The bitter irony of Donald Trump

Donald Trump has redefined what it means to be an ironic president, and it’s not funny

By Sophia A. McClennen

Contributing Writer

Published December 23, 2017 10:00AM (EST)

 (Getty/Brendan Smialowski)
(Getty/Brendan Smialowski)

There is a famous literary analysis quote that says “irony trumps everything,” because it “provides additional richness to the literary dish,” and it “keeps us readers on our toes, inviting us, compelling us, to dig through layers of possible meaning and competing signification.” But now it seems Donald Trump "ironies" everything, and it’s not making anything richer, except him and his buddies.

In a week where things feel far more dismal than ironic, it may seem that delving into how words work and layers of meaning is not only a trivial pursuit, but potentially a dangerous distraction from the real political work we ought to be doing. But irony is never simply a trivial matter and even less so in an era where just about every word we know is losing its meaning and everything that makes sense feels under attack.

Shortly after the 2017 inauguration, James Strick wrote in a letter to the editor of The Washington Post, “I cannot believe I live in a country that made President Obama show his birth certificate but won’t make President Trump show his tax returns.” He titled his letter “A Bitter Irony.”

While the concept of irony is the sort of thing that geeks can spend their lives studying, it’s not as tricky a concept as it might seem. There are basically two core types of irony —  rhetorical (where words are used in ways that are different from their literal meaning) and situational (where you expect an outcome, but the opposite happens). Rhetorical irony is saying that you are really happy that the tax bill passed, when you really are not happy at all. Situational irony is the least qualified person winning an election.

Rhetorical irony tends to be exceptionally successful at provoking reflection and exposing social crises. Almost all of the headlines from Andy Borowitz’s satirical pieces for The New Yorker offer valuable training in the art of irony: “Trump voters celebrate massive tax cut for everyone but them;” “Nazis feeling neglected after Republicans embrace child molesters;” “Cheney receives heart transplant; Bush still on waiting list for brain.”

Reading these headlines, it doesn’t immediately seem obvious that irony in the Trump era is entering a new phase. The Bush era jokes seem similar enough. But there is much about Trump irony that is vastly different from its earlier incarnations. One of the core differences is that after 9/11, irony was considered a brave way to poke at the status quo; whereas now irony is literally everywhere. A recent study found that Trump was on track to be the most mocked president in U.S. history. Some of those jokes are simply crude insults about an orange-faced, small-handed troll, but many depend on irony for their comedic punch. As Seth Meyers put it when he mocked the idea of Trump as a candidate, “Donald Trump has been saying that he’ll run for president as a Republican, which is surprising, since I just assumed he was running as a joke.”

It’s worth remembering that after 9/11, Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter declared that the terrorist attacks would signal “the end of the age of irony.” There were multiple pieces in those grim days that suggested that irony was dead or dying. The basic idea at the time was that irony was too irreverent, too closely connected to comedy, too highbrow to be of use in a crisis. And when good and evil really do seem easy to define, as was the case for many after 9/11, irony doesn’t work. The satirists, irony masters, fell silent in those early days. Jon Stewart cried on air.

And yet, as Zoe Williams pointed out in a 2003 piece for The Guardian, “Naturally, irony was back within a few days, not least because of the myriad ironies contained within the attack itself (America having funded al-Qaida is ironic; America raining bombs and peanut butter on Afghanistan is ironic).” Irony may fall silent in the face of a fresh tragedy, but it will always come back, and this is because irony is a prime weapon against disinformation, lies, abuses of power and emotive hysteria. Because rhetorical irony depends on using words in ways different from their literal meaning, it is able to especially sting in times of deception and crisis. When Stephen Colbert stood next to George W. Bush and roasted him at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, he said:

I stand by this man. I stand by this man, because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things, things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message, that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound with the most powerfully staged photo-ops in the world.

Colbert used irony to help make sense of the hubris of the Bush presidency, and he used it to cut through the ways that the Bush administration manipulated its image for the media. It’s valuable to remember the way that irony helped us make sense of the post 9/11 context, because Bush and Cheney may have been masters at lying, but they were anything but ironic. And that is why Trump has messed with irony so badly. Trump himself embodies irony, and that is why it is so easy and so hard to make fun of him.

