on the authoritarian persona of the caudillo, the duce, the strongman savior. The prototype dictators of the far right may have looked absurd to their critics (“Hitler,” wrote Adorno and Horkheimer, “can gesticulate like a clown, Mussolini risk false notes like a provincial tenor”), but within the community of their followers and the shadow community of their intended victims, their histrionics had to be taken entirely seriously. Trump, on the other hand, retains all his self-aware absurdity even while creating a political persona of immense consequence.

This comic-authoritarian politics has some advantages over the older dictatorial style. It allows a threat to democracy to appear as at worst a tasteless prank: in the 2016 presidential campaign even liberal outlets like The New York Times took Hillary Clinton’s e-mails far more seriously than Trump’s open stirring of hatred against Mexicans and Muslims. Funny-autocratic functions better in a society like that of the US, where the boundaries of acceptable insult are still shifting and mainstream hate-mongering still has to be light on its feet. It allows racial insults and brazen lies to be issued, as it were, in inverted commas. If you don’t see those invisible quotation marks, you are not smart enough—or you are too deeply infected by the woke mind virus—to be in on the joke. You are not part of the laughing community. The importance of not being earnest is that it defines the boundaries of the tribe. The earnest are the enemy.


The extreme right in America was very quick to understand the potency of “only a joke” in the Internet age. In a 2001 study of three hate speech websites sympathetic to the Ku Klux Klan, Michael Billig noted that each of them described itself on its home page as a humorous exercise. The largest, called “N…..jokesKKK” (the ellipsis is mine) carried the disclaimers: “You agree by entering this site, that this type of joke is legal where you live, and you agree that you recognize this site is meant as a joke not to be taken seriously”; “And you agree that this site is a comedy site, not a real racist site”; “We ARE NOT real life racists.”

What does “real life” even mean when Klansmen are not really racist? The power of this “humorous” mode of discourse lies at least partly in the way it blurs the distinctions between the real and the symbolic, and between words and actions. Consider the example of some of the men tried for their alleged parts in a 2020 plot to kidnap Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic governor of Michigan. One of them, Barry Croft, insisted at his trial in 2022 that he was joking most of the time when he posted on Facebook questions like “Which governor is going to end up being dragged off and hung for treason first?” Another, Brandon Caserta, was acquitted in 2022 in part because he successfully pleaded that violent statements he made on Facebook and in secretly recorded meetings of the group were not serious. These included claims that the Second Amendment sanctions the killing of “agents of the government when they become tyrannical.” “I may kill dozens of agents but eventually die in the process,” Caserta wrote on Facebook in May 2020. He later posted that he would beat government agents so hard they would “beg til they couldn’t beg any more because their mouth is so full of blood.”

At Croft’s trial, his defense attorney put it to an FBI witness that a meme Croft posted showing thirty bullets as “30 votes that count” was “A little tongue-in-cheek? A little bit funny?” On the second season of Jon Ronson’s superb podcast series for the BBC, Things Fell Apart, Caserta acknowledges that, on the secret recordings, he is heard to urge his fellow militia members that any lawyers advocating for the Covid vaccine be decapitated in their own homes, speaks of “wanting Zionist banker blood,” and advocates blowing up buildings where the vaccine is manufactured. He nonetheless insists to Ronson:

This isn’t something I’m dead serious about. This is nothing I ever planned. It’s funny, dude! It’s funny! It’s fun to blow stuff up. It’s fun to shoot guns. It’s fun to say ridiculous offensive shit. And if it offends you, so what? I don’t care about your feelings and how you feel about words. Sorry!

The twist of logic here is striking: Caserta equates blowing stuff up and shooting people with saying ridiculous offensive shit. Violent words and violent actions are all covered by the same disclaimer—one that Trump’s apologists use to blur the relationship between his words and his followers’ actions in the assault on the Capitol on January 6, 2021. In the Trumpian twilight zone where democracy is dying but not yet dead, the connection between words (“fight like hell”) and deeds (the armed invasion of the Capitol) must be both strong and weak, sufficiently “no joke” to be understood by the faithful yet sufficiently “only a joke” to be deniable to the infidels. The comic mode is what creates the plausible deniability that in turn allows what used to be mainstream Republicans (and some Democrats) to remain in denial about what Trumpism really means.

For those who love Trump, there is something carnivalesque in all of this. In his discussion of “mediaeval laughter” in Rabelais and His World, Mikhail Bakhtin wrote that “one might say that it builds its own world versus the official world, its own church versus the official church, its own state versus the official state.” Bakhtin suggested that the

festive liberation of laughter…was a temporary suspension of the entire official system with all its prohibitions and hierarchic barriers. For a short time life came out of its usual, legalized and consecrated furrows and entered the sphere of utopian freedom.

