When most people get COVID-19 they lose their sense of smell.
With Donald Trump, something much worse happened:
He lost his sense of humor.
The Donald I recall from my years of covering him was a guy who knew the best way to get an audience on your side is through humor.
He’d say anything that popped into his head if it would get a laugh. If it outraged the sensibilities of the establishment figures, then it was that much more amusing for the masses.
But now Trump commits the worst of comic sins: He repeats himself. Worse, the lines he repeats were not funny in the first place.
Take his habit of referring to the Select Committee on Jan. 6 as the “Unselect” committee.
That wasn’t even funny the first time he said it. The repetition is irritating.
It certainly irritates Cliff Rieders. In his day job, Rieders is a lawyer in Pennsylvania. But he moonlights as a critic of the comedy that originated in the Catskills.
As a kid growing up on Long Island, he would stay with relatives in Sullivan County for the summer.
“I would go to the local canteen and hear the Borscht Belt comedians who made the rounds,” he told me. “When Trump was new on the scene, the flavor of it was familiar.”
Particularly familiar was the sarcasm. That’s a key aspect of Yiddish humor, Rieders said, and Trump incorporated it into his speech.
Typical was an appearance by Trump at a campaign event in 2018. After saying that a friend has asked him about a recent speech by former president Barack Obama, Trump said “I found it very good, very good (pausing a beat) for sleeping.”
The crowd went wild, as they say.
But Trump’s style changed after that bout with COVID a month before the 2020 election. Now he wasn’t funny. He was cranky.
Rieders said he saw a similar change as the Catskills comedians got up in the years.
“Many of them became stale with age,” he said. “It was only a few of the greats like Milton Berle who escaped that, but most of them became cranky, and their humor really turned to a kind of bitterness.”
That’s certainly seems to apply to The Donald. When he was in his prime, he could joke his way out of an affair with an adult film star or a videotape of some of the rudest remarks about women ever uttered by a politician.
But now he’s reduced to petulant remarks about his fellow Republicans, such as calling the Senate minority leader “that old crow Mitch McConnell.”
An old crow? Trump’s no spring chicken himself. He’s 75. He’d be a year short of McConnell’s current age of 79 if he were to make another run for the presidency.
That’s becoming less likely by the minute. His recent spat with former vice president Mike Pence was proof of that.
Recall the reason Trump put Pence on the ticket in 2016. He needed to shore up support among voters in the heartland who were skeptical of a fast-talking New Yorker. And he needed a solid, reliable running mate
That describes Pence perfectly. And he chose the perfect venue for making the case that Trump’s request to him to disallow electoral votes was unconstitutional.
That was the Federalist Society, which is made up of conservative lawyers who take a strict constructionist view of the Constitution. “President Trump is wrong,” he said. He went on to say “Under the constitution I had no right to overturn the election and Kamala Harris will have no right to overturn the election when we beat them in 2024.”
That argument is irrefutable. So of course Trump tried to refute it.
“I was right and everybody knows it,” he said.
That’s not funny; it’s just cranky. And it left The Donald open to yet another attack from his former ally Chris Christie, who said of Trump’s response, “I think it’s kind of akin to a kid standing in the corner holding his breath. It’s immature, and it’s beneath the office that he held.”
Rieders compares Trump’s decline to that of another New Yorker, the late George Carlin.
When Carlin was young he came up with lots of original material.
“But with age, he became cranky; he lost something,” Rieders said. “What you see with Trump is a similar thing.”
I suspect it’s not a thing that a lot of voters look for in a president.
Trump’s act has gotten old.
And he’s not getting any younger.
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