All of us had a “sarcastic” phase of adolescence: a time of much eye-rolling, hyper-inflected commentary and false enthusiasm that related a deep, sumptuous, teenage misery. But, as we reached adulthood, the limits of sarcasm as a mode of communication became obvious, and the novelty of its negative potential wore off. It’s still an involuntary tic for certain arguments with family and loved ones, though rarely worth the trouble it causes. And for a majority of the internet, it’s a hopeless tone to adopt: There will always be someone who takes it as written.
This is why “fluent in sarcasm” (and, to a nearly equal degree, any mention of “snark”) is the most cursed thing to read in someone’s Twitter, Tinder or Tumblr bio. It’s bad enough to be bragging about your comfort in a “language”(?) that the kids skateboarding around the mall have mastered, yet it also marks you as ignorant of sarcasm’s devaluation in a social media ecosystems. With any luck, Trump’s inane defense of his latest mouth diarrhea as “sarcastic” will shame these dorks into leaning toward sincerity instead. I won’t paraphrase by saying the president told Americans to drink bleach, because his actual words are far, far dumber.
This, this musing on possible COVID-19 treatments, was — according to Trump — sarcasm: “Supposing we hit the body with a tremendous — whether it’s ultraviolet or just very powerful light. And I think you said that hasn’t been checked, but we’re going to test it? And then I said, supposing you brought the light inside the body, either through the skin or some other way. And then I see the disinfectant where it knocks it out in a minute, one minute, and is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside, or almost a cleaning?” he asked Dr. Deborah Birx, sitting to the side of the briefing room. “Because you see it gets in the lungs and it does a tremendous number on the lungs, so it would be interesting to check that.”
Really, he needn’t have bothered with the dodge; flatly denying he’d said any such thing would suit the right-wing blogs now absolving him for not literally telling people to chug Clorox.
The use of sarcasm as a screen dividing the reality of a comment from its intent, however, is emblematic of his whole being, as well as a map to the basic shittiness of a life online. No, Trump doesn’t understand what speaking “sarcastically” entails, except insofar as sarcasm is self-erasing, unserious and “doesn’t count.” It should be stricken from the record. He views it as a way to claw back bullshit without admitting that’s what it was, or the damage it might have done. In this, he is perfectly allied with the so-called “ironic” Nazis of 4chan and other sites that funnel users from edgy, politically incorrect humor into genuine extremism. All he means is that he never meant anything — that he may have been talking, but it wasn’t, in fact, a statement.
As the country tried to acclimate to Trump the politician, first in his presidential campaign and then in the first months of his administration, one beautiful genius after another told us never to take him literally, only “seriously,” or “symbolically.” Like every wack wannabe comedian on the timeline who can’t pause for half a second to consider what they’re tweeting, he’s adopted this divergence as a kind of armor: They can’t call you stupid if you sounded stupid on purpose, and they can’t shame you for lying when you’re so incoherent that you have to be interpreted rather than simply heard.
To label his anti-scientific blithering an exercise in sarcasm is as advanced as Trump’s nine-dimensional chess ever gets; he believes, as those with truly awful Hinge profiles do, that by invoking the term he creates the intelligence it requires to carry off.
Again, if you do possess that mental facility, it’s nothing to impress your average middle-schooler. Moreover, looking at it philosophically, “sarcasm” received as anything else falls short of its sole criterion. Sometimes the great insult Trump poses to us is detached from his indifference to widespread suffering, fear and death, tightly bound in a refusal to convince even himself of his rhetorical strategy. While his handlers peddle the usual complaint — everything bad is “out of context,” more fake news and manipulation — he won’t give up ownership of whatever appalling substance he brought out, so he’s forced to maintain that we’re too dense to understand it. The horror is that while that maneuver quickly ends any chat on the dating apps, we have no escape from this ex post facto condescension.
Honestly, move on already, and let us sip our bleach in peace. At least poison works as advertised.