Why Donald Trump is Not a Punch Line

Donald Trump does not seem quite real. With his seemingly endless stream of offensive quotes, egregious wealth, and frankly ridiculous haircut he appears more like a cartoon or a sitcom character than someone who might one day sit in the White House. Buzzfeed even has a quiz called “Who Said It: Donald Trump or Lucille Bluth?,” and the comment section indicates that it is objectively not an easy distinction to make. The idea of Donald Trump being president used to seem so ridiculous that The Simpsons made a joke about it back in 2000. Even now that he has announced and gained significant support from his party, The Huffington Post still covers his campaign in the entertainment section instead of the political section. To justify this decision, The Huffington Post argues, “Trump’s campaign is a sideshow. We won’t take the bait. If you are interested in what The Donald has to say, you’ll find it next to our stories on the Kardashians and The Bachelorette.”

But no Kardashian or Bachelorette contestant is leading the polls in the Republican primary. As tempting as it is to laugh at Trump with condescending dismissal, to do so is to ignore a disturbing reality: He is in fact politically relevant. In fact, he is arguably the most relevant Republican candidate, polling at 25 percent according to a Quinnipiac poll conducted right after the second GOP debate, although expert predictors, including Nate Silver, who is famous for accurately predicting how all fifty states would vote in the 2012 election, still believe there is only a small chance that Trump will ultimately win the Republican nomination. While it might be tempting to laugh and roll our eyes at Trump’s racist and sexist remarks, like we might at those of a drunken uncle at our Thanksgiving table, these numbers mean that it would be irresponsible to do so. Our drunken uncle speaks for himself; Trump speaks for a significant part of the country. When Trump accuses Mexican immigrants of being rapists, makes derogatory remarks about women, and basically agrees that Muslims are a “problem in this country,” he is not just speaking for himself.

Treating the highest-polling Republican presidential candidate as a source of entertainment and not an important political figure encapsulates liberal smugness at its fullest. The term “liberal smugness” has been around for years. Gerard Alexander, an associate professor in the University of Virginia’s Political Science department, writes “…American liberals, to a degree far surpassing conservatives, appear committed to the proposition that their views are correct, self-evident, and based on fact and reason while conservative positions are not just wrong but illegitimate, ideological, and unworthy of serious consideration.” While in today’s highly polarized political climate both sides of the American political spectrum will go to great lengths to avoid legitimizing and respecting the other, disregard and condescension are tactics more commonly associated with the left. Conservatives tend to use more sensationalist tactics; It was Trump himself who largely led the charge for President Obama’s birth certificate. Liberals, on the other hand, more often tend to delegitimize conservative beliefs and politicians by brushing them off as irrational or stupid.

As fun as it is to make fun of Donald Trump and as hard as it can be to respect the views of his supporters, drowning them out with our laughter will not make them go away.

Even liberals who argue against making fun of Trump have managed to do so in a smug way. Matt Taibbi points out in his August Rolling Stone article “Donald Trump Just Stopped Being Funny” that the widespread support that Trump enjoys makes him dangerous because he represents how a large portion of the American electorate feels. Taibbi writes, “Trump is probably too dumb to realize it, or maybe he isn’t, but he doesn’t need to win anything to become the most dangerous person in America. He can do plenty of damage just by encouraging people to be as uninhibited in their stupidity as he is.” Taibbi is right; By expressing such inflammatory and offensive sentiment, refusing to apologize for it, and continuing to hold the support of so much of the country, Trump has become a figurehead for a set of widely-held beliefs in America. And those beliefs are racist, sexist, and xenophobic.

But is making fun of Trump and his supporters the most effective way of confronting this and lessening the amount of people who hold such beliefs? Taibbi refers in his piece to Trump’s followers as tangible stupidity: “Now the stupid wants out of its cage, and Trump is urging it on.” While it is tempting to dismiss those with whom we vehemently disagree politically and seem to us morally reprehensible as just being stupid, it is doubtfully productive. Historically, attempts to undermine political leaders with humor are largely ineffective. Charlie Chaplin, after all, famously regretted making one of his most popular movies The Great Dictator, which poked fun at Hitler. The Interview has not led to the emancipation of any North Korean political prisoners. Liberals might hope that refusing to take Trump seriously as a political candidate will delegitimize him as one and therefore minimize his power. But that’s not really how this works, and if anything these tactics serve only to further polarize the American political climate by dismissing views that a significant part of the country holds dearly.

As fun as it is to make fun of Donald Trump, and as hard as it can be to respect the views of his supporters, drowning them out with our laughter will not make them go away. It will only contribute to the stereotype that liberals are condescending and unwilling to entertain the idea of listening to anyone who opposes them. In turn, conservatives who hold these views will be less likely to listen to and engage with liberals, and the political polarization in this country will only intensify. Surely a more effective way to deal with Trump supporters and indeed anyone with whom we disagree is to take their political opinions seriously and engage with them. While Trump’s hair is funny, his views are not. The fact that so much of the country has such negative feelings about immigrants, Muslim Americans, and women is seriously concerning. Trump’s high poll results only indicate that the country needs to have a serious discussion about racism and xenophobia. The first step to engage in such a discussion is for liberals to stop laughing and to start listening.