Illustration by Jim Cooke/GMG

The things Donald Trump had to say about Shark Week, according to Stormy Daniels, according to In Touch Weekly, are easy to chuckle over:

He was like, “I donate to all these charities and I would never donate to any charity that helps sharks. I hope all the sharks die.”

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Trump wanted that to be chuckled over; he is a performer, and he was doing a bit: Save the sharks? Hey, I got a simple rule, I don’t SAVE anything I might have to be saved FROM, amirite? He was trying to entertain a woman he wanted to have sex with, with whom he had already on a previous occasion had sex after entertaining her with his banter (according to Stormy Daniels, according to In Touch Weekly). This time it didn’t work.

But what was driving the joke? “It may be stated axiomatically that: a person’s favorite joke is the key to that person’s character,” the extremely serious humor expert Gershon Legman wrote in 1968, in Rationale of the Dirty Joke: An Analysis of Sexual Humor. Legman, a committed Freudian, might have gazed at the pink, gaping, toothed openings of the sharks’ mouths and drawn a straight line to Trump’s notorious terror of sexually transmitted disease. And he probably would have been right.

What’s more relevant to our moment, though, is the process that led Trump to the sharks: He was deliberately choosing to watch them—“obsessed” was the word Daniels used, twice, in the span of a few sentences (also “riveted” and “terrified”). He was watching them so avidly that it seemingly distracted him from his attempt to have sex with a porn star. (“We moved to the sofa so he could get a better view of Shark Week,” Daniels told In Touch.)

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There have been very, very many attempts to identify the core of Trumpism, but this—stripped of conventional politics, stripped of considerations of wealth and celebrity—seems to reach it as few other anecdotes have: Donald Trump is a guy on dry land, staring at the television for hours because he wants to make himself feel terror and loathing toward sharks.

Sharks have nothing to do with Donald Trump’s life; his life is lived no closer to the ocean than a beachside golf course. His life contains no mortal danger at all. And yet he needs the idea of the sharks. In the midst of absolute safety, he needs to fear them and hate them, to live out a fictional encounter with a threatening Other. He is intentionally poisoning his mind with them. The sharks are the Knockout Game, the rampaging Mexican gangs, the Muslim infiltrators, the flag-hating elite. They are American Carnage. He wants the sharks. They are the only thing he knows how to want.