At a rally in North Carolina on Tuesday, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump seemed to incite his supporters to shoot his rival Hillary Clinton. “If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks,” he told the crowd. “Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.”
You can watch the whole video of his speech, though context does little to soften the absurdity of the pullquote. Trump’s surrogates are already weaving their correctives. They’re explaining that he meant Clinton “could” be shot, as spokesperson Katrina Pierson put it, or that he was working toward the “power of unification,” in the words of Jason Miller. But it doesn’t really matter what the motive was. Instead, the more deliberate the supposed meaning of the statement was, the more frightening it becomes. And that’s true even if it was a “joke.” His campaign is welcome to wring its symbolically tiny hands, backtracking from this call to gun violence in a country riddled with bullets, but there is no amount of spin that can dilute the impact of Trump’s own words. Recklessness is only slightly more admirable than malevolence—both are equally dangerous.
Of course, the most obvious rebuttal from Trump supporters is that he was “just joking.” While a “just kidding” response is regarded as superficial even in the hands of linguistically-weaponized middle schoolers, apparently it takes on new valuation for a person hoping to be the leader of the free world. As magical thinking would have it, scolding a crying baby and goading gun owners into assassination are equally easy to excuse as another delightful romp with the national king of comedy, Donald J. Trump.
Unfortunately for our nation’s angriest bigots, the “just joking” defense is invalid. In the wake of the upset, former English professor Jason P. Steed published a fantastic thread on the social function of humor, debunking any comedic justification. “You're never ‘just joking’,” he wrote. “Nobody is ever ‘just joking.’ Humor is a social act that performs a social function (always).” He went on to explain how humor works to alienate or assimilate ideas into an in-group, distinguishing the ways satire and parody can take on an offensive idea as a means of rejecting it, and concluding that such nuanced calculation could hardly be an out for Trump.
“It's pretty clear Trump was not engaging in some complex satirical form of humor,” Steed noted. “He was ‘just joking.’ In the worst sense.”
Steed presented a truly fascinating look at the economy of jokes, though the takeaway extends beyond whether Trump can be absolved on the basis of comedy. We’re not talking about some fuccboi at an open mic night butchering a rape punchline. This man wants to be the President of the United States. A country, mind you, that is so plagued by gun violence that our mass shootings can be ranked by casualty count. Scrub away all the takes from either side of the aisle, and what’s left are two possibilities: Trump was deliberately directing followers to kill Clinton, or he regards the ever-rising death toll with the narrative intensity of a pun at the end of a popsicle stick.
Even a cavalier reading remains disturbing. Trump seems aware that his supporters will take action on his behalf, and he waves their allegiance around like some horrifically mutated badge of honor. When he says, for example, that the election is rigged (if he loses), he’s not just shoring up a face-saving contingency, he’s promising national upset and its corresponding riots by intentionally aggravating a collection of people who trade in racial slurs and Nazi salutes. That’s deliberate, and so was his Second Amendment comment.
Trump consistently blows an out-of-key dog whistle, lazily allowing his hatred to be couched in excuses, while the chairman of the American Nazi Party tells his contingency that Trump’s bigotry presents a fantastic “opportunity.” Trump has been ushering in a radicalized, nationalistic rhetoric since day one of his campaign, but this is brazen, even for him. Saying, “Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know,” is coy only in comparison to, “F*cking shoot the bitch.” Literally putting a hit out on his opponent and flagrantly disregarding the impact of his directives are dissimilar in intention, but not in effect. If a woman gets shot, presidential hopeful or otherwise, it doesn’t really matter whether the thing that instigated it was a playful aside. The reality is that Trump knows better, and simply doesn’t care.
For the past year and a half, we have been encouraged to praise Trump for “telling it like it is.” And yet, the dopey-eyed lauding of his “straight-talk” is incompatible with this backtracking. Of course, it was only a matter of hours before he found a way to blame “the media” for his own words. “Media desperate to distract from Clinton's anti-2A stance,” he tweeted. “I said pro-2A citizens must organize and get out vote to save our Constitution!” That’s not what he said, though a conspiracy theory is perhaps the only viable solution for a direct quote this damning. Maybe there’s a good joke in here somewhere about how the whole thing ties back to Benghazi. Trump’s campaign itself stopped being funny a long time ago.