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‘Not!’ Is the Punchline That Just Won’t Die

And Trump still doesn’t know how to use it

Contemporary conservatism is saying “no”: no immigrants, no welfare, no abortions. It’s denying climate change and a person’s right to health care, or Rep. Joe Wilson yelling “You lie!” as President Obama addressed Congress. It’s America as the land of can’t, won’t, mustn’t, never did.

Trump may rankle the Republicans who prefer a less rambunctious government, but he’s a natural heir to the party’s toddler-like refusals and contradictions. “Fake news” is his only reaction to plain fact. “No puppet, no puppet, you’re the puppet,” he said when Hillary described him as Putin’s puppet. And on several occasions, in tweeting his frustrations, he has struggled to adapt a classic Wayne’s World joke to make his “point.”

You’ll notice that Trump has not once correctly deployed this formulation — something any sarcastic 10-year-old can manage. What you’re supposed to do is make a statement that scans as earnest until the “Not!” coda pulls the rug out, negating whatever it was you said. It doesn’t work to say “Not!” when you realize that an earlier assumption was wrong, or when you’ve already called the claim “fake news,” or as the answer to your own rhetorical question. Moreover, I’m not even sure that “Not!” can function as intended in text, where the eye can pick out an exclamation at first glance.

Where did Trump pick up this tic? We know he watches Saturday Night Live, so maybe he’s a fan of the Mike Myers/Dana Carvey sketches that popularized it in the early 1990s. His four eldest children were all teens and tweens during that era of SNL, so there’s a decent chance they were shouting it constantly back then. And since Trump has a way of keeping up with his grudges, it’s possible that he saw the movie Borat, starring comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, who had interviewed him in character as Ali G three years prior. That incident clearly embarrassed Trump, who continued to gripe about Cohen for more than a decade as Cohen continued to mock him. So could Trump have wound up hate-watching this scene in which Borat learns the nuances of “Not!”?

If he did, he missed a truth of the Wayne’s World “Not!” that is made doubly explicit in the Borat callback: This is a profoundly lame excuse for wit. Though Borat’s teacher is understandably oversimplifying for the sake of example, there is nothing remotely funny about the line “Your suit is black — NOT!” And where Wayne and Garth were concerned, “NOT!” was a character device; you laughed not at the reversal but because it was the go-to expression of juvenile, not-too-bright metalheads, a calling card of what Myers describes as an adolescent’s “ham-fisted rebellion.” Which aptly sums up Trump as well. Of course he loves a one-syllable, three-letter word that masquerades as wit.

Irony is saying the opposite of what one means, and “Not!” is the superfluous capper to an ironic remark, the implicit sting spoken dumbly aloud. It concedes that your tone is too unreliable to carry subtext — or that your audience won’t pick up on it. Not only is Trump humor-illiterate (like many colleagues on the right), but he’s presiding over a cultural landscape ruled by Poe’s Law, a web-driven phenomenon that collapses the distinctions between satire and genuine belief. For him, then, a “Not!” transcends the status of a sardonic, outdated quote, and serves to refine his mushy thinking. What comes out of Trump’s mouth or appears on his Twitter account is rarely consistent with his previous comments, let alone reality, which led to the absurd idea of taking him “seriously, not literally.” In most cases, Trump isn’t concerned with where you believe he stands, and blusters instinctually, but the “Not!” shows him trying to sound definitive.

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True to the Republican philosophy of half-assed rebuttal, Trump’s ontological claims always concern what is not the case, rather than what is. He is not on vacation when he visits his golf properties. Barack Obama is not a U.S. citizen by birth. Repeal-and-replace is not dead. The United States is not not the most powerful nation on the planet, nor will it ever be, but it’s also not as great as it once apparently was. Hillary may have done better not to lean on the campaign theme “I’m not that other asshole,” given that Trump was doing the same to her. (Fox News has done a desperate job of keeping that spin alive in 2017.) How do you hit a politician as a racist, a sexist and a capitalist stooge when he’ll just tell you he’s not? Trump’s electoral adversaries fell one by one to an empty suit, the absence of policy or platform, thrashing at a man who wasn’t there.

It’s worked so far — why give up the gambit now? By defining himself as the opposite of the shithead we all know he is, Trump can forever avoid the stain of his failures. Not!