POLITICAL LIFE HAS ALWAYS had its humorous side. Policy-making is, of course, serious business, and it has a huge impact on large numbers of people. But in the midst of so many grave matters of war and peace, crime and punishment, we have always found ways to make light of difficult circumstances. After all, laughter is an all too human means of coping with our troubles. Some of this humour amounts to gentle ribbing of otherwise hard-working people whose offices we respect. But some humour is destructive, effectively coarsening the larger conversation and contributing to a culture contemptuous of duly constituted authority.
The German-born Thomas Nast (1840-1902) was the first of a long line of political cartoonists in the United States, famously originating the Republican Party’s elephant and popularizing the Democratic Party’s donkey. An ardent abolitionist and supporter of the Union during the American Civil War, Nast’s cartoons mercilessly lampooned the racism of the secessionists. He hated white supremacy and turned his pen against those who sought to exclude Chinese immigration into the U.S. Nast was succeeded by other political cartoonists, whose caricatures of prominent political leaders simultaneously amused the public and irritated the powerful.
Perhaps no humourist was more beloved by Americans than Will Rogers (1879-1935), who once observed that “even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.” Unlike Nast, Rogers did not generally poke fun at specific people but found humour in the ordinary business of politics: “Be thankful we’re not getting all the government we’re paying for.” “It’s easy being a humorist when you’ve got the whole government working for you.” “The only difference between death and taxes is that death doesn’t get any worse every time Congress meets.” When Rogers died in a plane crash in the midst of the Great Depression, Americans lost a treasured icon whose wit had immeasurably lightened the burdens of living through tough times.
Here in Canada we have our own political humourists. I was privileged to see the Royal Canadian Air Farce in person a quarter of a century ago. Who can forget the late Roger Abbott’s impression of Jean Chrétien’s heavily accented English? Or Luba Goy’s rendition of a shrieking Sheila Copps? More recently we have been treated to Rick Mercer’s rants and his lampooning of our southern neighbours. Canadian humour is famously self-deprecating, but some of it definitely is not.
How do we know when the line has been crossed? When does humour become mere mockery? I’ve been thinking of this a lot recently, especially with respect to the current occupant of the White House. Every new president is a gift to the cartoonists and comedians, especially one with exaggerated physical features or odd mannerisms. I’ve watched Alec Baldwin do Donald Trump and Stephen Colbert poke fun at the foibles of this most unlikely of presidents. And, yes, I find myself laughing, but I do so uneasily. As a political scientist I am aware of the importance of a culture of respect for authority and the rule of law. Where this is lacking, political institutions cannot withstand the ordinary storms that beset them, especially when the public is sharply divided.
Trump is easy to make fun of – more than virtually any of his predecessors. But does all this fun amount to mere mockery? Does it strengthen or weaken American political institutions? It’s difficult not to laugh when the jokes are made, but I must confess to wondering whether, in so doing, we are not in some fashion co-operating with forces that might erode constitutional democracy over the long term. And that’s no joke.