Is there anything more tired than a gay joke? Haha, boys kissing, gross.
And yet! Somehow, the hilarity of Donald Trump making out with another man has emerged as a mainstay among some parts of the internet Resistance — a crowd that is well-stocked with comedians, entertainers, and people who should both know better and be funnier. Somehow, the best that people can come up with, time and again, is a variant of lol, Trump kissing men. Sad!
The latest chapter came last week with an image tweeted — and soon deleted, and apologized for — by New York magazine’s Pulitzer Prize–winning art critic Jerry Saltz, showing Sean Hannity, tongue out, facing the presidential crotch and preparing to give Trump a blowjob. The image wasn’t offensive, really — just dumb.
Whatever point they mean to make, images like the ones Saltz shared last week elide any real criticism of the relationship between Fox News and the Oval Office with a cheap joke about same-sex desire. This makes the butt of the joke not Trump or Hannity, but homosexuality. “Joke” is certainly too generous; chanting K-I-S-S-I-N-G at the president and his craven fan club of self-interested hacks is resisting nothing but real critique.
Saltz was far from the first to have a laugh at the idea of Gay Trump. Last year, Late Show host Stephen Colbert referred to Trump’s mouth as “Vladimir Putin’s cock holster,” and subsequently sort of apologized. If you’ll forgive the pedantry, a holster is somewhere a firearm isn’t discharged, and is therefore a poor blowjob metaphor. Bad writing is its own disappointment, but the question in any of these cases is, what exactly is the joke?
The same could be asked of the animated video the New York Times shared last month, in which a cartoon Trump fantasizes about Vladimir Putin, drawing hearts and swooning like a preteen. The only thing lamer than laughing at something like this is believing it rises to the level of commentary, and it’s embarrassing that anyone greenlit such a gratuitous show of basically calling the president a fag.
No straight liberal worth their weight in Mother Jones magazines would dream of using the word “fag,” of course. But what these examples reveal is that many still think it, whether or not they realize they do. Masculinity, and particularly American masculinity, is primarily defined by what you are not: You’re not weak, not emotional, and most of all not gay. It’s exhausting, frankly, and most of the time I can hardly manage outrage.
The Putin-as-lover theme is common in the “lol Trump is gay” #resistance, but not all lame memes are created equal. A mural from 2016 in Vilnius, Lithuania titled “Make Everything Great Again” features Trump and Putin engaged in a kiss meant to reference “My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love,” the famous “fraternal kiss” mural on the Berlin Wall depicting Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and East German leader Erich Honecker. Artist Dmitri Vrubel painted it in 1990 based on an actual photo from 1979, on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the founding of East Germany. The fraternal kiss was a traditional greeting among socialist leaders. (Honecker kissed Gorbachev in the ’80s.) Vrubel’s reframing of this event, on the occasion of the end of East Germany — and painted onto the most potent symbol of its rise and fall — is not a gay joke.
After the original in Vilnius was vandalized, “Make Everything Great Again” was updated to show Trump shotgunning marijuana smoke into Putin’s mouth, an edit that actually improves it immensely — Trump blowing smoke [up] Putin’s [ass]. It’s still a joke about the unsettling affection between them, but the joke is no longer just “lol gay.”
The best political cartoons and memes highlight an embarrassing truth, be it that Trump seems to be afraid of stairs, or that his adulation of Putin continues to be a threat to national security. But given the state of political discourse in the Trump era — a time when penis-size posturing made it to the floor of a Republican presidential debate — the cultural brow may have sunken irretrievably. The dick jokes, like the gay jokes, are now part of the canon.
In August 2016, a nude state of Trump was erected overnight in Union Square, in Manhattan, with an enormous belly and tiny penis tucked up beneath it, apparently without balls, and an ass like tuna tartare. The debate about this protest art is two years old now — one side saying fair game for someone with such a storied history of judging others’ appearances, the other defending the dignity of either Trump or micropenises, or both. In the context of Trump, who seems genuinely bothered by winking jokes about the size of his hands, you could argue that the statue wasn’t a joke about either of those traits, but instead mocked his sensitivity to them.
But in a visual media environment where context is rapidly stripped away as images ricochet across the internet, it’s hard to know if such a distinction is really possible. Is occasional subjective offense the cost of doing real political business in a time when a crude and petty demagogue is running the country? Or do political artists, memesters, and their audiences simply need to be smarter?
Any defense of offensiveness is a slippery slope into South Park, but it is possible to both value commentary and consider its collateral damage when stripped of intent. The intent of Saltz’s tweet was, I suppose, to highlight the subservience of Sean Hannity and Fox News to their political master, with subservience being defined here as the act of giving a blowjob to another man.
Outspoken public liberals Stephen Colbert and Jerry Saltz often get something of a pass on the prejudice embedded in these kinds of insinuations: Of course they aren’t demeaning gay people — liberals love gay people! But just like using a slur that could never apply to you, making a gay joke as a straight person, one who donates generously to the Human Rights Campaign, reveals a gap in lived experience that feels impossible to explain.
And it’s dispiriting when it comes from people who think they’re on your side, because it’s another reminder that for so many American men, the most embarrassing thing to be is gay. Sure, Trump’s insecurities are painted on his public persona like bull’s-eyes — perceived weakness, both physical and political — and it’s difficult not to aim the carnival water gun right at the center. But the past few years have shown that no amount of revolting truth, not even caged children, can shame the truly shameless.
“When they go low, we go high” as a moral imperative makes me weary — the other side has been going low, and lower still, for decades, and the moral high ground has begun to feel like a staircase in an Escher drawing. Still it seems we could go a little higher than lazy gay jokes.
John Sherman is a writer based in Brooklyn.