The late B. J. Haan, the first President of the college where I taught for almost forty years, had a public persona so well crafted that he could do self-parody--that is, on stage he could play himself. And he did. Often. Even from the pulpit.
And people played along. And loved it.
People who knew him, audiences who'd heard him speak, congregations whose pulpits he filled all came to expect a specific unique personality from the man up front, even a way of delivering the goods, a rhetoric. They knew not only what he was going to say, but also how he was going to say it; and they knew all of that long before the words ever flowed. The man's persona was so strong, so well established, so understood, that he could "do" himself. B. J. Haan could "play" B. J. Haan.
At a fund-raiser, he'd stand up in front and say, "Well, I love B.C. [or Pella or Zeeland or fill in the blank]. Every time I come here, I tell myself this is the most beautiful corner of the world." Not just "beautiful," but "BEEEEUUUTIFULLLL." He'd stretch that word into deliberate overstatement so purposefully that people would giggle even before he'd say it because they knew he wasn't there to see the sights but to ask for money. They knew his game, but he charmed them nonetheless by doing self-parody, by playing himself. The audience knew it, and he knew they knew it, and they knew he knew he knew it.
He was as human as the rest of us, carried faults in a big inside pocket, but he was a warrior for the college he begat and people that institution served. "Took me way too long in my life to learn," he once told me, "that the way to people's hearts is by a smile." And he knew people knew that B. J. Haan could make them smile. Self-parody requires an established familiarity and a huge presence.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders claims President Trump does it too. She claims that Long Island speech to law enforcement officials shouldn't be misunderstood, that he was just joking, after all. That business about banging suspects' heads against car doors, that was a joke, just a joke, she says. It's the kind of thing people expect of Trump. That's what they like, she says, so he delivers, with a wink and nod. For gosh sakes, don't take him seriously.
Trump believes himself capable of self-parody--and in a way, he is. People know exactly to what to expect when he walks out on stage; his coming down that elevator--remember? That was so Trump. They know what he's going to say and how he's going to say it. They fully expect he'll say something so outlandish it'll buy him the next day's news cycle. They expect Trump to be Trump, so he is.
But we shouldn't take him seriously, his people say. His tweets?--that's just him being him. Don't take him at his word. Just let Trump be Trump.
The plain fact of the matter is that both men--Haan and Trump--could take over a room. With huge personalities and established reputations, both could spin crowds.
But there is this difference. People believed B. J. Haan--they believed he loved them, that he'd work for them, that he had goals that far and away transcended the personal, goals he called "Kingdom" goals.
Only the true believers believe that of Donald Trump, and that following is a percentage of the American public that runs downhill every day. Yesterday it was lower than it's ever been.
The risk B. J. played as a spokesman for the college was that playing himself as humorously as he did, he'd be seen as goofy, a buffoon. He understood that he walked a thin line doing self-parody, but, in his later years especially, it worked for him and his causes.
Does it work for Trump? Not with a ever-growing majority of the American people. That majority doesn't trust him a bit. That majority think him dangerous.