Trump and many of his followers have made this quite literal. They create their own America, their own republic, their own notions of legality, their own church of the leader’s cult, their own state versus what they see as the official state. In this way, extreme polarization becomes a sphere of utopian freedom.

This is the capacious zone in which Trump’s comedy operates, an arena that admits everyone who gets the joke, from those who fantasize about killing tyrants, decapitating lawyers, and torturing government agents to those who just like to blow off steam by listening to their hero saying stuff that riles the woke enemy. It is crucial that in Trump’s delivery there is no shift from mockery to seriousness, no line between entertainment and violence. His singsong tone is generous and flexible, serving equally well for vaudeville and vituperation. In his streams of consciousness, they flow together as complementary currents.

In the recent speeches in which he has upped the ante on openly fascist rhetoric by characterizing his opponents as “vermin” and accusing immigrants of “poisoning the blood of our country,” it is notable that his cadence is soft, almost lilting. There is no warning to his audience that these comments are of a different order. They are not even applause lines. By underplaying them, Trump leaves open the fundamental question: Is his mimicking of Hitler’s imagery just another impersonation, all of a piece with the way he does Biden and Haley in funny voices or even with the way he sings the theme song from Green Acres?

Even when Trump actually goes the whole way and acknowledges that his rhetoric is indeed Hitlerian, as he did in a speech in Iowa after the alarmed reaction of liberals to his previous “poisoning the blood” speech, it is in a passage that jumbles together murderous intent, complaint about the media, and comic acting: “They are destroying the blood of our country. That’s what they’re doing…. They don’t like it when I said that. And I never read Mein Kampf.” But he makes the “Kampf” funny, puckering his lips and elongating the “pf” so it sounds like a rude noise. He continues: “They said ‘Oh, Hitler said that.’” Then he adds his defense: “in a much different way.” It is the stand-up comedian’s credo: it’s not the jokes, it’s the way you tell ’em. And this is, indeed, true—the difference is in the way he tells it, in a voice whose ambiguous pitch has been perfected over many years of performance.

The knowingness is all. In the speech in Conway, South Carolina, on February 10, in which he openly encouraged Russia to attack “delinquent” members of NATO, this startling statement, with potential world-historical consequences, was preceded by Trump’s metatheatrical riff on the idea of “fun.” What was fun, he told his followers, was the reaction he could provoke just by saying “Barack Hussein Obama”:

Every time I say it, anytime I want to have a little fun…even though the country is going to hell, we have to have a little bit of fun…. Remember Rush Limbaugh, he’d go “Barack Hooosaynn Obama”—I wonder what he was getting at.

He then segued into another commentary on his own well-honed send-up of Joe Biden: “I do the imitation where Biden can’t find his way off the stage…. So I do the imitation—is this fun?—I say this guy can’t put two sentences together…and then I go ‘Watch!’” (He said the word with a comic pout.) “I’ll imitate him. I go like this: ‘Haw!’” Trump hunches his shoulders and extends his arm, in a parody of Biden’s gestures. In this burlesque, Trump is not just mimicking his opponent; he is explicitly reenacting his own previous mocking impersonation, complete with commentary. He is simultaneously speaking, acting, and speaking about his acting.

It is within this “fun” frame that Trump proceeded to insinuate that there is something awry with Nikki Haley’s marriage: “Where’s her husband? Oh he’s away…. What happened to her husband? What happened to her husband! Where is he? He’s gone. He knew, he knew.” He and presumably many members of the audience were aware that Michael Haley is currently serving in Djibouti with the South Carolina National Guard. But as part of the show, with the funny voices and the exaggerated gestures, that lurid hint at some mysteriously unmentionable scandal (“He knew, he knew”) is somehow amusing. And then so is Trump’s story about telling an unnamed head of a “big” NATO country that the US would not defend it from invasion and—the punch line—that he would “encourage” Russia “to do whatever the hell they want.” Here Trump is acting in both senses, both ostentatiously performing and exerting a real influence on global politics—but which is which? How can we tell the dancer from the dance?

This shuffling in a typical Trump speech of different levels of seriousness—personal grudges beside grave geopolitics, savage venom mixed with knockabout farce, possible truths rubbing up against outrageous lies—creates a force field of incongruities. Between the looming solidity of Trump’s body and the airy, distracted quality of his words, in which weightless notions fly off before they are fully expressed, he seems at once immovable and in manic flux.

