Jason Steed Doesn’t Think Trump Was ‘Just Joking’

CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci
CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Don’t worry: Donald Trump didn’t really tell a bunch of people at a campaign rally to assassinate Hillary Clinton. Everything is fine!

Recall on Tuesday, at a campaign event in Wilmington, N.C., Trump said:

Hillary wants to abolish, essentially abolish the Second Amendment. If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know.

But — but I’ll tell you what. That will be a horrible day. If — if Hillary gets to put her judges — right now, we’re tied. You see what’s going on.

Trump later assured America that, though he gave a shout-out to the “Second Amendment” folks, he was really speaking to the power that his followers have at the polls. (“Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendment folks” = apparently not catchy enough for this purpose?) House Speaker Paul Ryan tried to explain away the comments as “just a joke gone bad.”


Over in the “not a joke” camp, we have the Secret Service, which announced in a cryptic, not-super-helpful tweet that they were “aware of the comments,” and prominent democrats, who expressed their horror at what scanned as an invitation to assassinate.

Meanwhile, Jason Steed, an appellate attorney based in Texas, expected Trump would explain away his comments by insisting he was “just joking.” But Steed — who years ago was an English professor who wrote a dissertation on humor theory — believes there is no such thing as “just joking.” So he told his 2100 followers as much:

Steed elaborated on the concept in a series of about two dozen tweets. When we choose to tell a joke, or to laugh at one, we are choosing whether or not we agree with its central idea, values, or perspective. Everyone who laughs at one kind of joke gets to be in on it; everyone who doesn’t is on the outs. Acknowledging or announcing that a joke isn’t funny distances you from its teller. So we clarify and declare, joke by joke, what kind of person we are. Humor is, basically, a sorting hat, and we use it to suss out where we belong, and with whom.

Within 24 hours, Steed’s Twitter essay had gone viral; his follower count more than tripled. I spoke with Steed by phone to talk about how humor works and why jokes are so powerful — even/especially when they aren’t jokes at all.


Your tweets were based on your prediction that Trump would justify his remarks by saying he was “just joking.” And your thesis is, essentially, that there is no such thing as “just joking,” right?

We all joke. We all use humor all the time. It’s part of our lives on a pretty much daily basis. But it’s never meaningless. It’s never “just joking.” There’s always more going on in the humor than we consciously realize or think about. It’s part of how define ourselves, or how we construct our identity as individuals or as groups.

When we laugh and joke together, we’re coming together as a group about something. There’s a kind of agreement about something. If we agree something is funny, we’re not just agreeing it’s funny; we’re agreeing about something underlying the funniness. There are either certain values, ideas, or attitudes that are being conveyed by the humor. So when we join in the humor, we’re joining in with a group that agrees about those things, or is at least open to agreeing about those things. And when we don’t find it funny, we’re in the out-group. We aren’t part of the group that shares that view.

My point is not that humor is good or bad; just that it does this thing, and we should be mindful of what it does. Some people, I think, mistook my tweets as saying there’s something bad about humor. That’s not what I’m saying at all. But it’s always doing this kind of work: It’s simultaneously bringing some people together while excluding other people, or certain ideas or values. It’s always assimilating and alienating, or accepting and rejecting, at the same time.


What we choose to laugh about together says something about who we are, either because we’re laughing at a particular group of people in a way that excludes them from our in-group, or because we’re laughing about a particular idea or value that is part of how we define ourselves, or something along those lines. Which is why I think, ethically, we should be mindful about what we choose to accept as funny and what we choose to join in on.

Part of what seems to be happening here, too, is the fact that Hillary has these identities — liberal, feminist, woman — that are often dismissed as “humorless.” And it seems to give Trump, and people who support him, more authority to accuse her, and her supporters, of not getting the joke. It falls in line with the narrative people already have about her.

Right: “You’re too defensive,” or “you just don’t get it.” “There’s something wrong with you that you can’t just go along with the joke.” And that’s part of the work it’s doing.

We like humor, and it does bring us together with people. So when a joke is told that might be offensive, we have a human desire to be part of the in-group. If you can’t take the joke, if you can’t join in on the humor, then you’re not part of the in-group; there’s something wrong with you. And because we want to be in the in-group, I don’t want to say there’s a coercive thing — that’s too strong. But there’s a kind of force that is involved. There’s social work going on with that.

For the Trump crowd, one of their biggest complaints is about political correctness. And some of what I’m saying smacks of that, right? I’m saying, “We should be careful about certain jokes that might alienate or marginalize certain people or individuals.” So to say, “let’s be careful about joking about assassinating someone,” you’re one of the P.C. police. That’s what I’ve been getting on Twitter!

Is that what most of the response has been like? People accusing you of being the P.C. police?

This has been kind of a crazy 24 hours. I can’t even begin to go through all the mentions and the RTs and responses. So only from what I’ve been able to skim through, I feel like the response has been, two-thirds positive. I spent a couple years thinking hard about this stuff because I was writing a dissertation about how humor works in literature and film and how it constructs identities. I’ve thought through this stuff, and I think most people, obviously, haven’t. But I think the most common reaction seems to be people saying, “You just said what I’ve always thought but didn’t ever articulate.” That’s the most common response. On a gut level, everyone experiences humor where you realize groups are being formed through joking and mockery and those kinds of things. That’s been the bulk of it.

There has been this one-third of respondents that have taken it to mean I want to ban jokes, I’m another member of the P.C. police, or that I can’t take a joke, clearly I have no sense of humor.

