The swells and grandees of the White House Correspondents Association expected to have themselves a hearty laugh blowing up President Trump Saturday night. Instead, the WHCA was so rattled that it pulled the pin on its little comedy grenade and threw the pin at Trump. It held onto the grenade and it blew up in its face.
It’s hardly worthy of note that the previously little-known comic Michelle Wolf’s act was mean-spirited, vulgar, and unfunny as she tore into Sarah Huckabee Sanders and said President Trump loves Nazis. If the comedy at the White House Correspondents Dinner were this biting every year, it might be interesting. But it isn’t. Every year, no matter who holds the White House, the viciousness is trained on the same side. When Republicans are in power, the jokes are aimed at Republicans. When Democrats are in power, the jokes are aimed at Fox News Channel. When Trump is president the barbs are aimed at Trump. When Obama was president, the barbs were aimed at . . . Trump.
The president has done a useful public service in exposing the sham for what it is: one of many opportunities the cultural leadership seizes, in any given year, to wheel the Trojan horse of Democratic-party propaganda into a supposedly politically neutral event. The Oscars and the Emmys and the Grammys and the Golden Globes do the same thing, but viewers have caught on and turned their attention elsewhere.
The average American does not watch the WHCD. (If it were one-tenth as important to the public as it is to the Beltway, it would be broadcast on NBC, not cable news.) But every year at about this time, because of the voluminous media attention, America is made vaguely aware that, by sheer coincidence, at a charity event during which both sides of the aisle put down their partisan banners and break bread together, somehow the Republican reputation has come to acquire a few more dents. Or Democrats have come off looking impossibly witty, cool, and glamorous.
Trump made a virtue out of necessity last year when he broke with precedent and boycotted the event: His hand was forced by the large number of organizations that announced they would not be in attendance, and if he had shown up, the story would have been how sad and joyless the affair was because of the dark pall he was supposedly casting over the country. By making a show of skipping the show, however, Trump exposed the event for what it is. He also partly delegitimized it. If a Republican president of the United States doesn’t feel welcome at a party at which he is traditionally the guest of honor, the event can hardly be nonpartisan.
Consider the contrast with George W. Bush: By showing up every year, Bush bestowed legitimacy on the gala. He honored it with his presence, and then he smiled and nodded and absorbed abuse.
This year, as Trump made the clever move of going to Washington, Mich., to spend the evening with ordinary Americans, the WHCD looked even more like a hacks’ orgy than usual. The event was such a disaster that even left-leaning Politico unloaded on it: “Being mean isn’t funny. It’s mean,” ran the top line of Sunday’s Politico Playbook newsletter, that fount of conventional wisdom. “Michelle Wolf took it too far,” read the text. “Make fun of someone’s politics. Make fun of their quirks. . . . But there’s no reason to be mean. Mean isn’t funny.” “Bullying is bullying. And it’s wrong. Always,” wrote Chris Cillizza, another conventional-wisdom dispensary, in his CNN column. Maggie Haberman of the New York Times took Sanders’s side, tweeting, “That @PressSec sat and absorbed intense criticism of her physical appearance, her job performance, and so forth, instead of walking out, on national television, was impressive.” “Media hands Trump embarrassing win,” said Mike Allen in his Axios newsletter
Trump’s approach to the WHCD is extremely Trumpian: bold, unheard of, seemingly counterproductive. But it worked: He has undermined its foundations. The dinner has become so hateful that even liberal journalists have become uneasy about it. Consider the contrast with George W. Bush: By showing up every year, Bush bestowed legitimacy on the gala. He honored it with his presence, and then he smiled and nodded and absorbed abuse. He played the liberal hacks’ game, on their turf, by their rules, knowing he would lose, and so he did. He lost like a gentleman, and that’s admirable in a way, but he still lost. He lost standing for himself and he lost points for his party.
Trump, by refusing to play the game, has made everyone notice that it’s fixed. Shattering norms and breaking with established precedents isn’t always wise, but whether you attribute it to shrewd instinct or blundering, Trump’s method can be a bracing response to institutions corrupted by their own partisanship. As he did with the Oscars and the National Football League before them, Trump has forced the WHCD to take a deep breath and think about whether it really wants to continue alienating half the country.