One could almost detect, lurking within the laughter, relief. This was the punch line, it seems, the crowd had been waiting for: the long-running, slow-building joke made at the expense of the woman who has been—by the president, and by so many other people in power in America—treated as an inconvenience. It was laughter, cavernous and cruel, that doubled as a kind of incantation: laughter that attempted to expand in its reverberations, seeking out Christine Blasey Ford in the realm that, over the past several days, she has come to occupy in the minds of many Americans—the realm of heroism, of self-sacrifice, of bravery—and then, once it had found her, to put her back in her rightful place. Last Friday, President Trump remarked that “I thought her testimony was very compelling and she looks like a very fine woman to me, very fine woman.” On Tuesday, he regressed to the mean. The president mocked. The crowd laughed. The status quo had maintained its status; order, echoing against the walls of the arena, had been restored.
There’s been a lot of talk, of late, about laughter. Laughter as power. Laughter as luxury. Laughter as empathy. Laughter as beauty. Laughter as philosophy. Laughter as complicity. Laughter as division. The current political moment has been in one way a lesson in how easily jokes can be weaponized: Jokes can win elections. Jokes can insist that, despite so much evidence to the contrary, lol nothing matters. Jokes can contribute to the post-truth logic of things. They can lighten and enlighten and complicate and delight; they can also mock and hate and lie and make the world objectively worse for the people living in it—and then, when questioned, respond with the only thing a joke knows how to say, in the end: “I was only kidding.”
What’s especially striking about Trump’s mockery of Ford is how breezily his routine upends the traditional architectures of political joke-making: the vertical dynamics that usually characterize the relationship between the maker of the joke and the butt of it. Americans tend to think of laughter, when it enters into politics, as a check on power’s ever-encroaching totality: the satirist speaking truth to the politician, the comedian as postmodernity’s public intellectual. Jokes that follow the form Hannah Arendt suggested, those long decades ago: “To remain in authority requires the greatest respect for the person or the office. The greatest enemy of authority, therefore, is contempt, and the surest way to undermine it is laughter.” What Arendt is getting at, in today’s terms, is humor that punches up. But this is a president and a government that are, as a unit, thoroughly accustomed to punching down. Fueled with delusions of their own victimhood, they often see fit to denigrate those with manifestly less power, not just for the sport of it, but also for the principle. It was at once shocking and deeply fitting, in that sense, that on Tuesday the president of the United States, his crowd cheering him on, mocked a citizen who has come forward to claim herself as a victim: of violence, of misogyny, of laughter itself.
And so Donald Trump has managed to find yet another way to say the quiet thing out loud: This is a moment, for some, in which cruelty and comedy have become indistinguishable. This is a moment in which a vote for a Supreme Court nomination has become a proxy battle in a far greater war—one whose skirmishes, it seems, will be fought through petty jokes and easy mockeries. A moment in which so much comes down to the question of who will get the last laugh.
“What is the strongest memory you have, the strongest memory of the incident, something you cannot forget?” Patrick Leahy, the Democratic senator from Vermont, asked Ford last Thursday, during her testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee. The professor of psychology, serving as her own expert witness in the attack that she alleged Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge perpetrated, replied: “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter. The uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense.”
“You’ve never forgotten them laughing at you,” Leahy said.
“They were laughing with each other,” Ford replied.