Something I come across a lot in my work is, most people consume pop culture for fun. It’s recreation. And if I have something critical to say about a movie, like a big, summer blockbuster-type film — like, “All the female characters are badly written and have nothing of substance to do, and there are virtually zero people of color on screen,” to use a totally rare example — I always hear back from a contingent of people that I’m “ruining it” by thinking about it too hard. And I imagine you are getting that as well: That thinking about humor in this way sucks all the fun out of it.

What’s interesting about that, and what people don’t get, is that I assume that some of what you’re trying to think about and really look hard at is the work that’s being done. You go to watch this movie, and let’s say the representation of gender roles, what you’re really critiquing is how this movie is portraying women. The work that’s being accomplished by the movie is being accomplished more effectively if people don’t think about it. You reinforce the gender roles more effectively if no one stops to ask what you’re doing. Everyone who says, “Don’t think about it so hard,” is basically saying, “We should give up and let it do the thing that it’s doing rather than resist the work that it’s accomplishing.” That you should want to be subconsciously manipulated by everything around you.

In this case with Trump, one of the things that’s odd to me about the “just joking” defense is that, in the room, in the moment, that line didn’t play like a joke at all. No one really laughed.

Humor doesn’t always have to involve laugh-out-loud kinds of responses. Sometimes things are funny but we have this sort of internal pleasure and enjoyment from this funny juxtaposition of two things that don’t go together, but we don’t laugh out loud, necessarily.

When I saw the clip, I mean, the Twitter thing yesterday was really prompted by — I was just anticipating, and assuming, that their explanation for it would be that it was a joke. I think you’re right: It didn’t play like a joke, like a big punchline that everybody laughed at. But it was still kind of an off-the-cuff riff about something that I think, it’s plausible that he could have said, “I was just joking,” even though it’s not a punchline joke. I thought that would be a plausible explanation in an attempt to downplay the seriousness of what he just said. Which is why I wrote this little tweetstorm: because I was anticipating that that would be the explanation.

It turns out, they didn’t explain it that way, which I think is even more troubling. Because one of the ways we use humor is to slow-roll an idea that might be offensive or shocking or troubling: We use humor to introduce those kinds of ideas because we know it might be shocking or inappropriate. We kind of use humor that way.

Or in a more benign way, like if you have a crush on someone, and you put out there as a joke, “Wouldn’t it be funny if we dated…?” just to see if it takes.

That’s what I mean. You’re trying to float the idea in a more safe way, using humor where maybe — you have an out. And that’s what I mean by assimilation and alienation. If they don’t join in and accept it, you can try to say, “I was just joking.” And that’s your defense. “I didn’t really mean it.”

But that’s my point about just joking: There is something that you’re sort of floating. And if they welcome it, if they embrace it, you’re not going to defend yourself by saying you were just joking. You’re opening the door to assimilate that idea and take it further than how you floated it. If he comes back and says he’s just joking, that’s not all that’s happening. He’s floating an idea that, if enough people embrace it, the doors open to actually assimilate the idea: Armed revolt or assassination, whatever idea he’s floating, you’re trying to open the door for people in the in-group to assimilate that idea.

When he says things off-the-cuff, that’s the work that that’s doing: Opening the door for transgressing norms and saying things that we would like to think are unthinkable, but trying to open the door to making them thinkable, which is what a lot of us find troubling about it. And he gets away with it because he does it a lot of times.

I can’t really imagine what the reaction would be if Obama said the same thing.

If Clinton tried to make jokes like that, people would freak out about it. So I think he’s gotten a pass, in a lot of ways. A lot of it is through the primaries, he got away with a lot through the debates with other Republicans who didn’t really stand up to him or take him to task for the crazy stuff he was saying. So this shield developed around him.

To flip the political leanings for a second, it’s like what Jon Stewart was doing on The Daily Show during the Bush years, after 9/11, when it was really taboo to say anything negative about the war in Iraq, to not be supportive of the administration, to be anything but outwardly, wholeheartedly patriotic. And the jokes on that show created this space to say what at the time was fairly transgressive stuff, to be critical of something that was widely accepted.

I think that’s right. I think that’s what humor basically does: It opens up a space for things that you might not normally feel safe saying in a serious way. And if we join in and laugh with it, we’re allowing for the possibility of it being okay. And if we don’t, we’re saying it’s not okay.

And that says something about who we are: If we are a people who think it’s okay to criticize our leaders and what our country is doing, we will join in with that humor and assimilate with those ideas. And if we don’t think that’s okay, we’re going to reject that as not funny and not okay. And it works for criticizing your leaders or criticizing a race. If we want to be a people who think that’s okay to do, we’ll join in with that kind of humor it opens that door. And it works with assassinating people.

Why do you think people tend to get so defensive when called on jokes that don’t go over well with everyone? Or non-jokes, as the case may be here. Why is “it’s just a joke” such a popular reaction when someone questions whether or not a joke was okay to tell?

I think that for some, it’s probably the same people you run into who don’t want to think hard about movies. They don’t want to have to think hard about their jokes. “I’m just trying to go through life and make jokes and not worry about it.” I think that’s a lot of it. And I think there’s probably people who perceive this injustice about who gets to joke and who doesn’t.

The point I would be trying to make is, nobody is saying you can’t tell these kind of jokes or have this kind of humor. It’s really more about being aware of what it is and what it does. It’s more of a nuanced understanding of it. Go ahead and tell a racist joke if you want. You just have to understand that some groups will reject that. You’re choosing to embrace a certain identity, and that might be as a racist. And if that’s fine, go ahead and do that. But you have to be aware that this is what your humor is doing.