Jokes depend upon subtext. When you "get" the joke, it's because you know the subtext. Jokes are funny because the subtext both gives the joke its meaning & creates a momentary bond between teller & hearer. For instance, when Hillary Clinton said at the Al Smith dinner last week, "Usually, I charge a lot for speeches like this," most hearers knew this was a joke at her own expense, and referred to speeches she made to Goldman Sachs & other big corporations and for which she was paid seemingly huge sums for what appeared to be, in each case, about an hour's work. The speeches became campaign issues in both the primary and general elections, particularly because Clinton would not release transcripts or tapes of her remarks. Clinton used fewer than ten words to spoof herself and her critics. We knew that backstory, so we got the joke. Ha ha.
Donald Trump told one "joke" at the dinner I just didn't get: "... here she is tonight — in public — trying to pretend she doesn’t hate Catholics.” Why would anybody even think that, much less say it? I wondered. Other than a few rabid StormTrumpers, who "hates Catholics"?
As Amy Davidson of the New Yorker writes, the excuse for that shocking remark was this: "Trump’s joke was about an e-mail in which Jennifer Palmieri, a Clinton aide who herself is Catholic, referred to Catholicism as 'the most socially acceptable politically conservative religion.' The Trumpian translation turned this into evidence that Clinton was a religious bigot — an anti-Catholic in a room full of Catholics." Mighty obscure, and scarcely a trope worthy of an insult directed at Clinton instead of Palmieri, but maybe that was it. It wasn't.
Near the end of the evening, Hillary Clinton, in what I assumed were more-or-less traditional remarks at Al Smith dinners, said,
And when I think about what Al Smith went through it’s important to just reflect how groundbreaking it was for him, a Catholic, to be my party’s nominee for president. Don’t forget – school boards sent home letters with children saying that if Al Smith is elected president you will not be allowed to have or read a Bible. Voters were told that he would annul Protestant marriages.
And I saw a story recently that said people even claimed the Holland Tunnel was a secret passageway to connect Rome and America, to help the Pope rule our country. Those appeals, appeals to fear and division, can cause us to treat each other as the Other. Rhetoric like that makes it harder for us to see each other, to respect each other, to listen to each other. And certainly a lot harder to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Okay, I thought, she was working Al Smith's misfortune into a criticism of Donald Trump and his whole campaign. Even so, it was quite appropriate, in context. But once again, I think I missed the subtext.
Michael Daly of the Daily Beast reminded me: Donald Trump's father Fred "was arrested on Memorial Day in 1927 for participating in a Klu Klux Klan riot in his home borough of Queens. The riot was fueled in part by the prospect that Al Smith might become not just the Catholic governor of New York but the first Catholic president of the United States. 'Americans Assaulted by Roman Catholic Police of New York City' read KKK leaflets that went up in Queens the day after the arrest of Fred Trump and others."
In that tiny newspaper story, published nearly 90 years ago, lies Donald's "Rosebud." Religious, racial, ethnic, cultural and gender animus form the core of his twisted belief system. The views Fred Trump held in the 1920s explain why he and Donald didn't mind discriminating against blacks in their housing developments, even when they were operating under a consent decree; why Donald calls Mexicans rapists & criminals; why Donald thinks Americans of Hispanic descent are unfit to serve in high public office; why Donald would discriminate against Muslim men, women and children; why Donald would stereotype Jewish "folks"; why Donald would profile all people of color as part of his "law & order" platform; why Donald -- and his own sons -- would cultivate white supremacists; why Donald would see nothing wrong with getting into a fight with Pope Francis; why Donald would blithely suggest that his opponent "hates Catholics."
Donald Trump has run a hate campaign because hating others -- all others, no matter who -- is a family tradition. Hillary Clinton remarked on that at the Al Smith dinner. Maybe we didn't get it then, but we know it now.