The Joke That Ate The GOP

Fear, laughter, and Donald Trump at the California GOP convention

"That was not the easiest entrance I've ever made," Donald Trump said after the applause died down. The crowd laughed. It was the afternoon of the first day of the three-day California GOP convention, and Trump was speaking to the party faithful in the banquet hall of the convention hotel in Burlingame, California.

A small town next to the San Francisco airport, Burlingame is about 15 miles south of San Francisco proper and a 40-minute drive from Oakland. The Bay Area is the birthplace of the Black Panthers, a bastion of the Black Liberation Movement, and the ancestral center of '60s counterculture and the student protest movements. It still professes itself to be very liberal. It's not what you'd call Trump territory, and a large group of protesters had arrived early to make sure Trump knew it.

"My wife called, she said, 'There are helicopters following you.' And we did, and then we went under a fence and through a fence." More laughter. Banquet attendees had lined up as early as 9:30 a.m., and since the hall was located on the basement level of the hotel, we could neither see nor hear the protests outside. That left us in the odd and uncomfortable position of having to, at least provisionally, take Donald Trump's word on what the facts were. I would later go up to the hotel's sports bar and watch Trump's arrival at the convention on their televisions. The protesters had blocked the front entrance to the hotel, so Trump and his party had stopped on the side of the freeway so that he could go through the back door.

"Oh boy, I felt like I was crossing the border, actually, you know. It's true. I was crossing the border, but I got here." To compare walking up a grassy embankment in order to speak at a $100-per-plate banquet with people risking their lives to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, when your signature policy plank is that the border is too easy to cross -- in a state where nearly 30 percent of the population is foreign-born, no less — this is the prototypical Trumpian joke. Audacious, offensive, and, to the right crowd, very funny. This was the right crowd; they laughed.

"They said, 'Mr. Trump, it really would be much easier, sir, if you just didn't speak today, sir, and just left and went immediately went back to Indiana,'" he continued. "And I said, you know, 'We can't let these people down.' Right? Do we agree? We can't do it!" He pointed at someone in the crowd.

It's hard to imagine that a serious conversation happened in which "they" told Donald Trump that "they" preferred him not to speak at the California GOP convention and that he should instead go back to Indiana. It's either a heavy exaggeration or a total lie, yet Trump slipped it in as if it were of a piece with the supposedly factual story he was telling. Trump is a liar, but that doesn't quite capture his relationship with reality. Better to say that Trump is completely indifferent to the truth; he uses truth like a factory part, but easily modifies and customizes it for his purposes. And when he can't stretch the truth to fit, he simply makes up a new one.

A few days later, Trump would cruise to victory in the Indiana primary with 53 percent of the vote, driving Ted Cruz and John Kasich out of the race and making Trump the presumptive Republican nominee for president. Trump would promptly add "presumptive Republican nominee" to his Twitter banner.

"So here's the Washington Post today," he continued at the banquet, in a tone uncannily like Jay Leno's "Have you seen this?" monologue voice. "‘The time has come to admit that Republican voters want Donald Trump as their nominee,’" he read, then held up the piece of paper he was reading. The words "The time has come to admit that Republican voters want Donald Trump as their nominee" were printed in type so large I could read it on the screens playing the video feed in the banquet hall.

The rest of the speech was typical Trump -- a blend of braggadocio, mockery of his enemies, boasts about winning, and humorous non sequiturs. Trump's speeches don't so much unfold as they unravel -- loop back on themselves, abruptly come to dead ends, retrace their steps. He complains about Cruz "bribing" convention delegates to vote for him if the convention were to be contested, then, a few minutes later, insists "I'd never say ‘bribe.’" He retells the story of him entering the fence, only this time he has to crawl under the fence and comes up covered in mud. Trump's speeches don't try to convey information so much as they dole out punchlines and sketch moods. He delivers speeches as if he were doing a standup set. And that, in fact, is the simplest way to understand many things about him: Donald Trump is a comedian.

We’ll come back to that thought.

