Magazine | May 23, 2016, Issue

Trumpkins Having a Ball

Just two months after moving to D.C., I observed one of the best moments I’ll see in my life. It was at the “Hinckley” Hilton in Dupont Circle — the hotel where Reagan got shot — on the night of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. I had joined colleagues for the pre-dinner drinks that different media outlets host. There’s an escalator in the hotel that guests cram onto, and a staffer stood at the top telling women, quite sternly, to take care that their gowns didn’t get stuck in the escalator tines.

I found this kind of hilarious — a full-time employee whose only responsibility for the night was to keep people’s clothes from getting stuck in heavy equipment? Do people in this odd city really not know how to wear clothes and ride escalators at the same time? What is up with these people? Do they need help?

A few moments later, though, the gravity of the situation became crystal clear: A woman got her gown snagged in the perilous escalator, and she didn’t realize this till it was stuck at the bottom of the long, people-packed moving staircase and at least two dozen blissfully unaware, mildly tipsy White House Correspondents’ Dinner–goers were flooding down toward her, and a bloody catastrophe seemed all but guaranteed — all but guaranteed, that is, until a quick-witted security guard leapt across the room, grabbed the woman’s arm, and yanked her out of the escalator with such force as to nearly throw her across the room. She stuck the landing, though, brushed her hair off her face, and headed on to the next happy hour.

I report this to highlight an eternal truth: that the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, every year, brings together hundreds of glamorous, wealthy, serious adults who seem incapable of performing basic human tasks. It’s a four-day celebration of everything absurd and trivial and ridiculous about D.C. It brings out lots of feelings, and it’s sort of a Rorschach test for how you feel about American politics. Thus this year’s dinner highlights just how little a President Trump would change D.C. culture.

If the idea of an overdressed lobbyist’s getting her dress stuck in an escalator and almost causing a multi-dozen-person pile-up in the hotel where just 32 years earlier Ronald Reagan got shot doesn’t sound to you like the most Trumpian thing that has ever happened, you clearly don’t watch much cable news. The Trumpishness of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner has nothing to do with ideals or public policy, of course. In fact, the event’s ideological promiscuity is a major indicator of just how Trumpy it is. In the same way that ideologies and values are blissfully absent from Trump’s campaign, they’re total non-issues over the course of the long weekend. The one shared passion, it seems, is for getting extremely wasted in front of people you need to impress.

A wonderful correspondents’-dinner paradox is that it’s both very exclusive and very (very) easy to get into — at least, it’s very easy to get into the fun parts. Invites to the dinner itself are tough to come by unless you’re an advertiser for a media company or a B-list celebrity promoting a direct-to-TV movie. But let’s be real: The dinner isn’t exactly the hottest ticket; stars of shows that air on the CW get crammed into a ballroom, mashed against talk-radio producers and RV-industry lobbyists and U.S. senators, eating less-than-extraordinary cuisine and listening to a speech that they could also watch on TV. Before enjoying these earthly delights, though, they mob through a metal detector, which dramatically protracts the seating process. I’ve been to Trump rallies with better crowd control. Perhaps the event planners should compare notes.

But while the dinner itself is invitationally and logistically challenging, getting into the building is pretty much a piece of cake. The pre-parties held adjacent to the ballroom that holds the dinner itself are mostly RSVP-only, but e-mail invites spread like herpes. Not that I would ever do this kind of unethical and problematic thing, but if your friend from out of town lets you know the day before the dinner that she’s visiting for the weekend, you could — theoretically! only theoretically! — get her into enough parties to have a perfectly decent time. In the same way that getting a seat inside the Trump press fence is a big pain but getting into a Trump rally takes the mental capacity of a goldfish, getting into WHCD parties is only slightly more difficult than getting into a D.C. Walmart. It feels like a big deal. And it isn’t.

That isn’t to say it’s guaranteed. A fellow reporter — who didn’t want me to name her for fear she would “sound bitchy” — said she saw an adult woman weeping openly at being turned away from the Funny or Die party. Tears.

The Washingtonians who waited in a line wrapped down the block around the Newseum to get into The Onion’s Joe Biden–themed party have nothing but similarities with Trump supporters. The devotion is the same. The love is pure.

The similarities aren’t just aesthetic; who can forget the spat heard round the world between the Huffington Post’s Ryan Grim and Fox News’s Jesse Watters, ably refereed by RNC communications director Sean Spicer? If this sounds like the kind of thing that would happen at a Trump rally, that’s because it is. If you think Trump supporters are hooligans, wait till you meet D.C. journalists.

So the similarities between Trump culture and White House Correspondents’ Dinner culture may be greater than the differences. America may not be ready for Trump. Western Civilization may not be ready for Trump. Leaders of small Eastern European and Central Asian nations that rely on American foreign aid for their defense sure as hell may not be ready for Trump. But D.C.? Beyond ready — been practicing for years.

– Betsy Woodruff is a politics reporter at the Daily Beast.

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