The complexity of laughing at Trump – and lessons from France’s sans-culottes

Linda Kiernan, Trinity College Dublin

The power of laughter is something of a theme in Donald Trump’s presidency. Trump’s humourless response to Barack Obama’s jibes at the White House correspondents’ dinner in 2011 allegedly steeled his reserve to run for president in the first place; the New York Times recently asked why Trump himself seemingly never laughs at all.

And in October, it was reported that a US woman would stand a second trial for simply laughing at Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, at a congressional hearing. Desiree Fairooz had already been tried for this “contempt” – or as Stephen Colbert termed it, “first-degree chuckling with intent to titter”.

The prosecuting attorney stated that Fairooz “wasn’t just merely responding, she was voicing an opinion”. The argument that laughter alone was enough to convict was thrown out by the first judge; Ms Fairooz’s “brief reflexive burst of noise” has just been dismissed by the Department of Justice.

In the US’s rough political climate, laughter is having a hard time, too. Many questions on its worth have been posed: is laughter muffling potentially more effective forms of criticism? Is satire defusing political commentary by humanising its targets? Alec Baldwin has expressed concern that his impression of Trump on Saturday Night Live has disarmed real incisive commentary, reducing the presidency and its incumbent to a crass approximation of the more troublesome reality.

Weapons of the weak

What these qualms reflect is that as a political gesture, laughter has a considerable range. It can be used to defuse a situation, or to inflame. It can serve as a conciliatory gesture, and equally as a means of defiance. It can single out a target while also uniting a crowd. Laughter is used by many politicians; when they laugh along they can diffuse tension, and relax the public gaze. They become relatable, approachable, and at least acknowledge that they are meant to be the their audience’s equal, not their better.

But laughter can also carry a potentially revolutionary force. It’s a way for a group to recognise their common view of a figure, an issue, or a political standpoint. To quote George Orwell: “Every joke is a tiny revolution.”

The Laughing Fool, c. 1500.
Wikimedia Commons

Laughter was for much of history considered the mark of a fool, an uncontrolled reaction of the body and mind that betrayed an absence of reason. Many, including Plato and Hobbes, viewed laughter as a base expression, an animalistic response, devoid of reason. But in the 20th century, many scholars, including Henri Bergson and Mikhail Bakhtin, came up with more nuanced analyses of laughter and its political clout.

It was true that in what Bakhtin called carnivalesque culture, laughter became synonymous with the grotesque and the obscene, but it still serves an important social purpose: a means for those who had no other recourse to protest to register their views of the status quo.

Rumour, gossip, and laughter have been termed weapons of the weak, opportunities to defy authority in unofficial and often indefinable ways. Traditionally, this has made them harder for oppressive regimes to clearly identify and possibly prosecute. To this day, laughter remains a means of political expression for those who are otherwise disenfranchised: it subjects the powerful to both ridicule and scrutiny.

Get it?

In the early modern period, laughter played a significant role as a political language. The celebrations of the Feast of Fools and the Feast of the Ass allowed people of all levels of society to both display their places in the social order and to ridicule them. It was at once an assertion of authority and a challenge to it.

During the 18th century, political satire gained much ground. Enlightenment authors across Europe took aim at institutions of authority, often in underhand and opaque ways to circumvent censorship. Oftentimes “getting the joke” affirmed one’s membership of a political creed or club. Indeed, when political upheaval took hold in France, the need to laugh “appropriately” emerged as a measure of one’s loyalty to the revolution. The “rire sardonique”, the aristocratic snigger, was replaced with the good-natured belly-laugh of the “sansculotte” – the honest, genuine expression of mirth of the ordinary man, rather than the contrived, artificial ridicule of the polished courtier.

This idea of laughing the right laugh, of laughter as an indication of identity and mentality, is echoed in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1935 essay, Bolsheviks Do Laugh. The laughter of the Bolshevik, Eisenstein wrote, was loaded with the weight of revolution, of striving for the proletarian order. Unlike the laughter of others, Bolshevik laughter was not idle, nor frivolous. It was invested with the irony of Chekhov, the bitterness of Gogol; it was not for mere amusement, it had a higher purpose. For Eisenstein, laughter represented ways of seeing and understanding the world.