"The people who are backing him are very smart, intelligent people," Joann Marshall said of Trump supporters earlier that day. We were in the hotel atrium, the central hub of the convention, where various candidates and conservative groups had set up their outreach tables. Marshall, who belongs to the Redlands Tea Party Patriots and had driven up from Southern California to be there, had noticed that the Trump table had been left unattended, supervised only by a life-size cardboard cutout of the candidate. She and her husband had decided to start running it. She didn't know when the people who were supposed to be manning the table would return, but she did know that the bumper stickers and pamphlets were free, while Trump's books were $25. There was only one book left. I picked up a pamphlet and a bumper sticker.

Marshall said that Trump's broad base of support was proof of his strength as a candidate. The huge crowds at Trump's rallies had convinced her to switch her allegiance to him from Ben Carson. "I've been in politics all my life. I go way back to Barry Goldwater," she told me with pride. (Hi, kids! Barry Goldwater was an insurgent conservative who won the GOP's 1964 nomination, to the consternation of the Republican establishment.) "I was a Goldwater gal in the state of California. There were about twenty of us, and we traveled with him. Had big cowboy hats, big gold skirts, white blouses. It was great." She added that Trump reminds her of Goldwater, in his principles and honesty. (Goldwater, famously, lost in the November elections in one of the worst landslides in modern American history.)

"[Trump’s] been up, he's been down. He's been bankrupt, but he's made ten billion dollars and he's a very smart man. We need him. We need America to be run like a business," Marshall said.

America needs to be run like a business, and Trump is a businessman is a refrain I heard many times that weekend. The fact that Trump had been born into wealth didn't seem to bother anyone any more than the fact that his businesses had repeatedly gone bankrupt. The important thing was that he hadn't rested on his laurels, that he'd tried to make something of himself. Trump had learned lessons from his failures that made him the candidate best equipped to return the country to greatness. His shoestring presidential campaign is a point of pride for his supporters. It serves as vindication that other politicians, bloated on money, don't know how to be efficient. They have a point. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz had both raised about twice as much money as Trump. Jeb Bush had raised five times as much. They had all lost. To Trump supporters, the primary campaign is a microcosm of America's political system, and Trump's victory over the network of politicians, power brokers, and insiders that make up the Republican establishment is proof of concept for the success of his presidential administration. Trump is a winner, and with him at the helm, America will be a winner, too.

The ethos of Trump's campaign is capitalism. I don't mean that Trump takes from capitalism confidence in free markets or neoclassical economics. Rather, he takes on the capitalist's ideological flexibility and monomaniacal focus on the bottom line. Trump approaches ideas like an entrepreneur approaches products: He's not particularly picky about what he's selling. If one idea doesn't sell, he'll drop it and sell something else. And if it does sell, he will keep selling it, no matter who tells him he can't.

Trump is not about process or principle; he's about results. Whatever wins is by definition the most worthy, which is why Trump is so obsessed with his standing in the polls. He doesn't look to the polls for direction in the way that most politicians do; he looks to them for validation. And Trump's capitalism is the peculiar American brand, new-money crony capitalism, an invisible hand throwing weighted dice. The game is rigged, Donald Trump says, and Donald Trump alone can fix it. "I'm actually very conservative, but who cares?" Trump said at the banquet, shrugging. "We need to straighten out the country."

For Trump and many of his supporters, conservatism itself, whether it be the mainstream version of the GOP establishment or Cruz's more rigid brand, is just another shackle hampering America's return to greatness. It's another form of political correctness, preventing us from even talking about how to solve America's problems, let alone actually solving them. In his supporters' eyes, Trump brings a bracing, abrasive clarity to the politician's world of manicured orthodoxy and canned niceties. "I just like his audacity," Tina Donoghue said to me, as we waited in the seemingly infinitely long line to get into the Trump rally. A dentist from Burlingame with a teenage daughter who is a Bernie supporter, Tina was still for Trump. "It's what we're all thinking but we're taught not to say. Just to come right out and say it. If you're wrong, you're wrong, but if you're right …" she said, thoughtfully, trailing off.

You can imagine a politician saying in rhetorical exasperation, "What are you gonna do, deport all the undocumented immigrants and build a wall?"

