In January 1976 – a long time ago – Saturday Night topped the charts – a feel-good song recorded by the Scottish pop-rock band Bay City Rollers – the “tartan teen sensations from Edinburgh” as they were known, and then forgotten. The song was awful, and so were they, but the idea wasn’t – “It’s party time and not one minute we can lose” and so on. Saturday nights are good – period – but the song was later covered by English harder rock band Ned’s Atomic Dustbin for the Mike Myers 1993 flim So I Married an Axe Murderer – so there’s some question about whether Saturday nights are really all that good.
There was some question about Saturday night, April 28, 2018, because, as the New York Times’ Michael Grynbaum carefully reports, there was this:
The panna cotta had been served and the First Amendment duly celebrated by the time the comedian Michelle Wolf took the stage on Saturday at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.
What followed was a roast that took unflinching aim at some of the notables in the room – and quickly opened a divide, largely but not entirely along partisan lines, over the limits of comedy and comity under a president who rarely hesitates to attack the press.
Michelle Wolf, perhaps in reaction to Donald Trump’s crude insults and name-calling and gleeful defiance of “political correctness” or, in the matter of his mocking that disabled reporter, even common decency, decided it was time, right there in Washington, not far from the White House, to do him one better, to top him:
Ms. Wolf described Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, as “an Uncle Tom but for white women who disappoint other white women” and took a shot at her “smoky eye” makeup, saying that it was made from the ashes of “burnt facts.” She called Ivanka Trump “as helpful to women as an empty box of tampons.” She labeled Kellyanne Conway, the president’s counselor, an inveterate liar, and asked: “If a tree falls in the woods, how do we get Kellyanne under that tree?”
“I’m not suggesting she get hurt, just stuck,” Ms. Wolf added, puckishly, as an icy silence – and a few scattered chortles – fell over the black-tie crowd here. Ms. Conway sat expressionlessly. Ms. Sanders – granted a seat of honor on the dais – limited her reaction to an arched eyebrow and pursed lips.
Wait. Isn’t Donald Trump supposed to say those sorts of thing, and then be excused in some way – he is who he is and everyone just has to accept that – and then be cheered on, on the right, for having the guts and good sense to say such things? The White House correspondents don’t say such things, ever, or endorse anyone saying such things for them. Michelle Wolf seemed to suggest they should, but the reaction was predictable:
“It was personally offensive,” Brian Kilmeade, a co-host of “Fox & Friends,” said in the ballroom, minutes after Ms. Wolf ended her set.
“To me, that was an attack to impress Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert,” Mr. Kilmeade added, previewing a line of criticism that would be dominant on Fox News by Sunday morning. “Congratulations, when the three of you go out to dinner, I’m sure you’ll be laughing a lot – but in terms of the people here and the people at home – totally offensive, horrible choice. In fact, it’s the reason why the president didn’t want to go.”
He was elsewhere, but this too was predictable:
Critics of President Trump – who is no stranger to lobbing insult-comic punch lines at his opponents and is the first president to outright skip the Correspondents’ gala since Jimmy Carter – wondered what the fuss was about…
“Before we criticize Michelle Wolf, let’s remember that Donald Trump has done and said some of the crudest things that any president in history has ever done,” said Howard Fineman, a left-leaning analyst at NBC News and MSNBC. “Just have a little perspective.”
That was hard to come by:
In one Twitter exchange, Sean Spicer, the former White House press secretary – who recently turned up at Madame Tussauds to promote a wax statue of Melania Trump – described the dinner as “a disgrace.”
“Thank you!” Ms. Wolf replied.
That was the whole point. We’re all disgraced now, so it’s time to give as good as you get – or, in Trump’s own words, hit back ten times harder – but there was some squeamishness:
Andrea Mitchell, the NBC News correspondent, tweeted that an “apology is owed” to the press secretary. Her network colleague Mika Brzezinski wrote that “watching a wife and mother be humiliated on national television for her looks is deplorable.”
In short, one does not hit back harder – good people have actual standards – they don’t get down in the gutter too – but there was pushback on that too:
“If you want to focus on the journalism do a boring award show,” tweeted Kathy Griffin, the comedian whose own brush with crude presidential humor – posting a photo of herself holding what appeared to be Mr. Trump’s decapitated head – led to her losing a CNN job. “Journalism is all about the 1st amendment. If you don’t see the import of what @michelleisawolf did tonight then you don’t get it.”
But there was pushback on that too:
The doyens of Washington did not agree. Mike Allen, a prime voice of the city’s establishment, declared in his newsletter on Sunday: “Media hands Trump embarrassing win.” There were even whispers about a revolt against the Correspondents’ Association by news organizations displeased by the night’s events.
There are a few ideas there. Why make Trump look good, like a victim, on purpose? Why make the news folks look like jerks too? And why hold this event at all? Grynbaum’s own New York Times stopped participating in this dinner years ago, but Michelle Wolf had a few words for the so-called establishment:
Ms. Wolf’s nineteen-minute set also took on Democrats and the news media itself. She quipped that “it’s kind of crazy that the Trump campaign was in contact with Russia when the Hillary campaign wasn’t even in contact with Michigan,” and joked about CNN’s hyperactive approach to coverage.
