Stop snickering from sidelines

No one’s laughing at Donald Trump anymore.

Joke’s over. But why did it take so painfully long – and a civil rights disaster – for a toxic presidency to stop being even remotely funny?

Trump’s buffoonery provided endless material for mockery on late-night TV. But while his critics chortled, he had the last laugh on election night.

Now, his demagoguery is no laughing matter. And it’s long past time for my American friends to stop snickering from the sidelines.

In all seriousness, I appreciate political satire. Humour pricks the balloons of powerful politicians who take themselves too seriously.

But years of TV laugh tracks have turned politics into a gong show. And a reality television star who had been auditioning for the role was waiting in the wings.

The joke went too far. Will voters continue to laugh at the spectacle, or finally get serious about the tragedy being played out before their eyes?

Humour exacts a price if it divides people instead of uniting them: When you’re laughing at roughly half the American people, you’re lining up against them – and making enemies of them in a culture war without end. All those skits on Saturday Night Live were on point, but ultimately unpersuasive. The Late Show With Stephen Colbert is supposed to be edgy, but tends to drive a wedge. The Daily Show’s humour is acidic, but it’s not activist.

In the right therapeutic dose, hilarity is an antidote to absurdity. But Americans have overdosed on humour for too long, addicted to an incapacitating drug that anaesthetizes them from the pain of racism, inequality and alienation.

Laughing isn’t the answer anymore, because Trumpism isn’t all that funny – as even Jimmy Fallon discovered the other night. Give the Tonight Show host belated credit for his heartfelt monologue about the fallout from Charlottesville (even if he was trying to restore his lost credibility after famously tussling Trump’s hair in mid-campaign).

Chortling is too easy. The harder challenge is change – winning elections and influencing people.

More precisely, it’s not about changing presidents but changing the minds (and hopefully hearts) of the very voters who enabled and empowered him. Sitting back and laughing at Trump and his highly motivated base only forges a closer bond between them.

The danger of mockery is that it suggests superiority over the stupidity of Trump’s supporters: We get it, we’re all in on the joke because we’re on the same wavelength – and so much wiser than the ones we’re laughing at.

But if the other side is so dumb, why are they the ones in power?

The answer is that they understand the power of political engagement. Instead of just laughing, highly motivated people of faith, affluence or anger are too busy praying, fundraising and agitating.

It’s impossible to spend two weeks in America, as I just did, without sharing their sense of despair. We’ve been there, which is why we have no right to feel superior.

Torontonians went through a similar cycle of political chaos when Rob Ford was mayor. He too played buffoon on the Jimmy Kimmel Live show while we laughed about his not-so-funny addictions and predilections. Bad as they both turned out to be, Trump wasn’t a surprise. Unlike Ford – whose weaknesses weren’t widely understood by many voters – Americans knew what they were getting with Trump.

They watched him in nationally televised prime-time debates, they heard his racist and misogynist rhetoric, yet still they made him president. The problem isn’t so much Trump as the American people who put him there, and the opportunistic apparatchiks who keep him there.

There’s nothing funny in that political divide. Laughter alone isn’t a response, it’s a cop-out – akin to the Facebook fragmentation of online “likes,” or favouriting a Barack Obama tweet of a Nelson Mandela quotation. Twitter and Facebook define “engagement” as someone clicking on a link, which must be laughable for serious political activists. Clicking is akin to chortling – makes you feel better, but offers only the illusion of involvement.

The truth about politics – whether in America or anywhere – is that clicks don’t count as votes, and elections aren’t won with laughs. If politics is just a joke, it will only desensitize and immobilize voters.

Politics depends on participation. It’s about idealism and activism, not apps and gags.

That means being informed and getting involved, donating time or money and, above all, voting. It’s about tuning into the issues, not just TV skits. And screening the candidates on a ballot, not merely scrolling through a feed on Facebook.

Yes, levity preserves sanity. But if hilarity serves only to release pent-up frustration, without any relief from a political crisis, it’s not helping anyone. And just as tears are not enough, jokes won’t change a thing.

Martin Regg Cohn is a national affairs columnist.

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