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Laughter and Resistance: Humor as a Weapon in the Age of Trump

We could all use a laugh right now, especially children. As the Southern Poverty Law Center’s November 2016 report “The Trump Effect: The Impact of the Nation’s Presidential Campaign on Our Schools” has documented, the candidacy (and now presidency) of Donald Trump has resulted in a sharp rise in bullying at school — harassment of children of color as well as “immigrants, Muslims, girls, LGBT students, kids with disabilities and anyone who was on the ‘wrong’ side of the election.” The report goes on to say that the bullying “ranges from frightening displays of white power to remarks that are passed off as ‘jokes.’”

Having a race-baiting, Muslim-banning, pussy-grabbing, narcissistic sociopath as president of the United States is not funny. But we can use humor as a weapon against him. As Mel Brooks famously said of a different real-life fascist clown who bullied his way into power, comedy can cut men like this down to size, robbing them of their “power and myths.”

first_trumpFor laughter that specifically dismantles 45, begin with Michael Ian Black and Marc Rosenthal’s A Child’s First Book of Trump (published July 2016, pre-election), which both is and is not a children’s book. Like Art Young’s The Socialist Primer (1930), Dan Piraro’s The Three Little Pigs Buy the White House (2004), and Erich Origen and Gan Golan’s Goodnight Bush: An Unauthorized Parody (2008), this volume offers “adult” political satire by way of a children’s picture book. But I place the word “adult” in quotes because children understand more than grownups give them credit for, and because in this case Black’s ersatz Seussian verse and Rosenthal’s satirical sketches offer the narrative and visual appeal of a good children’s book. Black and Rosenthal represent their subject as a villain straight out of Dr. Seuss: part unreformed Grinch and part Sylvester McMonkey McBean, the salesman who profits from the Sneetches’ prejudice. Mr. Trump is a compelling character for a children’s book: an ego that is both inflated and fragile; a volatile, impulsive personality; a pathological need for attention. He is the shining example of how not to behave. In A Child’s First Book of Trump, he is not even a “he,” he is an “it” — an inhuman, primal, howling ball of need.

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steadman aliceHistorically, when America tilts toward authoritarian blowhards, artists have turned to Lewis Carroll’s Alice novels. Back in 1954 Walt Kelly cast his Pogo comics characters in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’s “Who Stole the Tarts?” (the trial chapter) as a comment on McCarthyism, and Ralph Steadman re-illustrated Alice during Watergate in 1973. We have yet to see a re-illustrated Alice for the Trump era, but it remains a useful text for navigating the current administration’s persistent mendacity. Featuring tyrannical royalty and characters who spend their days decoupling words from their meanings, Alice offers a comic lesson in the misuses of political language. Trump propagandist Kellyanne Conway’s semantic contortions (“alternative facts”) recall Humpty Dumpty’s assertion that “when I use a word…it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” Trump’s travel restrictions directed toward Muslims reverse causality, punishing the alleged culprits before they’ve committed a crime. As the Red Queen tells Alice, “Sentence first — verdict afterwards.” Alice corrects her: “Stuff and nonsense!…The idea of having the sentence first!” As Celia Catlett Anderson and Marilyn Fain Apseloff observe, “Nonsense exchanges can give children their first lessons in distinguishing between logic and illogic, between what is to be taken seriously and what is comic.” That lesson is vital for young people learning to cope with a White House that — from its very first press conference — has lied aggressively.

Norton Juster and Jules Feiffer’s The Phantom Tollbooth (1961) is an even better book for teaching media literacy — helping readers distinguish between news, biased news, fake news, and propaganda. Juster retains Carroll’s delight in playing with language, but bends the comic fantasy toward allegory. When Milo, Tock, and the Humbug begin making statements without evidence, they literally jump to Conclusions, an island they can leave only by swimming through the Sea of Knowledge. The character known as the demon of insincerity uses language to mislead: “I don’t mean what I say…Most people who believe what I tell them go the wrong way, and stay there.” Milo and companions defeat him by having a good look at his claims, and realizing that they are all lies. Where Carroll plays with language for the fun of it, Juster spells out a moral lesson from each so-called game.

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scieszka_true story of the three little pigsHumor can make the didactic appealing, removing the sense that readers are being lectured to and replacing it with the feeling of being let in on the joke. When students read Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith’s The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs by A. Wolf (1989), they immediately get the joke of telling “The Three Little Pigs” from the wolf’s perspective but do not always notice that the wolf is a con-artist, a vocation he shares with Trump. With the assistance of a savvy reader (older sibling, teacher, parent), this book can help young people identify those who try to trick them. After destroying one house and devouring the pig within (“Think of it as a big cheeseburger just lying there”), the wolf demolishes the second pig’s house — by sneezing, he alleges. “When the dust cleared, there was the Second Little Pig — dead as a doornail. Wolf’s honor,” he tells us. But the tone is suspicious: Wolf’s honor? Anticipating our doubts, he explains, “Now you know food will spoil if you just leave it out in the open. So I did the only thing there was to do. I had dinner again. Think of it as a second helping.” His self-justification is funny but dubious. Readers might be asked: Is having dinner really “the only thing there was to do”? The wolf frequently asks his audience to just believe him, folks — and yet offers no evidence for why we should believe him (sound familiar?). In this way, both characters are entertaining, devious, and dangerous.