“You guys love breaking news, and you did it, you broke it!” Ms. Wolf said. “Good work! The most useful information on CNN is when Anthony Bourdain tells me where to eat noodles.”
But that wasn’t all:
Her most cutting joke came at the end, when the thirty-two-year-old comic took direct aim at the journalists in the room. Mr. Trump, she said, “has helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster and now you are profiting from him.”
There’s no good response to that. Trump is who he is, and that’s ratings gold. Everyone was already in the gutter. Get used to it. Hell, embrace it.
In fact, the Washington Post’s Molly Roberts calls for a bit of honesty here:
Countless journalists rallied behind Sanders, the same woman who spends her days lying to them. And that says a lot more about them than it does about Wolf’s routine. Everyone who told Wolf to read the room is missing the point: The room, and the misplaced notion of a “special” night to celebrate the “special” relationship between the press and the presidency that brought everyone to it on Saturday, is precisely the problem.
Wolf, according to the commentariat, violated a sacred standard of decency that defines the correspondents’ dinner every year. The comedian should roast people, yes, but she should do it at a suitably low temperature for this town’s all-too-tender egos. Wolf broke protocol by turning on the broiler. Yet the figures she scorched have shattered norms that are far more important than an unspoken prohibition on vagina jokes.
Roberts thinks it’s time to face reality:
After the Trump administration’s active attempts to undermine every organization in the room Saturday that doesn’t treat the president as an unassailable dear leader, it’s hard to pretend that the fourth estate and its subjects can carry on a relationship that’s adversarial and respectful all at once.
That Wolf’s performance was not “normal” for the correspondents’ dinner is a testament to its timeliness and necessity – nothing is “normal” right now, and pretending otherwise out of a false sense of the fourth estate’s friendship with the executive would have been the real disgrace.
Wolf called the Trump administration out for tearing down democracy. Then, the people who are supposed to care most about holding autocrats to account called her out in turn for, essentially, not being chummy enough.
Roberts is onto something there. These people can’t have it both ways. So, in spite of what the Bay City Rollers were singing long ago, there’s some question about whether Saturday nights are really all that good. After all, that same Saturday night, this was happening in Michigan:
Donald Trump took aim at familiar targets at a rally in Michigan on Saturday night, following a call on Twitter for the resignation of Democratic senator Jon Tester with a threat to say “things” that would ensure “he’d never be elected again”.
Trump staged the event in Washington Township, north of Detroit on the same night comedian Michelle Wolf shocked the audience at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner in Washington with a brutal routine that roasted Trump and leading members of his administration. Trump skipped the dinner for a second year running, a fact he emphasized in fundraising emails and in his speech to the rally.
“Is this better than that phony Washington White House correspondent’s thing?” he asked the crowd. “Is this more fun? I could be up there tonight smiling like I love when they’re hitting you, shot after shot.”
“These people, they hate your guts,” he continued, referring to the press.
That’s close to inciting violence. Donald Trump has repeatedly insisted that the so-called “free press” is “the enemy of the people” – reporting what they claim is verified and true but is really “fake news” – just to make him look bad. And he was elected by the people. So the press is attacking the people’s one man in Washington, and thus the press is attacking the people. They do hate their guts. They hate America. Something has to be done. Something will be done, by the people. Some reporter will be physically attacked – at which point Trump can say that was unfortunate, and very wrong, but understandable.
Perhaps all those White House correspondents should be chummy with him, to keep from getting their teeth kicked in, but Trump keeps at it:
Claiming a large measure of credit for inter-Korean talks held this week, Trump told the crowd “I had one of the fake news groups this morning, they were saying, ‘what do you think President Trump had to do with it?”
“I’ll tell you what – like how about ‘everything,'” Trump said. The crowd cheered.
Politico’s Tim Alberta covers the long history of this sort of thing:
You couldn’t miss it. Arriving in Cleveland for the 2016 Republican National Convention, visitors found themselves staring at an enormous white billboard, slapped across the top of a tall concrete building in the city’s bustling downtown, screaming a simple directive: “DON’T BELIEVE THE LIBERAL MEDIA!”
The signage – black letters against a white backdrop, save for “LIBERAL MEDIA” in bloody red – was ample around town the week of Donald Trump’s coronation in Cleveland. It was carried on top of taxi cabs; projected with lights onto a sleepy city building; and held on posters behind live cable news broadcasts throughout the week. The message paired splendidly with Trump’s remarks in accepting the Republican nomination. “Remember, all of the people telling you that you can’t have the country you want are the same people telling you that I wouldn’t be standing here tonight,” he said. “No longer can we rely on those elites in media and politics who will say anything to keep a rigged system in place.”
