Close Reading: Trump’s “not” joke

Remember a few months ago when we said Combat! blog wasn’t going to be about politics anymore? That was before a cartoon character got elected president. Not the good kind of cartoon character, either—Donald Trump is like a character in one of those nineties cartoons where everyone is bored and sarcastic. He’s the guy who doesn’t move the plot forward but says what we’re all thinking, i.e. what a marketing team thinks children are thinking. In that vein, the President of the United States executed a “not” joke on Twitter yesterday:


Although he does not play the “not” joke strictly according to Hoyle, this tweet is a significant achievement. He manages to make “not!” into a Trumpian exclamation. But there’s a lot of other stuff going on, too, and that’s why this tweet is the subject of today’s Close Reading.

The marquee interpretation here is that Trump has incorporated an established figure of speech into his own distinctive tweet syntax. Previously-remarked Trumpian exclamations have been descriptors that tell the reader how to react, such as SAD! or FAKE NEWS! They’re short, punchy exclamations that cue the appropriate feeling about what we’ve just read. Trump’s genius is to realize that his tweets have the same syntax as “not” jokes. His use of “NOT!” above functions as a Trumpian exclamation syntactically, but its meaning is governed by the “not” joke format.

He pretty much blows that format here. In its standard usage, “not” is an explicit indicator of sarcasm, as in “I’m having a good time—not.” It’s a denotative negation, q.v. Borat. But in the tweet above, Trump negates a statement that he wants us to take as true. “The…media is trying to say that…immigration in Sweden is working out” is his claim, and he wants us to take it a face value. He doesn’t want to “not” that. He wants to emphasize the media’s inaccuracy and/or dishonesty, so he needs to “not” their statement instead of his, e.g.: “Immigration in Sweden is working out—not!” At least in this tweet, Trump seems to have grasped the “not” part of “not” jokes without understanding the part where you say the opposite of what you mean.

But it works, because he has established a consistent tweet syntax that has primed us for a one-word commentary on what we just read. He has seen through the meaning of the “not” joke to its pure structure, and in that structure he has seen something familiar. It seems obvious in retrospect, and there its genius lies. But other, creepier stuff is happening in the shadows beneath that glaring interpretation. For example, Trump’s use of the phrase “FAKE NEWS media” as an epithet for the mainstream media shows how quickly and brutally that phrase has been coopted.

Remember when “fake news” meant made-up articles from phony websites? That lasted about 48 hours. Now “fake news” is what Trump people call news they don’t agree with. Trump’s use of the phrase “fake news media” capitalizes on this trend, simultaneously tapping the power of the conservative persecution fantasy and shortening “biased mainstream media” into a more felicitous phrase. “Fake news” is so direct and simple that it was bound to spread. The sentence “CNN is fake news” seemed outrageous two months ago, but today it is becoming cant. It’s our fault for loosing this short and punchy phrase upon on the world.

But my favorite part of this tweet is an exclamation that gets overshadowed by “NOT” but is perhaps more audacious: “give the public a break.” Trump’s not exasperated by the fake news. We are. It’s wearing us out. The American people deserve better than to watch the media rag on Trump for mentioning a terror attack in Sweden that didn’t technically happen. They’re missing the point, which is that immigration is causing big problems over there. We, the American people, are sick of their shenanigans, and Trump is on Twitter to stand up for us.

Remind me to use the phrase “give [third person] a break” in day-to-day life. Give Gary a break and share those cupcakes. Hey, spin instructor—how about you give this lady a break? It’s a great way to exert dominance over others even as you make a show of concern for their wellbeing. Also, unlike “not,” it isn’t literally the most embarrassing thing a human being could say.

It’s moments like this, when the president says “not,”  that we remember he is 70 years old. He was 46 when Wayne’s World came out. Given his age, it’s amazing he channels the zeitgeist as well as he does. But this tweet not his finest moment. There’s something cringe-inducing about seeing the president make a “not” joke. Maybe it’s that I haven’t seen any person I consider smart make such a joke unironically for the last two decades. Anyway, there’s only one way to end this post, but I am not going to do it.

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  1. I love these close readings. I somehow feel less manipulated by the powers that are because they offer a distant viewpoint to the insanity that is this administration’s modus operandi. And I’m genuinely impressed by your ability to untangle Trump’s linguistic knots!

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