Everyone who works in political media is required by law to have a Take on the WHCD. Time to fulfill my legal obligation.
“Trump won the WHCD” was a popular reaction among the media and the righty chatterati on Twitter yesterday. It’s silly. But I understand it. The WHCD is antimatter to right-wing populism. Every stinking strain of Beltway elitism combines there to make it reek like rotten durian, but when a Republican’s in the White House it gets an extra smear of hostile dog-sh*t liberalism by the guest comedian. The event’s always been gross for the coziness displayed between reporters and the powerful people they cover (that’s what may ultimately kill it off) but since Stephen Colbert sent the left into raptures in 2006 by going off on Bush 43 to his face it’s only ever newsworthy when it’s used as an opportunity to make the left’s enemies squirm. As a Twitter pal pointed out today, the lone memorable set in eight years of Obama as president was the 2011 show at which Trump himself was the target.
After Colbert, and in an age in which all goodwill for the other side has drained out of partisan politics, the dynamics are such that any comic *has* to get nasty with a GOP administration at the WHCD. Taking the gig and pulling your punches would get you accused of cowardice by your friends. Even if Michelle Wolf wanted to go easy on Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the safe play was to hit hard and low, take some indignant slings and arrows from the right, and enjoy all the free press and high-fives from grassroots lefties. Some of Wolf’s defenders are blowing off the controversy by shrugging and saying “It’s a roast!”, but the Friars Club template involves a bunch of people who are friendly-ish with each other. There’s a baseline of goodwill, and the roasters usually get roasted at the end themselves by the roastee. There’s no goodwill between the parties at the WHCD and there’s no “rebuttal.” It’s so palpably clear that Trump would be insulted in the most obnoxious (Trumpian) ways if he showed up that not even the left makes much of a fuss about him skipping it. It’s the obvious move. His reception would be an order of magnitude nastier than Bush/Colbert. Why should someone who so rarely seems good-natured himself expect good-natured treatment from the talent?
But no, Wolf’s set wasn’t some big win for him. The irony of that take is that it’s an elitist view in itself: No one but the political-media class and the political junkies who orbit it, like blog writers and blog readers, gives a wet fart about the WHCD. If not for Matt Drudge hyping the controversy over Wolf’s set during a slow news weekend the event would be completely unknown to the broader population. To the extent that it is known, it’s hard to imagine what sort of person who was okay, or not okay, with Trump and the dinner and the media having their opinion on anything changed by Wolf being rude to Sanders. Who cares? What sort of normal person could possibly care?
Wolf’s set was a “win” for him only as a reminder to his fans that they’re right to loathe the left and the media. But so what? Their belief that the media sucks didn’t need strengthening. It’s the bedrock value of right-wing populism. As for this:
The White House Correspondents’ Dinner is DEAD as we know it. This was a total disaster and an embarrassment to our great Country and all that it stands for. FAKE NEWS is alive and well and beautifully represented on Saturday night!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 30, 2018
Eh, we’ll see. If it’s canceled next year or if the format changes, it’ll have more to do with the critique that journalists shouldn’t be clinking champagne glasses with the government, particularly when that government routinely derides their work as “fake news.” But knowing that any future set by the guest comic is bound to turn adversarially nasty and uncomfortable during Trump’s presidency unless you bring Rich Little out of retirement will add pressure for change. (Actually, I bet Dana Carvey would be okay.) Maybe if they picked one approach or the other: Either have a press-only event, with no government officials there, and invite the Wolfs and Colberts to channel the media’s political id *or* do the slimy glasses-clinking thing and skip the jokes. Doing both at once is schizophrenic, like shaking hands with someone with one hand while punching him in the face with the other. Although that does sort of capture their attitude towards the right.
Here’s Brzezinski, who was herself the target of a joke by Wolf. The bit about the event being a win for Trump comes at around 12:00.