watkins_rude cakesScieszka and Smith’s classic invites children to laugh at a mendacious, egomaniacal con-man (or wolf). Rowboat Watkins’s Rude Cakes (2015) likewise provides comic pedagogy via a character who shares Trump’s personality traits. The central character — a selfish, obnoxious pink layer cake — bullies its sugary cohorts on the playground, stealing the cupcake’s stuffed toy and failing to apologize for bumping into the marshmallow. Rendered in Watkins’s expressive line and soft watercolors, the ill-mannered pastry is a joyously funny creation whose bad temper is eventually overcome by encounters with an unfailingly polite Cyclops who mistakenly kidnaps the cake and wears it as a hat (humiliating!). The Cyclops apologizes, shares, says “please” and “thank you.” By the end of the picture book, our rude cake has shed its egoism and become kind, modeling how a cake or a child or even a U.S. president should behave. But the lesson is so thoroughly baked into the book that it goes down easily, just as a delicious pastry would.

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reissue_fablesshouldntpayattentionThat said, in times such as these, children might also enjoy a laugh at the absence of morals, recognizing that sometimes virtue is not rewarded and life is merely absurd. Florence Parry Heide and Sylvia Worth Van Clief’s darkly funny Fables You Shouldn’t Pay Any Attention To (illustrated by Victoria Chess in 1978, forthcoming later this year with new illustrations by Sergio Ruzzier) inverts all moral expectations. Two squirrels have gathered nuts. Jennifer shares hers, while Cyril hoards his. When winter comes, “Jennifer had given all of her nuts away,” so she asks Cyril for some of his. “‘Drop dead,’ said Cyril. And she did.” Cyril concludes, “I’m glad I was selfish…It pays.” In another story, Caleb and Conrad’s parents teach them “to be polite and kind and thoughtful and gracious and truthful.” After the two brothers have been playing in the mud, Conrad kindly fetches a glass of water for Caleb. When their mother sees the mud he has tracked across her freshly cleaned kitchen floor, she asks the brothers who did it: “‘I did,’ said Conrad truthfully. It pays to be truthful, thought Conrad.” After Mother spanks Conrad, our narrator observes, “Conrad was wrong.” The end of each fable invites a wry laugh at the knowledge that, sometimes, injustice prevails. On the flip side, these endings might also affirm Trumpian nihilists’ belief that everything is fundamentally rotten to the core. After all, this is one of Mr. Trump’s favorite defenses of the indefensible. For instance, when confronted with the fact that Vladimir Putin (whom Trump admires) is a killer, Trump responded, “What, you think our country is so innocent?” The joke in Fables’s moral inversions could elude those who build their “morality” on the notion that widespread corruption excuses any behavior. Irony is legible only when the reader shares most of the ironist’s assumptions.

Julius Lester’s Ackamarackus: Sumptuously Silly Fantastically Funny Fables (illustrated by Emilie Chollat, 2001) offers a more hopeful absurdity, in six original fables in which ingenuity, wit, and compassion prevail. With a casually mischievous tone, these stories deliver good advice under the table. In the tale of an eagle who is afraid to fly and so gets a new job posing “for pictures on postage stamps and posters and in television commercials,” for example, that advice includes, “If you were born a chicken but think you’re an eagle, DON’T BE A TURKEY!” Biology is not destiny, in other words. With generosity and humor, Lester’s garrulous raconteur gently guides his tales toward conclusions that offer both wisdom and whimsy.

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speed_brave potatoesFor more revolutionary advice, look not to the animals but to the root vegetables. As young people march to protest America’s “angry talking yam” (coined by Esquire columnist Charles P. Pierce), they might recognize fellow travelers in the sentient, activist spuds of Brave Potatoes (2000). In Toby Speed’s rollicking verse and Barry Root’s lively illustrations, the potatoes rise up and liberate their fellow legumes and their vegetable allies: “Brave potatoes in formation! / Brave potatoes in a troupe! / Now they’ve got the chef surrounded. / See the chef go alley-oop! / (It’s a puzzle where he’s landed. Would you care to taste the soup?)” It’s a lesson in resistance that ends with the potatoes marching in the street, their banners unfurled: “Potatoes to the finish. / Potatoes to the end. / We will always be courageous. / We will always be potatoes!” The verse may be lighthearted, but its radical implications are real: to topple a tyrant, we must have courage, get organized, and take to the streets.

