Mencken somewhere defined humor as the capacity to discover hidden and surprising relations between apparently unrelated things.
This capacity would appear to be directly related to intelligence.
A capacity to see the previously unsuspected is almost the definition of the capacity to learn.
But humor also contains something else: a *delight* in this type of discovery. People with a sense of humor experience joy when they come across something they previously had not suspected. Which in turn prompts them to seek more experiences of this type.
All true scientific discovery results from something similar — a delight at the sudden blinding insight that transforms one’s understanding of a certain situation. And what is the natural, instinctive reaction to discovering that one has hitherto misunderstood a situation, or even that one’s view of some basic aspect of reality was wrong? THE LAUGH.
We LAUGH when we are delighting in being unexpectedly mistaken. In this sense, all humor is self-deprecating. Any laugh is an admission that we have been wrong, and we have changed our minds.
Now I have one question for you.
Have you ever seen Donald Trump laugh?
I’m sure he must have at some point in his life, but can you recall Donald Trump really laughing? That sudden sharp laugh of recognition that he has misapprehended a situation, but is now suddenly happy to be disabused of that misapprehension?
As I say, I’m sure he must have laughed in his life, but I cannot remember him ever being delighted to be set right about something.
I cannot even remember him smiling in any situation other than being praised or attempting to repress rage (such as at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, when President Obama unwisely took out after Trump and apparently set him on a course to destroy Obama’s entire legacy). This is a man who does not enjoy learning that he has been wrong.
This is a man who reacts to news that he has been mistaken about something basic with denial that he is wrong, and all-out war on those who have pointed it out. When proven wrong, Trump goes into a mode not of changing his view of reality, but of squashing those who have dared point out even the most obvious and howling of misapprehensions by him.
No “delight” there.
When one is so committed to things being exactly as one has long insisted they are, one has ceased to learn.
“Learning” becomes a plodding search for evidence that supports one’s viewpoint, and a search-and-destroy mission against all people and facts that dare contradict one. So it should not be a surprise that Donald Trump hates comedy and has problems with science.
Indeed, Trump’s only forms of “affect,” as the psychologists call it, seem to be preposterous smugness and all-out attack on “enemies.”
Liberals are supposed to be dour humorless creatures, wagging their fingers at the politically incorrect. And there are some liberals like that, to be sure.
But I defy you to find me two people more uncomfortable with being mocked than Donald Trump at that White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and Ann Coulter during the Comedy Central Roast of Rob Lowe. The absolute incomprehension of the basic nature of the events in question, the seething rage at being publicly mocked, and maybe most important, the inability to be FUNNY in response show us something important.
These people see any contradiction of their views as a direct attack on the core of their being.
They are so brittle that they cannot brook the slightest contradiction of their belief system OR any denigration, even joking, of their appearance, their traits, tics, speech patterns, you name it. They quite literally can’t take a joke.
This brittleness, this imperious demand that all others fall in line with their beliefs, this reflexive denial of contradictory data all make them impervious to learning. Ann Coulter certainly laughs a lot, but only at others and at what she sees as their hypocrisy. (Might I suggest that to a mind that sees any change in views as evidence of dishonesty, all learning must seem hypocrisy? )
Now, no one would accuse Donald Trump of perfect consistency in his expressed views. He swivels around constantly on almost all issues. But there is one constant. What is good for Donald Trump, what flatters him, and what does not contradict him, is good.
What casts Donald Trump in a bad light, what contradicts him, and most of all what makes him appear LESS, is evil and must be stamped out. Everything else can shift — AS LONG AS NO ONE POINTS OUT THAT SHIFT.
Donald Trump, in Mencken’s terminology, has a tremendous capacity to repress hidden and surprising relations between apparently unrelated things.
This is why he never laughs. He is committed in the very core of his being to NOT learning anything that might make him even slightly uncomfortable.
So he will never learn on this job. And he will never laugh. Not really.