Politicians and those in positions of authority who actively resist or deny the right of those who have elected them to deride, ridicule, and laugh at them are also denying the idea that they are their citizens’ equal, that they are subject to scrutiny and indeed that they are accountable. While standards of comedy and perceptions of laughter have changed over time, one thing has remained immutable: laughter has always provided a means of dialogue between those in power and those they rule.

The ConversationWhen that dialogue is suspended – or rather, when the powerful lose their sense of humour – it’s time to worry.

Linda Kiernan, Lecturer in French History, Trinity College Dublin

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


The ‘War on Terror’ is no trivial laughing matter to be sure, but I have found a couple of videos that lighten the mood for just a moment or two.

And here is a little something on that other ‘War on Terror’ personality – George W. Bush:



Video testimony, reenactment of crime scene hints at hearts of killers, martyrs.

ISTANBUL, November 25 (Compass Direct News) – Last week’s court hearing on the bloody murder of three Christians in Turkey’s southeastern city of Malatya paved the way for further investigations into the connection between the five defendants and shadowy elements of the Turkish state linked to criminal activities.

The 13th hearing at Malatya’s Third Criminal Court on Friday (Nov. 21) in the murders of Turkish Christians Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel and German Christian Tilmann Geske presented little new evidence. No witnesses were called to testify.

The court prosecutor and plaintiff lawyers, however, are pursuing proof that there are links between the murderers and Ergenekon, an ultranationalist cabal of retired generals, politicians, journalists and mafia members under investigation for conspiracy in recent murders.

A separate criminal investigation has linked the cabal to high-profile attacks, murders and plans to engineer domestic chaos and ultimately overthrow the government. Evidence in the Malatya case indicates that a local journalist, Varol Bulent Aral, acted as a bridge between the five murder suspects and Ergenekon.

Plaintiff attorneys also believe that Aral incited the suspected ringleader of the attack, Emre Gunaydin, to murder by convincing him foreign missionaries were connected to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, a domestic outlawed terrorist organization.

According to a Nov. 14 statement, Gunaydin testified that Aral promised him state immunity for the planned attacks. In court last week, however, he refuted the claim and said he hadn’t met with Aral.

On April 18, 2007 the three Christians were tied up, stabbed and tortured for several hours before their throats were slit in what Turkish media have dubbed “the Malatya massacre” at the Zirve Publishing Co. office in Malatya.

Gunaydin along with Salih Gurler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker and Abuzer Yildirim, who have been in jail for the past 19 months, are accused of the murder. They are all between 19 and 21 years old.

Per their request, plaintiff attorneys have received the Ergenekon file from the 13th High Criminal Court of Istanbul and have reviewed it for connections with the Malatya murders. It is now under investigation by the court prosecutors and judges.

“We are talking about a room with five guys and three men,” said Orhan Kemal Cengiz, who leads the team of plaintiff lawyers. “There is no doubt this is first degree murder; a barbaric act. These things will increase their term of punishment to three counts of murder and three life imprisonment terms each, as well as other crimes such as preventing freedom, stealing and others. We don’t have a question about this.”

The question that remains, according to the plaintiff attorneys, is the identity of the real powers behind the bloody attack. Cengiz said he and the court now have no doubt there were greater forces behind the Malatya murders.

“I am 100 percent sure – it is the impression of the prosecutor and no one has doubts – there are sources behind these young men, but we can’t identify them,” Cengiz told Compass.

The plaintiff team hopes to bring up to 21 witnesses to the stand in subsequent hearings in order to make connections between Ergenekon and the Malatya murders clear.

“We believe all of them are somehow connected and have relevant information to this case,” he said.

If the list is accepted, he said the trial may go on for another year. “But if nothing comes out last minute, it may be over in three or four months,” he said.


Missionary Activities on Trial, Again

At Friday’s hearing, defense lawyers reiterated their position that the five young men acted in response to missionary efforts, suggesting that such activities were sufficiently nefarious to incite the violent murders.

The prosecution team rebutted the statement, saying that according to constitutional Articles 9 and 24, people have the right to share their faith, and no person or authority can follow and record those activities. They pointed out that the five defendants had been collecting data and planning the murders at least eight months before they carried them out.

Defense lawyers also requested that the prison where the defendants are held conduct a psychological exam of the defendants – especially Gurler – because they were all under stress due to suspected ringleader Gunaydin’s threats.


