“Just Joking”

Some things shouldn't be joked about (and they often aren't jokes anyway).

If a job candidate who was interviewing for a job as an accountant said, “I won’t embezzle, except on the first day!” What are the odds that the job candidate would get the job?

If an applicant at McDonald’s said, “Don’t worry, I won’t spit in the food, except on day one!” Would they get the job?

If a young man, upon meeting the parents of a young lady he was taking on a date, said, “Don’t worry! I won’t rape her, except on the first date!” Would he be going on that date?

If when a parent went to choose a preschool the potential teacher said to the parent, “Don’t worry! I won’t beat your child, except on day one!” Would that parent choose that preschool?

If the persons in these scenarios immediately followed up their statements with “just joking!” it would hardly erase the horrible nature of the utterances in question. Some things are not joked about in a given context. Even if it was believed that these were just horribly unfunny jokes the attempts at that type of humor in those contexts would raise serious doubts about the character, mental state, and basic judgment of the persons in question.

Saying awful things is still awful, even if it is asserted that the awful thing is “just a joke.” And when a person is willing to say something awful, yet claims it is a joke (or, if others try and dismiss bad behavior by asserting that, well, it must have been a joke) it is not unreasonable to assume that no, it really wasn’t a joke, and, moreover, attempts to classify it as a joke is an attempt to obfuscate.

Worse than the “just joking” defense, what if the persons about did not offer that defense, but others did it for them? (Don’t worry, Mom, the rape thing was just a joke. Isn’t he hilarious?).

Donald Trump said (more than once), the following:

In a recent interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity…he would be a dictator for only “Day One”: “I want to close the border, and I want to drill, drill, drill. … We’re closing the border, and we’re drilling, drilling, drilling. After that, I’m not a dictator.”

I put that in the same category as my examples above. It is a gross, problematic, and utterly unseemly* thing to say if one is running for president. It is, in my view, disqualifying. Even as a joke it is wildly inappropriate.

And let me note that I cannot find Trump saying he was joking, even if I have seen news outlets (including CNN, Donald Trump jokes about acting like a ‘dictator’, and the USAT column linked above, treating it like a joke) and his co-partisans treating like a joke.

“It’s entertainment,” said Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas. “You know, we’ve been around him long enough. It’s entertaining.”

I think it was a joke,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

(Source: USAT).

Yes, Representative McCaul, nothing is more entertaining than a presidential candidate talking about dictatorship! And man, Senator Graham, you think it was a joke? I feel better already.

Plus, we cannot ignore the context.

For example, via Politico, One year of Trump’s praise for authoritarians. The piece has seven very specific examples.

Via NY1: Trump shares word cloud linking potential second term with ‘revenge’ and ‘dictatorship’.

Last March (via the Texas Tribune) Trump vows retribution at Waco rally: “I am your warrior, I am your justice”.

“I am your warrior, I am your justice,” Trump said in a nearly 90-minute speech, most of it focused on perceived political enemies and slights. “For those who have been wronged and betrayed … I am your retribution.”

You know, the healthy rhetoric of a man dedicated to democracy.

Via the AP: On Jan. 6 many Republicans blamed Trump for the Capitol riot. Now they endorse his presidential bid.

 Steven Levitsky write about three rules that political partiesmust follow: accept the results of fair elections, reject the use of violence to gain power and break ties to extremists.

In the aftermath of the 2020 election, they write, only one U.S. political party “violated all three.”


Trump opened his first rally of his 2024 presidential campaign with a popular recordingof the J6 Prison Choir — riot defendants singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” recorded over a phone line from jail, interspersed with Trump reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

More than 1,200 people have been charged in the riot, with nearly 900 convicted, including leaders of the extremist groups the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers who are serving lengthy terms for seditious conspiracy.

Trump has called Jan. 6 defendants “hostages” and said there was so much love at the “Stop the Steal” rally he held near the White House that day before he encouraged the mob to march down Pennsylvania Avenue, assuring he would be with them at the Capitol, though he never did join.

But, sure, we should take quips about dictatorship as mere joking.

Asked about Trump’s second-term agenda, GOP lawmakers brushed off his admission that he would be a dictator on “day one.”

“He’s joking,” said Trump ally Byron Donalds, R-Fla. 

“Just bravado,” said Rep. Tim Burchett, R-Tenn. “There’s still checks and balances.”

The answer from Burchett is chilling, as he is taking Trump seriously but trying to reassure us because we have checks and balances! That’s pretty damn stunning and not reassuring in the least.

There are also statements like this that echo fascist authoritarians:

“We pledge to you that we will root out the communists, Marxists, fascists and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country that lie and steal and cheat on elections,” Trump said toward the end of his speech, repeating his false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. “They’ll do anything, whether legally or illegally, to destroy America and to destroy the American Dream.”

Supporters can try and rationalize all of this away if they like (or they can embrace it wholly) but when a person tries to tell you who they are, you should listen.