Incongruity has long been seen as one of the conditions of comedy. Francis Hutcheson in Reflections Upon Laughter (1725) noted that it is “this contrast or opposition of ideas of dignity and meanness which is the occasion of laughter.” The supposedly dignified idea of “greatness” is vital to Trump’s presence and rhetoric. But it is inextricably intertwined with the mean, the inconsequential, even the infantile. He is at one moment the grandiose man of destiny and the next a naughty child—an incongruity that can be contained only within an organized laughter in which the juxtaposition of incompatibilities is the essence of fun. This is why Trump’s lapses into pure gibberish—like telling a National Rifle Association gathering in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on February 9 that the Democrats are planning to “change the name of Pennsylvania” and that, in relation to the marble columns in the hall, it was “incredible how they could [have been built] years ago without the powerful tractors that you have today”—do not make his fans alarmed about his mental acuity. Cognitive dysfunction is not a worry with a man whose métier is cognitive dissonance.

Part of the dissonance is that Trump’s stand-up routine is completely dependent on the idea that he and his audience most despise: political correctness. Like much of the worst of contemporary comedy, Trump both amuses and thrills his audience by telling them that he is saying what he is not allowed to say. “Beautiful women,” he said at the rally in South Carolina after pointing to a group of female superfans in the audience. “You’re not allowed to say that anymore, but I’ll say it…. That usually is the end of a career, but I’ll say it.” There are so many layers to a moment like this: the idea that the woke mob is stopping manly men from complimenting attractive women, a sideways nod toward the “pussygate” tapes that should have ended Trump’s political career but didn’t, a dig at the Me Too movement, a reiteration of Trump’s right to categorize women as “my type” or “not my type,” the power of the leader to lift prohibitions—not just for himself but, in this carnivalesque arena of utopian freedom, for everyone in the audience.

Flirting with the unsayable has long been part of his shtick. If we go all the way back to May 1992 to watch Trump on Letterman’s show, there is a moment when Trump silently mouths the word “shit.” He does this in a way that must have been practiced rather than spontaneous—it takes some skill to form an unspoken word so clearly for a TV audience that everyone immediately understands it. Letterman plays his straight man: “You ain’t that rich, Don, you can’t come on here and say that.” But of course Trump did not “say” it. A sympathetic audience loves a moment like this because it is invited to do the transgressive part in its head. It gets the pleasure of filling in the blank.

Trump’s audiences, in other words, are not passive. This comedy is a joint enterprise of performer and listener. It gives those listeners the opportunity for consent and collusion. Consider a televised speech Trump gave at the Al Smith Dinner, hosted by the Catholic archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, in October 2016, near the end of the presidential campaign. The dinner, held to raise money for Catholic charities, is traditionally the last occasion on which the two main presidential candidates share a stage—Hillary Clinton was also present. Trump deadpanned that he knew he would have a receptive audience because “so many of you in the archdiocese already have a place in your heart for a guy who started out as a carpenter working for his father. I was a carpenter working for my father. True.”

What is the joke here? That Trump is like Jesus Christ. Imagine if Clinton had attempted an equivalent gag. There would have been outrage and uproar: Clinton has insulted all Christians by making a blasphemous comparison between herself and the divine Savior. But the cameras cut to Dolan, a sycophantic supporter of Trump, and showed him laughing heartily. And if the cardinal found it funny, it was funny. It was thus an in-joke. If Clinton had made it, it would be the ultimate out-joke, proof of the Democrats’ contempt for people of faith.

But what is allowed as funny will sooner or later be proposed seriously. Many of those attending Trump rallies now wear T-shirts that proclaim “Jesus Is My Savior. Trump Is My President.” Some of them illustrate the slogan with a picture of an ethereal Christ laying both his hands on Trump’s shoulders. What begins as a risqué quip ends up as a religious icon. There is no line here between sacrilege and devotion, transgressive humor and religious veneration.

Just as Trump’s jokes can become literal, his ugly realities can be bathed in the soothing balm of laughter. Long before he ran for president, he was indulged on the late-night talk shows as the hilarious huckster. In 1987 Letterman tried repeatedly to get Trump to tell him how much money he had, and when he continually evaded the question, Letterman broke the tension with the laugh-line, “You act like you’re running for something.” In December 2005 Conan O’Brien asked him, “You also have an online school? Is that correct?” Trump replied, “Trump University—if you want to learn how to get rich.” The audience howled with laughter, presumably not because they thought he was kidding but because the very words “Trump University” are innately absurd. When he did that Top Ten List on Letterman in 2009, Trump’s comic financial advice included “For tip number four, simply send me $29.95.”

But these jokes came true. Trump wouldn’t say how much he was worth because his net worth was partly fictional. Trump did run for something. Trump University was an innately funny idea that people took seriously enough to enable Trump to rip them off. And Trump does want you to send him $29.95—the first thing you get on Trump’s official website is an insistent demand: “Donate Today.” This is the thing about Trump’s form of organized laughter, in which the idea of humor obscures the distinction between outlandish words and real-life actions. Sooner or later, the first becomes the second. The in-joke becomes the killer line.

A previous version of this article misstated the date of David Letterman’s 1987 interview with Donald Trump.