Yesterday was a fine day for anyone excited about jokes from the Trump administration.
It began with the president himself sharing with 38.5 million Twitter followers a GIF from an account called “Fuctupmind,” of Trump walloping Hillary Clinton with a golf ball. (To dwell on how inappropriate this is would give short shrift to the million-plus other profoundly inappropriate things Trump did or said just this past month.) Then the day ended with a joke about the Trump administration, from one of its most notorious former members. Sean Spicer appeared on the Emmy Awards stage, like a visiting dignitary, to proclaim, “This will be the largest audience to witness an Emmys, period.” On the surface, it’s the more palatable joke. Nobody got concussed in this joke. But it’s also the more insidious of the two. The golfing GIF represents how much Trump has demeaned the office of the presidency. The Spicer joke reveals that history will indeed forgive those who helped him do it.
Spicer’s crowd size joke is, of course, a callback to the first major lie he told under the Trump administration. After TV pundits noted the vast difference between President Obama’s record-breaking inauguration turnout and Trump’s relatively meager one, the neophyte president was pissed. Instead of handling it in any kind of reasonable manner, Trump sent out Spicer as his sacrificial stooge to berate the press corp and insist that more people watched Trump’s inauguration than any other in history. The message was: Don’t believe your eyes. It turned out to be a chilling portent of things to come.
— Hari Kondabolu (@harikondabolu) September 18, 2017
As unnerving as it was to hear this first outright falsehood from the new Press Secretary, the true horror came a couple months later. When the first quarterly jobs report under Trump was released, the press greeted it with knives out. Trump had made a habit of calling Obama’s positive jobs numbers fake. (He did so at least 19 times.) It was his way of not acknowledging anything about the administration that ran counter to the narrative he was spinning, an ongoing performative troll-smear. When questioned about the difference between Trump’s positive jobs numbers and Obama’s, though, Spicer did something worse than lie: He made a joke about the lying. According to a smirking Spicer, the report “may have been phony in the past, but it’s very real now.” And that was it. He was never held accountable for this non-explanatory denial of reality. He simply broke kayfabe, winked at the troubling idea that we all know the president is a habitual liar, and glided on.
I've reported in 5 conflict zones, wrote a book and still have trouble getting men to take me seriously but Sean Spicer works at Harvard now
— Sulome Anderson (@SulomeAnderson) September 18, 2017
Other people made jokes about Spicer’s willingness to lie, too. Melissa McCarthy’s uncanny impersonation on SNL provided a cathartic, sanity-affirming laugh for anyone who could barely believe what they were hearing at daily press briefings. (When the press briefings were still a daily affair.) It was funny because it was a joke at Spicer’s expense, and at the expense of the administration for which he provided cover. We were laughing at him, and at the absurdity of it all. SNL has a history of allowing some political targets to eventually cameo as themselves—think Janet Reno or Sarah Palin—and to laugh with us. Perhaps the show would have let Spicer do the same in its forthcoming season. (They let Trump host during primary season, lest we forget.) But after the Emmys, they needn’t bother. Spicer is already in on the joke, laughing alongside us.
What exactly has he done to earn this redemption arc? There was nothing noble about the way he left office. According to many reports, he didn’t quit because he couldn’t stand to lie anymore—or because the president treated him like a human Squatty Potty at every opportunity. The New York Times suggests Spicer resigned over concerns about the (ultimately brief) hiring of Anthony Scaramucci. And since he left office, Spicer hasn’t exactly been a model of contrition. There’s a possibility he was the one to leak some damning items to the press recently, but that wouldn’t reset all the times during his tenure as press secretary that he made the act of leaking, itself, a story rather than addressing what was leaked.
Sean Spicer was the first Trump official post-inauguration to lie to the American people & treat our free press as the enemy. Fuck. Him.
— David Stassen (@davidstassen) September 18, 2017
Perhaps if one day Spicer expressed genuine remorse and apologized for letting his political ambition cloud his moral judgment and patriotic duty, some of us could entertain the idea of allowing him into our good graces. (It would be a start, at least.) Until then, though, we should not let him become a Cute Thing on TV. We should not get excited because he finally got to meet the pope. We should not listen to him yammer chummily to Jimmy Kimmel about his wild ride in the White House. And we should absolutely not turn his former lies into a joke he gets to own.
Steve Bannon got a 60 Minutes feature & Sean Spicer got an #Emmys cameo, but Hillary Clinton needs to "shut up & go away"? Mmkay.
— Sarah Lerner (@SarahLerner) September 18, 2017
When something is funny, it’s no longer scary. Satire has defanged many tyrants in the past, cutting larger-than-life figures down to size. But the kind of lying Spicer promoted from the upper tier of government should remain scary–even if we laugh at Melissa McCarthy sending up its Orwellian overtones. Why would we skip over the part where we hold Spicer accountable for his superstring of lies, and cut straight to, like, a Dancing with the Stars appearance?
— Lawrence O'Donnell (@Lawrence) September 18, 2017
Trump’s rise was fueled by lies. They have been so brazen and provable that he is singularly responsible for making “post-truth” a word. Sean Spicer knew he was lying for Trump, and then he accused anyone who called him out on his shit as the true liars—or spreaders of fake news. It’s one of the most pernicious parts of this administration, and that’s a highly competitive dishonor. To make winking jokes about the lying doesn’t undo the lies themselves. Because while some may be laughing, there are millions of people who believe the lies we’re laughing at. And they vote.