For President Donald Trump, it comes up over and over. “The world is laughing at America” was a standard trope in his stump speeches as a candidate. Since he’s taken office, it’s continued: ISIS is laughing at us. Iran is laughing at us. Mexico, China, Russia, the whole world—in Trump’s imagination, we are being mocked from all sides. Some even speculate that Trump decided to run for president the night of the 2011 White House Correspondents’ dinner, when President Barack Obama teased him from the podium.
Trump’s constant attempts to dominate those voices (real and otherwise) into awed silence may be one of the great motivations in his life. But instead of silencing the din, Trump’s sensitivity has only amplified it, as leaders of other nations have noticed this soft spot and started skewering it. Meanwhile, here at home, perceptive journalists have started to wonder what this deep insecurity over being laughed at means for U.S. policy and U.S. prestige.
But the burgeoning literature on Trump’s hypersensitivity to the laughter of others hasn’t yet touched on the most important fact of all. It isn’t just pathetic. It’s dangerous.
This is something most women know in their bones, but which most men don’t have to reckon with to nearly the same degree. This is the truth Margaret Atwood got at in one of her most famous passages: Men are afraid that women will laugh at them; women are afraid that men will kill them. Robert Heinlein put the same idea another way: “Never frighten a little man. He’ll kill you.” Women learn young—as a matter of basic survival—that if you so much as crack a grin in the direction of a fragile man, you put yourself in grave danger. You may possibly provoke him to violence so brutal and so disproportionate that you could end up beaten, sexually assaulted, or dead. And in his mind, you will have had every bit of it coming, since your disrespectful laughter is the one thing in the world that can deflate his sense of masculine control and power in a matter of seconds.
That fear of being laughed at lives right at the existential core of toxic masculinity. In his excellent 2004 book, The Wimp Factor: Gender Gaps, Holy Wars, and the Politics of Anxious Masculinity, psychologist Stephen Ducat showed that conservative masculinity is rooted in the idea that penetration—having your body, property, resources, sense of control, or dignity taken against your will—is for women, gay men, and other people who don’t have what it “takes” to secure their own boundaries, and therefore exist to be dominated by those who do. A “real man” is, by definition, one who can and will defend his personal boundaries against all threats at all times—and also has the power, if he wishes, to violate the boundaries of others if he chooses.
But Ducat also points out that the obsession with maintaining those hard boundaries and that perfect sense of control creates brittle male egos that are easily shattered. For guys who run this way, derision and humiliation rank among their most powerful fears. Someone who is laughing at you has breached your boundaries, withdrawn their respect, and denied you control. They’ve seized the power to define you—and they’ve defined you as something to make fun of. Existentially, you cannot allow someone to make you that vulnerable and still maintain your self-image as a full, free, respectable man. And so you must fight back—immediately, forcefully, in a way that discourages other would-be scoffers and leaves no doubt who is in control. (If you’ve wondered what drove the overwhelmingly disproportionate reaction to Desiree Fairooz, who dared laugh at Attorney General Jeff Sessions, here’s your explanation.)
During the campaign, Trump’s constant whining that America was being laughed at was derided by Hillary Clinton and others as a negative, inaccurate view of how this country is perceived around the world. But Trump’s base knew better: “They’re laughing at you” was one of the lines that actually resonated most strongly with a lot of men who share the feeling that their essential masculine boundaries have been violated. Ducat spends several chapters analyzing the long history of conservative narratives that have emphasized the slow emasculation of America since the 1960s: the forced withdrawal from Vietnam, the territorial invasion of 9/11, the demonization of Hillary Clinton as American women moved into more public roles.
He shows that movement conservatism has been built on storylines of aggrieved masculinity: According to the right-wing media, for the past 40 years, there’s always been somebody, somewhere, “laughing at us.” This constant sense of humiliation and vulnerability is why they’re so perpetually angry. As historian and journalist Rick Perlstein showed in Nixonland, Richard Nixon was the first presidential candidate to trade on this fury at perceived liberal contempt for “the silent majority.” But Trump has fully weaponized “they’re laughing at us” into a justification for almost anything he wants to do.
And urban liberals are the cackling arch-villains in Trump’s comic-book world. He stokes his followers’ rage at being laughed at and humiliated by the arrogant, effete city slickers who they believe have taken away everything that matters: their jobs, their futures, their families, their dignity. Liberals may react to Trump’s strange laughter-phobia with furrowed brows and a “WTF?” shrug. But his base knows exactly what he’s talking about, because they harbor the exact same fear of humiliation by women, by cosmopolitans, by immigrants, by Jews and Muslims, by Black and brown “takers”—that is, by everybody not like them. He accurately described their emotional reality and offered himself as someone who understood it, shared it, and wouldn’t shy away from defending those boundaries in the most satisfyingly brutal way the powers of the presidency would give him.
And Trump is already delivering on that promise. There was his repudiation of the Paris climate agreement, which he justified on the basis that China is taking advantage of us, laughing all the way. He’s also reinstituting discredited and immoral torture policies, expressly because ISIS is “laughing at us.” His aides clinched his decision to attack Yemen by telling him that it was a way to stick it to Barack Obama. “When do we beat Mexico at the border?” Trump asked when he announced his candidacy. “They’re laughing at us, at our stupidity.” So we need to unleash the Border Patrol—and of course, we need a wall.
The takeaway from this short, bitter history already suggests that, going forward, when we hear Trump say, “They’re laughing at us,” it’s almost certainly because he’s about to put forth a policy explicitly designed to assert dominance or act out rage, abusing the vast powers of his office to brutally stuff some inferior group or nation back into its perceived place because they have dared to challenge him. Trump’s fear of being laughed at is the clearest possible sign that we have installed an abuser-in-chief in the White House. Savvy global actors have already figured out that laughing at him is a very reliable way to provoke him into ridiculous postures and self-destructive policies. But closer to home, we also need to realize that over the next three and a half years, the worst abuses of power, the most draconian displays of force, and the most profound violence this administration does to our nation and to the bodies and futures of its citizens will almost inevitably occur because Trump thought somebody was laughing at him.
The profound danger inherent in such moments is something that most women already know all too well—but all of us need to start paying much more attention to it. Because we are now living day-to-day with a thin-skinned tyrant whose primal fear of laughter puts us all at mortal risk. It’s a thought that should, rightly, wipe that silly grin right off all of our faces.