Stop Laughing. You’re Not Fixing The Problem. You're Part Of It.
There’s a theory (read: joke) as to why Donald Trump is so eager to bow to Vladimir Putin: they’re secret lovers. It’s not funny.
In the New York Times rendering, a short by award-winning animator Bill Plympton originally released last month but tweeted earlier this week, shows the US President as a lovestruck teenager, softly pencilled in pastel pink.
"Donald Trump's not-so-secret admiration for Vladimir Putin plays out in a teenager’s bedroom, where the fantasies of this forbidden romance come to life," the caption reads.
Trump dresses in a prom-ready powder-blue suit in a bedroom decorated with a large poster of a half-naked Putin, before greeting him at the door. He hands his heart to the shirtless Putin, spending the rest of the short holding hands, riding a unicorn, before finishing with a passionate kiss soundtracked by real audio clips of Trump praising the Russian leader.
The punchline? That the leaders, who spent this week making headlines thanks to a summit that left politicians and media reeling, are actually gay.
It’s a punchline that’s been cashed in on by everyone over the past 18 months, before The New York Times got in on the action. Stephen Colbert quipped about Trump, Putin, and the phrase “c**k holster” last year, and when Trump initially cancelled his summit with Kim Jong Un earlier this year, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius called it a “risky break up letter” written in “the tone of a wounded suitor”.
“It’s like the letters people send when breaking up a romance that hasn’t quite ripened,” Ignatius said.
And we get it, you're clever and know your Iron Curtain-era history - it’s a play on My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love, the infamous mural on the Berlin Wall that depicts former Soviet Union leader Leonid Brezhnev and former East Germany leader Erich Honecker engaged in a lip-lock. The mural reproduces a photo from 1979 during the 30th anniversary celebration of the foundation of Germany as a communist nation, that captured Brezhnev and Honecker in the embrace after signing an agreement of mutual support.
But in our current hyper-connected nightmare, where current affairs is beyond belief, we have a humour problem. We are post-context, where meaning and relevance are strip-mined from news and culture to be turned into sound bites in an attempt to manufacture something more comfortably absurd than what reflects reality. The horror of The Handmaid’s Tale has been distilled into “praise be lol” jokes, and memes are treated as much of an information source as a news story, their meaning twisted and turned. We’ll take anything to lighten up our increasingly dire state of affairs, even at the expense of those made most vulnerable by what’s happening.
The joke is tasteless for a variety of reasons. Both leaders are dangerous for the LGBTQ+ community: in the first year of Trump's presidency, his administration reinstated a ban on trans people in the military, directed federal lawyers to take anti-LGBTQ+ stances in cases, and refused to celebrate Pride month; while under Putin’s presidency, crimes against the LGBTQ+ community have doubled, mass persecution of gay men occurred in Chechnya in March-May 2017, a ban on adoptions by same-gender couples was signed into law, and police were allowed to arrest tourists suspected of being lesbian, gay, or an ally.
Moreover, such jokes have a distinctly schoolyard tone, using ‘gay’ as an insult and a punchline. They use queerness to belittle both Trump and Putin, positioning it as a source of weakness and incompetence. It infers that being gay would make them weaker, less threatening, and comedic, and would be a broad act of emasculation on both their parts, leaning right back to some unsettling Cold War-era falsehoods, where suspected LGBTQ+ people were questioned and publicly shamed for who they were - that gay people are weak, easily manipulated, and a security risk, and are therefore inferior to straight people.
The instinct to laugh instead of think is also dangerous. Like other jokes that have stripped issues of their significance through a careless, meme-driven news cycle, comparing Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin to gay people is perilous, regressive, and distracts citizens from the most crucial problem – which plays directly into the hand of politicians who seek to gain undue power.
This week, Trump and Putin had a summit in Helsinki. Do you know what happened at it, while you were laughing at a candy-coloured cartoon? Two men with terrifying amounts of power and regressive agendas were legitimised, Putin was left unchallenged on Russia’s interference in the US presidential election, his invasion of Ukraine, and the shooting down of MH-17, and Trump undermined the US intelligence community.
All have potentially catastrophic repercussions for the world we live in.
“You have humiliated them out of destroying democracy by saying they are like gay people,” comedian Guy Branum said.
These are dangerous times. Jokes that seek to link gayness with weakness, incompetence, and shame obscure these facts.
Stop laughing. You’re not stopping the problem. You are part of it.