"Why not?" Trump would answer. "Why can't we build a wall, why can't we build the biggest, grandest wall?" When faced with the absurdity that results from taking his positions seriously, Trump doesn't back off — he doubles down. It's logical fallacy elevated to the level of guiding principle.

When the topic at hand is an issue that Trump hasn't considered (and there are many), he switches from bluntness to vagueness. The less Trump knows about something, the more he swaps out the nouns in his sentences for adjectives and intensifying adverbs. "We're going to have to be very smart," Trump said last year, when asked how he would deal with terrorism. “We're going to have to be very rigid and very vigilant. And if we're not very, very strong and very, very smart, we have a big, big problem coming up." This isn't even concrete enough to qualify as evasive. It's a non-statement.

Trump's willingness to say absolutely anything is matched only by his willingness to say absolutely nothing, and this, combined with his indifference to the conventional playbook for national campaigns, makes him a foe that politicians find awkward to fight and difficult to attack effectively.

"It's the way he runs his campaign," Monica Dias, a Trump supporter from the Central Valley, explained, as we waited in line for Trump's speech. "It's not a typical political campaign. They don't know how to run against that, whether it's a Republican or a Democrat." I asked her what she thought of Trump's chances against Clinton. "I think he'll cream her," she laughed. "She doesn't know how to play this game." The GOP didn't know how to play the game, either, and now Trump is the face of their party.

"There has to be unity in our party," Trump said, in a heartfelt tone. "Really good solidarity, unity, relationship, friendship." This was general-election Trump speaking, suddenly magnanimous in victory. The moment quickly passed. "Now with that being said: Would I win, can I win without it? I think so, to be honest. Because they're gonna vote for me. Y'know, Jeb Bush didn't support me. Big deal," he said derisively, spreading his arms like a bulletproof man. "Like I care."

On the second day of the convention, I stood in line waiting for Cruz’s banquet keynote with a supporter from Folsom, California. She is unimpressed with Donald Trump: “He’s got mental issues. He’s incompetent. And a narcissist.”

A man standing in front of us in line turned around. “But you’ll support the nominee,” he suggested to her amiably. I laughed. He didn't. The woman pursed her lips and shot him a look.

“It’s like asking me to choose between drinking bleach and drinking poison,” she told me, when I asked her what she would do if Clinton and Trump were to face off in the general election. She believed a Trump nomination would be a disaster that would end in him losing in a landslide to Clinton, but she refused to participate. “Trump people can take full responsibility for that,” she said.

After Trump's speech, a crowd of protesters was still there, facing off with police in the convention hotel’s parking lot. Activist Yvette Felarca declared victory. "To force Donald Trump to have to hop a fence, to sneak into the back entrance?" She laughed triumphantly. "Yeah, he was humiliated. But it's not about just today, it's about building a movement. This is just a beginning."

Near the end of the second day of the convention, I ran into Don Marshall (no relation to Joann, above), a Kasich supporter from the East Bay. He was convinced that either Trump or Cruz would spell electoral disaster for the party in the fall, dooming the Republican ticket from top to bottom. When I asked him whether he would vote for Cruz or Trump, he said, dryly, "You don't have to vote for president. They won't break your arm." Then he laughed. "You know that old Will Rogers quote, ‘I don't belong to any political party, I'm a Democrat'? I think it could apply in this case." He gave me a knowing look, and we both laughed.

Imagine hearing a joke that you absolutely love, and you laugh so hard that you're doubled over, gasping for breath, tears rolling down your face. Now imagine someone approaching you and trying to convince you that the joke you've heard is, in fact, not funny. Not that the joke is offensive, or that it's plagiarized, but that it's intrinsically unfunny. What could they say that would change your mind? Whether the story told in the joke could be proven false, or shown to contradict another joke that you also laughed at, or shown to be an exaggeration is totally irrelevant to whether the thing is funny.

Donald Trump works on the same level that jokes do. Not in a way that makes sense once he is disassembled and examined closely, but in the same not-quite-rational way that a joke you think is funny works. And how do you reason someone out of laughter?

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