I could go on and on and on, but will stop here for now. But I will note that part of what is truly chilling here is that there are many Trump supporters for whom this is a feature and not a bug that has to be rationalized away by calling classifying as jokes.

*It is also a borderline non sequitur, but that’s it own problem and not an unusual feature of Trumpian rhetoric.

FILED UNDER: 2024 Election, Democracy, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Mister Bluster says:

    After that, I’m not a dictator.

    And then he will release his tax forms like he said he would. After the election.
    (He did not say which election.)

  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    After that, I’m not a dictator.”

    I am a firm believer that everything trump says is a lie either in whole or in part. In the above quote the first part is the lie.

    “I am your warrior, I am your justice,” Trump said in a nearly 90-minute speech, most of it focused on perceived political enemies and slights. “For those who have been wronged and betrayed … I am your retribution.”

    This holds true for the above quote as well. He doesn’t give a rat’s ass about other people being wronged and betrayed, in fact he is the first to betray others and wronging them is as natural to him as breathing.

    But he will smite all his personal enemies and tell the cult he’s doing it for them, and idiots that they are they’ll thank him for it.

  3. CSK says:

    It truly is chilling that Trumpkins regard his worst features as being his greatest virtues. They see him not only as their savior but as one of them: the blue-collar Messiah.

  4. Jen says:

    Most people start with the “I was just joking!” sh!t when they realize, post-statement, that something they have said sounds BAD.

    For Trump, it’s a greatest hits dog-whistle. He says what he thinks (probably accurately) that his appalling supporters WANT to hear, and then adds the “just joking” for his grit-your-teeth-and-vote-for-him-anyway Republican voters.

    He’s been doing this for years. He will, absolutely, be even more awful in a round 2 than he was the first four years, if the American people are dumb enough to elect him again.

  5. Kathy says:

    [I get the point that was being made here, but I am not comfortable with death threat jokes, even if rhetorically on point, to be associated with one of my posts. As such, I am removing it


  6. gVOR10 says:

    This stuff is basic to Trump’s success. His supporters hear what they want to hear and if pressed by the press he can deny he meant it. His supporters then see the denial as just a game to fool the press.

    Were the real estate investors and contractors he dealt with for most of his career really dumb enough to buy this sort of thing? Or did they all think they were insiders in the con?

  7. Hal_10000 says:

    Nine years. Nine years this feculent pustule has been afflicting American politics and there are still people who will run around saying “he’s just joking” and “he doesn’t mean that” and “he’s just trying to get the left’s goat”. Maybe, just maybe, after nine years of this, it’s time to take him literally and seriously.

  8. CSK says:

    Trump has refused to sign an oath vowing not to try and overthrow the U.S. government that’s part of the ballot access petition in Illinois.

  9. Mimai says:

    I prompted GPT4 with the following:
    Read this blog post. From an Aristotelian ethics perspective, would it be appropriate to make a joke about the blog post?

    GPT4 responded:
    I read the blog post you shared. It is a thought-provoking piece that raises questions about the appropriateness of humor in certain contexts. Aristotle’s ethical philosophy emphasizes the importance of virtues such as honesty, courage, and justice. In his work, he also identifies wittiness, or eutrapelia, as a virtue ¹. According to Aristotle, wittiness is a social virtue that concerns certain words and deeds in a community ². It is important to note that Aristotle’s views on wittiness are complex and nuanced, and a complete account of his treatment of this virtue is beyond the scope of this response.

    In general, humor can be a powerful tool for social commentary and critique. However, it is important to consider the context and the potential impact of the joke. From an Aristotelian perspective, it would be appropriate to make a joke about the blog post if it is done in a way that is consistent with the virtues of honesty, courage, and justice. A joke that is mean-spirited or that targets vulnerable groups would not be consistent with these virtues and would not be appropriate from an Aristotelian perspective.
    I then asked for jokes about this blog post in the style of (separately): Aristotle, Hannah Gadsby, Gary Gulman, and George Carlin. The results were terrible.

  10. Mikey says:

    I want to drill, drill, drill.

    In typically ignorant Trump fashion, he’s apparently entirely unaware the U. S. is now producing more oil than any nation in history, and far more than during his misbegotten term.

  11. Mikey says:

    There’s also this, from his Iowa rant yesterday (and can we just pause for a moment in appreciation of how Aaron Rupar watches this tripe so we don’t have to):

    Aaron Rupar
    Trump on President Xi: “He controls 1.4 billion people ruthlessly. Ruthlessly. No games, right? They said, ‘is President Xi of China a brilliant man?’ I said, Yes he is.”

    This is, of course, not the first time he’s expressed strong admiration for the ruthlessness of Chinese leaders. He spoke very positively of the Chinese government’s brutal slaughter in Tiananmen Square a few months after it happened (this is from an interview with Playboy magazine in March 1990):

    “When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it,” Trump said. “Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength. Our country is right now perceived as weak.”

    Anyone who doubts he wants to do the same with anyone who would protest his actions is fooling themselves.

    And even more horrifying is how many Americans would praise him for it.