If there’s a lasting image from Monday night’s first presidential debate, it’s Hillary Clinton, called upon to respond to her opponent, letting out a little Woo!, and then shimmying as the audience chuckled, her grin growing with the crowd’s laughter.
Is Donald Trump funny? For voters of a certain persuasion, the answer long seemed to be: of course. Look at his hair! Watch his silly television show. See how badly he wants to plate things in gold; how desperately he wants us to know about it. Look at how easily he’s mocked back down to size. There’s Vermin Supreme, the “rent is too damn high” guy, and Donald J. Trump — amusing sideshows to keep the first few months of each cycle’s national primaries exciting. How beautiful the American government is, how bountiful the patience of voters, to allow such things. Election after election, scandal after scandal, Trump proved time and again to be perfect fodder, an instant, pouchy punch line huffing and puffing his way to the next batch of headlines.
But as the race wore on, Trump endured. It turned out that a lot of voters didn’t think his campaign was funny at all, and what seemed outlandish to many on the left and right alike actually sounded pretty damn good to others. In November, three months before the first Republican primary, Trump’s guest appearance on Saturday Night Live was mostly laughed off. But when NBC’s Jimmy Fallon tussled Trump’s hair on the air a week and a half ago, he discovered that the goalposts for humor about the now-nominee had moved. To Fallon’s mostly liberal audience, this seemed like heresy: Doesn’t he know this isn’t funny anymore?
So it felt like a relief to finally see someone laugh in Trump’s face — and for that person to be not a comedian or a columnist or a seasick Democrat, but the very person Trump has been trying to intimidate. Clinton’s shimmy spawned a meme, but it resonated beyond that: It was a harkening back to the days when Trump could plausibly be written off as an entertainer and not a politician.
He can’t anymore, of course — he is a politician, and one who, with two more debates ahead, still has a good shot at winning the White House. But Clinton’s job in these head-to-head contests is not to josh around with those who already view Trump’s candidacy as ludicrous — what fun is explaining a joke? Instead, her job is to show those who haven’t laughed yet just what an absurdity it is.
And judging by the laughter Monday night, she’s doing just fine.