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Humor offers a range of possibilities for resisting and surviving the Trump era — whether learning to dismantle con-artistry, puncture propaganda, cope with injustice, actively oppose tyranny, or simply laugh at those who richly deserve it. That distinction between mocking the powerful and deriding the powerless is perhaps the most important lesson children can learn from humorous books. Ridiculing those without power is the tactic of a bully and further marginalizes the already-marginalized. However, mocking our petulant plutocrat-in-chief — a man who has no respect for the office he holds, nor for the people he governs — is quite different. In addition to being something of a national pastime since the 1980s (when Spy magazine’s Graydon Carter called him a “short-fingered vulgarian”), Trump mockery is now a vital form of protest. Since laughter wounds Trump’s ego, humor has become a potent weapon against him. In The Mysterious Stranger (1922), Mark Twain suggests that “power, money, persuasion, supplication, persecution” can weaken a “colossal humbug…but only laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.” Though I doubt that laughter alone will overthrow the Trump regime, humor does rattle its thin-skinned figurehead and can lift the spirits of all who stand for democracy, human rights, and an America that again strives toward greater equality and opportunity.

From the May/June 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Humor.

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Philip Nel About Philip Nel

Philip Nel is University Distinguished Professor of English at Kansas State University. His latest book is Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature and the Need for Diverse Books, forthcoming from Oxford University Press in summer 2017.

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Comments

  1. Nikki Walker says:

    First of all, I apologize for putting my comments regarding this article in the wrong place! If you want to reference my original remarks, they are linked with an earlier article from January/February. I appreciate the chance to answer a few questions that were asked of me. Why is this offensive? I reread the article carefully making sure that I was open minded as could be. I still feel the same way. Adjectives such as pussy grabbing do not make the case for good political satire no matter who you choose to demean. I have heard all of the liberal talking points before and they are laced within the article and overtake the attempt at what the author is trying to say. I would love to read the historical perspective of satire but this is twisted and turned with mean spirited descriptions and references that are not helpful other than to make me never want to read your magazine again. Now I will apologize to my school district for spending hard earned tax payer money on a publication that is not appropriate or helpful to my library. I will explain how a once trusted publication now does not care about how their articles affect portions of the country that feel differently than they do. Wouldn’t it have been more relevant to provide an article on how to come together as a country and what we can do to inspire and encourage each other rather than to divide? I know that we can only agree to disagree on our political leanings but respect and understanding will be far more effective than your poor attempt at humor and satire.

  2. The language comes directly from the President of the United States:

    “And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”
    — Donald J. Trump

    That’s not a word that I would otherwise use. As for “demeaning” Mr. Trump, have you listened to his speeches or read his Tweets? What I’m doing in the article is called “describing.” Everything I said above is true.

    In case you haven’t been following his policy decisions, Trump has appointed segregationist Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, and anti-Semite Steve Bannon as a senior advisor. He has appointed people to destroy the departments they are supposed to oversee. For instance, Betsy DeVos, who wants to privatize public education, is Secretary of Education. Climate-change denier Scott Pruitt is in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency. And he’s twice tried banning citizens of Muslim-majority countries from entering the country. And suspended the Syrian refugee program. And he’s using the presidency to promote his private business interests.

    There is no way to “come together” behind a racist, kleptocratic, narcissistic bully. If you’re concerned about the welfare of children, I invite you to read the Southern Poverty Law Center report, “The Trump Effect.” And then reflect on how you might help those who are now the target of racist, sexist, homophobic bullies. Or maybe work on behalf of refugees — the majority of whom are children, and whom Trump is preventing from finding refuge in this country.

    Finally, I find it telling that you’d call my article “offensive,” and yet strangely do not seem offended by the racist, sexist, Islamophobic thug currently occupying the White House.

  3. Nikki Walker says:

    Wow! Mr. Nel-it looks like we are both very passionate about how we feel about our country! I have had a laugh at all of the ways I could respond to your comments! I love politics and current events and we could certainly have a vigorous debate. But, it would be more fun in person-with no anonymity of the internet. I would bet that we would find more common ground than you think. So I am going to restrain myself from saying what I want to say and just wish you well. We both have much to think about and I will miss The Horn Book. Will they miss me? I doubt it. One little subscriber makes no difference to this magazine. Good luck in your future writings!

  4. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Of course we will miss you! If I cancelled subscriptions to every magazine with which I had a disagreement, I would having nothing to read.

  5. May Hammond says:

    pussy-grabbing, narcissistic sociopath-wait, I thought you were talking about JFK?
    appointed segregationist -maybe Robert Byrd of “I shall never fight in the armed services with a negro by my side” fame
    anti-semite-perhaps, Obama’s preacher man, Jeremiah Wright, who declared Israel an apartheid state
    Such hypocrisy and righteous indignation-the partisan nature of your comments from left and from those on the right are destroying this country.
    Take a breath, visit a forest or ocean, reflect on our common humanity-you’re not helping ANYONE with this hateful dribble of nothingness-please stop to consider the lady’s opinion without a knee jerk reaction. Lady-you take a moment to consider that canceling Hornbook is not going to have any impact other than a personal statement. Keep reading what you disagree with! Let’s heed the word of Voltaire…”think for yourself and let others enjoy the privilege of doing so, too”. And, may I add, let’s discover what we have in common, not what drives us apart.

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