Right wing's new-found love for satire and the 'It is only a joke" defense

The House of Representatives recently voted to censure Rep. Paul GosarPaul Anthony GosarWar of words escalates in House McCarthy faces headaches from far-right House GOP Pelosi: Democrats can't allow 'indecent' Boebert comments to stand MORE (R-Ariz.) and strip him of his committee assignments. He was punished for posting a cartoon-like video showing him killing Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezWar of words escalates in House McCarthy faces headaches from far-right House GOP Noncitizen voting doesn't pass this test MORE (N.Y.) and attacking President Joe Biden.

According to a CNN report, the video that got Gosar in trouble portrayed him “as a cartoon anime-type hero … attacking a giant with Ocasio-Cortez’s face with a sword from behind. The giant can then be seen crumbling to the ground. Another scene shows Gosar flying through the air, swinging two swords at a character with President BidenJoe BidenManchin to vote to nix Biden's vaccine mandate for larger businesses Congress averts shutdown after vaccine mandate fight Senate cuts deal to clear government funding bill MORE’s face.”

The Gosar video is just the latest example of a new trend in American politics. In the Trump era, America’s right-wing extremists embraced the world of the imagination and the satirical as political tools, after having long condemned the left’s use of them as supposedly anti-American.

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These Republicans have a new-found sense of humor, or so they would have us believe. When they are called out about the extreme violence or racism of the images that they post on social media — or when someone objects to the words they use to incite and provoke their followers — they frequently respond by saying that those images or words were just ironic, a joke.

Unsurprisingly, the target audience of those words and images is not swayed by the “It’s just a joke” defense: They know the code.

President TrumpDonald TrumpBaldwin calls Trump criticism following 'Rust' shooting 'surreal' Haley hits the stump in South Carolina Mary Trump files to dismiss Trump's lawsuit over NYT tax story MORE made the “it’s just a joke” defense a regular part of his response when one or another of his actions provoked public outrage.

A 2020 report in The American Independent identified 11 separate occasions on which the former president insisted what the report called his “dangerous, misleading, or outright offensive remarks” were “simply jokes.”

But, of course, it depends on who’s making the “joke.”

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In 2013, Trump sued comedian Bill MaherWilliam (Bill) MaherRight wing's new-found love for satire and the 'It is only a joke" defense Juan Williams: Biden and Manchin are 2021's most influential politicians What must never be asked about COVID-19 and vaccines — nor ever revealed MORE for suggesting that he was the son of an orangutan.

More to the point: In 2017, the former president and his supporters reacted with shock and horror when Kathy Griffin posted a photo and video of herself holding an effigy of the president’s decapitated, bloodied head. Trump took to Twitter to condemn the comedian: “Kathy Griffin should be ashamed of herself. My children, especially my 11-year-old son, Barron, are having a hard time with this. Sick!”

But following Gosar’s video, the former president expressed no such concern for President Biden’s grandchildren or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s family. Instead, he praised Gosar for being “a loyal supporter of our America First agenda, and even more importantly, the USA” and offered the congressman “my Complete and Total Endorsement!"

As the uproar about his video unfolded, Gosar and his allies offered several different justifications and defenses. Gosar himself first claimed that the video was designed to reach “the newer generation that likes these anime, these cartoons.”

He later said that he “voluntarily took the video down, not because it was itself a threat, but because some thought it was … I self-censored.” It bears mention that he put the video back up after the House censured him.

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But when he was still defending himself, Gosar called the video a symbolic depiction of the political battle over immigration and “a policy battle regarding amnesty.”

“Even Twitter,” Gosar continued, “the left’s mouthpiece, did not remove the cartoon, noting that it … contributes to the understanding and the discussion of the real-life battle resulting from this administration's open-border policies.”

But his last line of defense was to follow the Trump playbook and say about his video, “It was only a joke, lol.” 

Whenever people like Rep. Gosar or former President Trump offer the “It’s only a joke” defense, we should recall what the famous psychologist Sigmund Freud said about jokes: They reveal our repressed wishes and allow us to express taboo thoughts.

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez clearly named the danger in what Gosar’s joke revealed about his wishes in her speech during the censure proceedings. “As leaders in this country,” she said, “when we incite violence with depictions against our colleagues, that trickles down into violence in this country.”

And she rightly called out the “It’s only a joke defense.”

“I have seen other members,” she said, “advance the argument, including Rep. Gosar himself, the illusion that this was just a joke. That what we say and what we do does not matter so long as we claim a lack of meaning … That what we say here doesn’t matter, so long as we claim that it is a joke, doesn’t matter … And I’m here to say that it does. Our work here matters. Our example matters. There is meaning in our service.”

Today democracy in the United States is in great peril in part because Rep. Gosar, the House Republican leadership, the former president, and their allies refuse to heed those words. They seem more interested in stirring up their followers and in “owning the libs” than in honoring the work, example and service that their constituents and all of us need them to do.

Austin Sarat is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College. He is author of numerous books on America's death penalty, including "Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America's Death Penalty." Follow him on Twitter @ljstprof.