Trump is a performance, maybe even a meme, but certainly not a statesman, and he regularly uses a bullying, belligerent, jeering tone that comes awfully close to ironic jabs. As comedian Julianna Forlano put it on a recent "Salon Talks" episode about the funniest political moments of 2017, "It would be funny, if Donald Trump didn't have his finger on the button. He's buffoonish but also in charge of things."

Trump's use of “scare quotes” — as in his famous quote about being wire tapped — is an excellent example of Trump seeming to use language ironically.

When Trump made a big deal to Tucker Carlson that he had used quotes around wiretap, meaning he wasn’t being literal, it led Moises Velasquez-Manoff to suggest that Trump had “ruined irony, too.

As Borowitz has said, ironic satire is especially hard in the Trump era: “One thing about satire: you're trying to portray a kind of heightened version of reality, to perhaps point out the absurdity of reality. With Trump, you can't go beyond who he actually is.” As Michael Hirschorn puts it, “When facts are made stupid things and there is no coherent center to mediate truth, most irony starts falling on deaf ears because there is no lingua franca.”

The problem with Trump is that he never seems to be using words in any of their intended ways. He has redefined basic words like “great” and “fake.” He makes things up. He speaks in incoherent babbles. He rants and raves.

Trump may also be winning the award for being the lyingest president. In his first seven months in office, The Washington Post calculated that Trump made more than 1,000 "false and misleading claims," an average of five times a day. But the Trump lies are significantly different from the Bush-Cheney lies because Trump’s are accompanied by sarcastic barbs, bullying epithets and a constant tone of mockery. The Bush administration lied with gravitas; Trump lies with mocking bluster. How else to characterize White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s constant attitude of annoyance and disdain?

It’s not an overstatement to say that Trump’s assault on meaning is “unpresidented.” And that is why irony is our best defense against him.

There are two uses of language that purposefully separate words from truth: lies and irony. As I’ve explained it, Trump’s lies often seem ironic since they are performed in a bloviating way. Even when Trump appears most sincere, he seems like a joke, making it hard to take his invective seriously. How else to process his tendency to use belittling barbs in tweets about national security?

The only way to fight against a leader who is both a caricature and a dangerous liar is with the sort of irony that rescues reason. And the only way to fight bullying mockery meant to put others down is with smart irony meant to encourage an audience to engage in critical reflection.

If irony was essential in the post-9/11 era, it’s even more so now. This is why late-night comedians like Colbert, Meyers, Samantha Bee, John Oliver, Trevor Noah and Jordan Klepper, who use satire to mock Trump, are more and more important.

The rising role of irony to fight Trumpism is also why we are seeing more and more straight news figures like Jake Tapper, Rachel Maddow and Anderson Cooper turn to irony and sarcastic sass in covering Trump. Take this tweet from CNN’s Chris Cillizza:

Rather than see this as a dangerous turn away from serious discourse, the growing use of ironic snark to cover Trump is a necessary foil for his mocking, abusive use of language. It’s no longer red versus blue; the battles now are between those using irony to encourage critical thinking and those using a mocking language to bully and repress others.

It is no small irony, in fact, that the least-qualified, most-poised-to-cause-havoc president in U.S. history is named Trump. While we now know, thanks to John Oliver, that his ancestors changed their name from Drumpf, the fact that Trump’s name is also a word that signifies beyond the name is an oddity itself in a president.

Sure we had Hoover, Ford and Bush, whose names were also words with other everyday meanings, but Trump’s multilayered name is something altogether novel. To Trump is to surpass, to outdo, to win — but it is also to override or to get the better of. His own name is coded in contradiction.

And then there is the phrase “trumped up,” which refers to invented false accusations or excuses. Trump certainly seems to trump things up all the time. And he attempts to sidestep legitimate accusations by saying that they are trumped up too.

Even worse he keeps winning, despite all logic. This makes the etymological link of his name to the word “triumph” bitterly ironic, since every time Trump wins, we lose.

By Sophia A. McClennen

Sophia A. McClennen is Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. She writes on the intersections between culture, politics, and society. Her latest book is "Trump Was a Joke: How Satire Made Sense of a President Who Didn't."

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