So if we who appreciate humor are so smart, and Trump is so stupid and un-learning, why didn’t “we” win?
Because Trump represents a LOT of Americans who are also uncomfortable with learning. Milan Kundera called them “the agelastes.”
This is Greek and means “un-laughers.” (Since Kundera writes in French, he pronounces it “ah-zhel-AHSTS.”)
These are people who instinctively see any change in world view as dangerous, not delightful.
There are those who are delighted to have a blinding insight that one has been wrong about something all along; and then there are the agelastes.
The agelastes look at the world and get angry, because they see others getting a joke they cannot understand.
Sudden blinding insight that they have been wrong is no laughing matter to them, perhaps because they are incapable of adjusting to an entirely new way of seeing the world. Suddenly seeing that a black man can be a good president is not something your average agelaste can wrap his head around, especially when said agelaste is used to seeing himself as innately superior to any black person, yet finds himself unemployed while that smooth smart black man occupies the highest office in the land.
How to respond to this sudden and surprising state of affairs? Rage and denial to re-establish the pre-existing world view.
Trump speaks to the agelastes. He doesn’t use logic, because logic can’t help. He’s inconsistent on everything.
He simply rages. He stokes their rage, and he himself rages, says anything that at that moment can make his opponent look bad.
Tomorrow he may say the opposite thing. The agelastes won’t care. They themselves have to be inconsistent in their own lives.
Their only consistency is resentment at change that has harmed them or insulted their expressed belief systems, and resentment of all those who delight in discovery and seem to profit by it.
And they know they can depend upon Trump never to laugh. He won’t laugh at them, and he won’t laugh at anything else. THEY may laugh at vicious racist or misogynistic jokes, at unfunny “humor” employed against Obama or Hillary or “liberals.”
But TRUMP won’t laugh, because he finds nothing funny. Trump reacts to things in a limited number of ways. He either WANTS something, or is DISGUSTED by something, or he is THREATENED BY something and wants to destroy it. His mind is far more limited than most.
But his supporters look at this stick figure of a man and see a stark representation of their crudest impulses, and a weapon for them.
Trump is their weapon against the “gelastes.” The smart people who paid attention in school, who encountered huge changes that they didn’t expect, and instead of being disoriented by them, and failing, they were delighted, and seem to be adjusting to them well.
And the agelastes hate them for their ease with change and momentary disorientation. They hate them for their wit.
Which brings me, laboriously, to my final point.
Humor and wit have failed to stop Trump, and I fear may always fail against him and his followers.
The agelastes’ only reactions to humor employed against Trump are pretty much the same as Trump’s.
He insists Alec Baldwin is not funny. His followers aren’t as vocal, but their silence may be even more dangerous.
It means either their rage is being invisibly stoked and will someday explode unexpectedly, or it means they have completely disengaged from the “mainstream” bubble in which Alec Baldwin grimaces in heavy orange makeup.
Trump’s constant griping about any negative depiction of him may appear to some of us as some sort of victory.
I’d just ask you to read the comments below his Twitter gripes. Alec is not making converts. He is hardening views.
Millions laughed at Charlie Chaplin as The Great Dictator. But that movie didn’t do a thing to impede Hitler.
We’ve just been through a Golden Age of liberal political satire: Jon Stewart. Stephen Colbert of blessed memory. Sam Bee. John Oliver.
What has been the result of this Wildean profusion of wit?
Donald Trump will be president in four days, for four years.
We’ve enraged the agelastes despite all this wit, or perhaps in part because of it. And the Un-Laughers are solidly in charge.
They are not surprised and delighted by this humor.
And up here in the choir to which Alec is playing, I suspect some of us are less delighted than we used to be.
And of course Trump is not laughing. Because Trump never laughs.
And the fact that he never laughs because he is cognitively limited may have amused us before, but now he will be president.
And I suspect we will be surprised, but not delighted, by all the previously unexpected things that will happen now.
Humor failed us.