We talk all the time about who in the wide Democratic field can defeat Donald Trump to win the White House in 2020.
Perhaps it’s what can beat Trump. His savage and scorching attacks on opponents, a technique he sharpens daily, have proved to be devastating kisses of death. His tweets are no laughing matter.
Take heart from the president who can cure what ails us. He was the first who dearly loved to laugh, telling jokes and stories everywhere he went, even in the bleak midst of the Civil War. Yes, I mean Abraham Lincoln, the strong prairie giant who disposed of the old South. He would have wrestled Trump down with mighty doses of humor.
Humor, wit, satire and deadpan irony are weapons that should be wielded liberally against Trump. These are things the man does not understand. They are disarming, to be deployed cleverly with comedic timing. Subtle mockery laced with laughs may be the only way to destroy his bombast.
When Trump says, “Joe Biden is not playing with a full deck,” he’s just warming up. He puts the bully in the bully pulpit. It would be smart for Democrats to face that nobody can beat him at his own game. Yet refusing to engage, clinging to reason and reserve, as Hillary Clinton did, is a losing strategy.
Trump hates to be laughed at, true to his Teutonic roots. He cannot take a joke on himself, and he never forgave President Barack Obama for publicly teasing him about his reality show, “The Apprentice,” at a White House correspondents’ dinner.
As the third Democratic debate takes place, let’s search the stage in vain for a lighter side, a sharp stick to poke fun at the president.
Biden is like a sleepy old St. Bernard by the fireplace. Sadly, he’s never shown a flash of wit in his long political life. They say he’s electable, but he’s Trump’s perfect foil. The younger set of candidates, like Sens. Cory Booker, Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar, have their moments but are not real masters of repartee so far.
Mayor Pete Buttigieg has a spark of subversive charm and should show it more often. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren would bring gumption and defiance to a debate against Trump. Is that what the party needs? You tell me.
Ask Stephen Douglas, Lincoln’s debate rival in an Illinois Senate race in 1858. He found Lincoln’s “droll” style on the stump hard to match. For starters, Douglas stood 5 feet 4 inches to Lincoln’s 6 feet 4 inches. Lincoln declared their debates were “the long and short of it.”
The lanky lawyer’s cool defused Douglas’ hot-tempered winds of oratory, which gave the Windy City, Chicago, its nickname. Lincoln lost, but two years on, he defeated Douglas for president.
Lincoln’s wit, dry as wheat under the late-summer sun, opened ears and set him up to be heard on the serious stuff, the burning question of extending slavery.
Homespun, self-deprecating humor became a forte. When he was running for president, Lincoln once told of a woman who said he was the ugliest man she’d ever seen. When he said he could not help it, she said, yes, but he could still stay at home. Slapping his knee, he laughed at his own expense, endearing to total strangers.
This was a new thing. Thomas Jefferson never laughed at himself. Hardly. Nor did fearsome General Andrew Jackson, the populist president, Trump’s role model.
Emphasizing his rural roots, Lincoln told tales of a farmer and his son hunting for a lost sow.
As president, he parleyed humor as a weapon against the showy Civil War general who drilled his men but refused to fight. If the general wasn’t going to use the army, “Do you mind if I borrow it?” Lincoln asked.
Enter irony on the American presidential stage. It’s all too rare. In recent memory, Presidents Kennedy and Clinton took a page from Lincoln and knew how to laugh.
British Richard Carwardine, while an Oxford University college president, wrote a whole book called “Lincoln’s Sense of Humor.” When we met, we hit it off as only Lincolnistas can.
Humor is a gift — to us, we the people.
Jamie Stiehm, a Creators Syndicate columnist in Washington, comes from Madison.
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