Revisiting Crime Scene

Those present in the courtroom on Friday viewed year-old video footage of defendants Ozdemir, Ceker and Gunaydin each walking through the crime scene shortly after their arrest, describing how they attacked, stabbed and sliced the throats of Aydin, Geske and finally Yuksel.

A sobering silence prevailed in the courtroom as judges, lawyers, local press, Turkish Protestant observers and others watched Ozdemir and later Ceker walk through the Zirve publishing house and re-enact the murders over the dried blood pools of the three martyrs. In their accounts, they implicated Gunaydin and Salih as the main aggressors, although all accuse the others of participating in the murders.

During the video presentation, judges and lawyers noticed suspect Gurler laughing at the witnesses’ testimonies at the crime scene. In the video, Ozdemir and Ceker testified that they had told Gurler and Gunaydin they couldn’t take the violence.

In the video testimony, Ozdemir said he told Gurler while he was stabbing Aydin, the first to be killed, “That’s enough, I can’t do this.” Ozdemir looked down during his video testimony, forlorn and unable to watch.

Gurler later told angry judges that he was laughing because all the witnesses’ statements in the video were false.

“They’re lying against me,” he said.

In his video account of the murder scene, Ceker described how the five young men and the three Zirve staff members talked “a lot” about religion before the suspects attacked Aydin, tying him and lying him on the floor face down.

Gunaydin confronted Aydin about his missionary activities and asked him why he was acting “against Turks” before Gurler sliced his throat, according to Ceker’s original statement.

In Gunaydin’s video testimony, profusely sweating, he described the repeated stabbings of the victims, re-enacting his arm movements and describing how Ozdemir held a gun at the victims, threatening them.

“I didn’t look,” Gunaydin said after describing one of the violent stabbing scenes. “I’m weak about these things … I can’t even cut chicken.”

He described how while Yildirim and Gurler were repeatedly stabbing Geske, the victim lifted his hands up in a gesture of prayer. Gunaydin also described how Yuksel, injured by the stabbing while tied and on the floor, cried out in Turkish, “Mesih, Mesih [Messiah],” between moans before they stuffed a towel in his mouth to silence him.

After the court showed his video testimony, Gunaydin stood up and told the court he had just gotten out of the hospital at that time, and that that account was not how he now remembered the events of April 18, 2007.

In their video testimony, the young men described how the phone and doorbell were ringing while they were torturing the Christians. Before coming out the door with their hands in the air, they showed police interviewing them in the video how they had disposed of their guns and bloodied knives in the Zirve office.

Gunaydin escaped through a window, fell and was severely injured. On Friday plaintiff lawyers requested from the court an investigation into who entered the crime scene while Gunaydin was in the hospital.

When the defendants were asked whether they knew of Aral’s alleged offer of state protection to Gunaydin or a monetary award for the murders, they claimed to have no information.

“I never saw a check in the course of these events, nor did I hear anything about it,” said Gurler. “I only knew that Emre had a bank statement.”

Yildirim also claimed ignorance: “I don’t remember anything about a check. If Emre had one, it would have stayed in his pocket; he wouldn’t have showed it to us.”

When asked about meetings between Gunaydin and Aral, the defendants said they hadn’t witnessed any between the two. They did admit to having spoken to Aral at a sports complex about a different matter, but they knew him as “Mehmet.”


Foreign Press, Organizations Negligent

Twelve of the nearly 20 private and human rights lawyers from around Turkey that compose the plaintiff team attended the court hearing last week. Cengiz said the primary purpose of the plaintiff lawyers, who are working pro bono, was to create a legal “common eye” that is watching all related cases such as Ergenekon and the murder of Hrant Dink, editor of Armenian newspaper Agos, who was murdered months before the three Christians in Malatya.

But the plaintiff lawyers pointed out that very few international bodies and foreign press members are actively monitoring the case, even though in their estimation the Malatya murders are directly linked to uncovering deep elements of Turkish corruption.

“This case has tremendous implications for democracy and deep-state elements in Turkey,” said Cengiz, who has received numerous threats since the beginning of the trial and lives under 24-hour protection.

“What we have here is a concrete act of the Ergenekon gang and it’s interesting.”  

Report from Compass Direct News