Written by Natalie Gubbay
It’s 8 p.m. on a Tuesday and laughter echoes through Gaylord Hall. Not soft, late-night studying laughter, not raucous comedy laughter, but sharp, biting laughter; the kind that cuts through the air with no mercy. The type produced by a room full of liberal college students watching the presidential debate.
Presidential debates are, as an institution, the epitome of seriousness: they are bold promises and economic jargon; pantsuits and ties; microphones and TV lighting. A clash between two intellectuals over the future of the world’s most influential nation should not, as a rule, be funny. Yet I, too, found myself choking back snorts as Trump spoke, unable to maintain my composure.
The thing about laughter is that it requires no words: it is an emotion without an articulation. To say we laughed to disagree would be inaccurate; disagreement, by definition, requires some articulation, even if we don’t voice it. To disagree is a verb, an action; it requires doing, unlike being offended, confused, or overwhelmed, which are states we might be in that arise from something external. To disagree, or, as the trusty Google dictionary defines it, “to have or express a different opinion,” implies that we can explain those differences in opinion—that we have some sort of rationale for why we are right and someone else is wrong. Disagreement paves the way for dialogue, which Donna Brazile, when speaking to Colorado College, described as respectful and productive discourse between two opposing parties. Indeed, progress depends on disagreement.
Laughter, on the other hand, indicates dismissal. Inexplicit dismissal allows us to write off entire bodies of thought, entire human beings, entire sections of the population without pause; it allows us to be challenged without challenging ourselves. To dismiss, to treat as unworthy of serious consideration”, or, a more literal definition, “to send away”: this is exactly what we do when we laugh at the presidential debate. We want Trump gone from our analytical thought, and we banish him faster than words would allow.
It is one thing to dismiss Trump himself. But the danger here is that we dismiss at once him, his supporters, the ideas behind his campaign, and the probably close to 49 percent of the country who will end up voting for him—which, ironically, is why his supporters are so angry in the first place. For 51 percent of the country to dismiss 49 is not a healthy political system. For 49 percent to be dismissed by 51 would certainly feel “rigged,” even to the straight, white, Christian males I’ve ridiculed in the past for claiming so.
If we take out the misogyny, the racism, and the xenophobia, what does Trump really stand for? He’s a vigilante swinging a bat at that unhealthy political system, which we already know but too often forget in our dismissal. And why shouldn’t he be? Almost 80 percent of the nation reports feeling dissatisfied or angry with the federal system—and not 80 percent of the nation supports Trump. The notion, for example, that Congress functions approximately as well as that awful high school project group we’ve all had is pretty universal: Congress approval ratings dropped to 11 percent late this summer, which is lower than Nixon’s approval rating during Watergate and BP’s approval rating during the oil spill. In 2012, House Republicans voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act 33 separate times. Public support for expanded background checks sits at 92 percent, yet legislation including it failed to pass the Senate. Over 80 percent of Americans believe money has too great an influence in presidential elections, yet the Supreme Court holds that super-PACs have first amendment rights—not to mention the fact that the Supreme Court has only eight justices, since Congress refuses to appoint another, and that those justices happen—how coincidental—to be split evenly along party lines.
We all know this. We all agree that 51 percent doesn’t really constitute a majority. But we don’t talk about it anymore, because the flag-bearer of the anti-Washington campaign happens to also suggest that Mexicans are rapists, that black people are violent, that women are incompetent. We dismiss the reality of Congress because of the other reality: that Trump’s policies would cost the U.S. economy $1 trillion, undermine international institutions, amplify anti-American sentiment worldwide, leave deported immigrants destitute, and alienate millions of minority citizens. Really, Trump is most unfortunate for Trump supporters because he has bundled their valid concerns with blatant ignorance and bigotry. Certainly, there are Trump supporters who deride anyone who is not a straight, white, Christian male. But the majority of his supporters are angry for the same reasons a lot of us are angry, and simply channel it through a conservative, rather than liberal, lens. For these voters, Trump’s candidacy, while at first highlighting the inefficiencies and incongruities of today’s federal system, now serves to obscure that same concern, which, carrying the intense baggage that is Trumpism, has been deemed acceptable to dismiss in common political dialogue.
I’m not defending Trump. But in dismissing his ideas, we fail to learn from one of the greatest learning moments in recent American history.
It is possible to be liberal but still skeptical of the country’s political system; it is possible to fully support Hillary Clinton but recognize that we need change. It is possible—and, I would argue, necessary—to criticize Trump, to hold him accountable for every “-ism” under the sun, and to still validate many of the emotions that drive his support. His policies are unacceptable, but the momentum behind his candidacy rests on criticisms that are too prevalent to be ignored.
In this case, do shoot the messenger. But save the message.