Americans have traditionally responded more positively to humor that “punches up” rather than “punches down.”
To “punch up” means to make a joke at the expense of those who have more power, privilege or property than the audience or the humorist. “Punching down” is the opposite – mocking or disparaging someone or some group that is less influential, privileged or affluent than are the mocker and his audience.
When you’re president of the United States or even a presidential candidate, you’re pretty much at the top of the social heap, which makes it difficult, when being humorous, to punch up believably. The record does show that popular American presidents have effectively used self-deprecating humor to make jokes at their own expense. The message to an audience is clear: I am not self-important; I do not take myself all that seriously; I am one of you.
President Ronald Reagan was a master of the art. Running for reelection in 1984, the then-73-year-old Reagan had shown occasional flashes of forgetfulness, leading that year’s Democratic nominee, former Vice President Walter Mondale, to charge in a speech that Reagan was employing “leadership by amnesia.”
Reagan would later respond this way: “I thought that remark accusing me of having amnesia was uncalled for. I just wish I could remember who said it.”
When critics questioned his leisurely office schedule and energy level, Reagan answered through the press: “Those last few weeks have really been hectic, what with Libya, Nicaragua and the budget and taxes. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been working long hours. I’ve really been burning the midday oil.”
The lesson is clear. The president’s laughing at his own supposed shortcomings and defects can politically neutralize critics. Republican George W. Bush mastered this technique. Acknowledging his own fractured syntax (e.g., “Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream”) on the campaign trail, President Bush quoted, before a roomful of reporters, Garrison Keillor’s cutting line that “George W. Bush’s lips are where words go to die.”
Bush 43 could even kid approvingly about the shrewd counsel he had received from fellow Texan Bob Strauss: “Mr. President, you can fool some of the people all of the time – and those are the people you need to concentrate on.”
Self-deprecating humor from a president can indicate that the president is self-confident and comfortable enough, as well as unthreatened enough, to make himself the butt of the joke. Those are almost always welcome character traits in a national leader.
When the thorny issue of same-sex marriage was dividing both his party and the nation, Republican nominee Mitt Romney could observe, “As a Mormon, I believe marriage should be between a man and a woman and a woman and a woman.”
The current occupant of the Oval Office has never spoken a single self-deprecating line or laughed at himself. He always, you may have noticed, punches down, choosing to ridicule and belittle those individuals who are less powerful, less wealthy and less able to retaliate.
There is neither wit nor appeal in the constant use of words such as “loser,” “sad,” “failing,” “crooked” and “fake” to bully or demean those with whom you disagree. Perhaps that inability to ever laugh at himself or to admit a flaw or an error can explain why Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton are all more highly regarded today by American voters than is President Donald Trump.