But the displays in downtown Cleveland weren’t paid for by Trump’s campaign, or the Republican National Committee, or an affiliated super PAC. They were a victory lap of sorts for conservative activist Brent Bozell and his advocacy group, the Media Research Center – one of the most active and best funded, and yet least known, arms of the modern conservative movement. It was as if the billboard was announcing that the right’s decades-long jihad against the mainstream press had reach its apogee in Trump, a candidate who made vicious rhetorical attacks on journalists a staple of his raucous campaign events, railed about the “crooked” and “lying media” in nearly every debate, and even went after individual reporters by name.
Alberta then spends several thousand words on his detailed interview with Brent Bozell and a history of conservatives and the press, from the fifties to today, but adding summary details like this:
“The whole hate-the-media complex has been very financially remunerative for some of these people, and to feed this paranoia on the right is a business,” said Mona Charen, a longtime conservative commentator who also wrote an essay in the National Review’s anti-Trump issue. “I spent many years criticizing the media, pointing out bias. But, as with so much in the conservative world, things changed, and suddenly you had people hammering away … saying not just that there was bias that needed to be rebutted, but that they were actively lying, and that they were the enemy. They took the whole question of media bias and weaponized it to become a very large part of the right-wing critique of the world.”
So it comes down to this:
Attacking the press has long been politically advantageous for the Republican Party, but Trump’s zero-sum approach—and the base’s rejection of “Fake News” as anything that damages the White House, no matter how factual — is new and foreboding. It has some conservatives wondering whether, after decades of pressing the liberal media narrative, they’ve unwittingly created a monster. “This has shades of authoritarianism,” Charen told me. “The state-run media in countries where political authoritarians reign tries to persuade people that no other media can be trusted, except for what the great leader tells you. And, you know, there’s a sinister undertone with some of this – ‘if you see it in the New York Times or the Washington Post then it didn’t happen.’ It’s a scary kind of nihilism.”
Bozell, for his part, accepts no responsibility for this – and argues that news organizations have only themselves to blame. “That suggests that we made the situation toxic,” he tells me. “I’m telling you that the left-wing media made the situation toxic. And when conservatives stand up to them, suddenly it’s conservatives who are on trial?” He lets out an exasperated sigh. “I make absolutely no apologies.”
No good will come of this. No good is possible now, with the sort of thing that NPR reports here:
“I think that is a difficult thing for a lot of liberals to get, that for them you know they look and say, ‘Trump’s in charge, Mitch McConnell’s out there, Paul Ryan – well, Republicans have got everything,’ ” said John Hawkins, the founder of Right Wing News, a Facebook group with more than three million followers…
With his victory, Republicans held more power than they have had in nearly a century. Conservatives had control of the House of Representatives, the Senate and the White House, and held a majority of the country’s governorships. Conservatives also now have a majority on the Supreme Court, in no small part because of Trump’s election. But beyond politics, Hawkins said, the average American conservative feels bombarded daily with disrespect.
“He turns on a TV show where he’s insulted, and then he’s like, ‘well, maybe I’ll just unwind and watch an awards show’ – the Oscars or something – where he gets trashed all day long,” Hawkins said. “He goes to Twitter and he’s got some you know guy calling him in a-hole … this is sort of like a pervasive all-out attack if you’re a conservative. And it’s all the time sort of thing.”
At the core of the problem for many American conservatives is a feeling that the culture war has been irrevocably lost to their ideological opponents.
Trump may be right – the press and everyone else may actually hate their guts – but David Atkins refines that:
Millions of words have been written about the conservative persecution complex, and how despite holding power and wielding it brutally for centuries, conservatives – and white Christian men in particular – have a constant sense of grievance that the world is treating them, per their leader’s favorite term of art, “unfairly.” Part of this is the result of con artistry by a never-ending series of manipulative hucksters scamming them to get votes for policies that benefit the wealthy. Part of it is bigoted anger that the world is not centering Christian white men quite as much as it always did.
But at a certain level, this tired conservative whine is correct: the people who lead and create culture don’t respect them.
Atkins sees a reason for that:
Artists, actors, inventors, comedians, entrepreneurs, academics, musicians, journalists and professionals across almost all creative industries have no patience for what passes for modern conservatism. And why should they?
Conservatism is fundamentally about preserving current in-group power structures and maintaining established social hierarchies. It keeps the powerful in power, and keeps the downtrodden underfoot. Insofar as government helps keep rich powerful white men rich and powerful, conservatives love it and rally around the flag. Insofar as it helps equalize the balance of power, they despise it and want to drown it in a bathtub. This has always been the case for conservatism throughout history across the globe (replace “white” with “relevant regional powerful ethnic/religious majority” and it applies in all cases), and it has never been more true than of American conservatism today under Trump.
Promethean culture-bringers tend to stand in opposition to this ethic. Artists deconstruct and challenge paradigms of power. Inventors disrupt established orders. Comedians provide a softened way to speak harsh truths that would otherwise go unspoken. Academics poke holes in established doctrines and question the nature of accepted reality. Journalists afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. And so on. This is the process by which, slowly but surely, societies change and wrongs are righted if only over generations. It’s the method that gives us the confidence to assert, despite frequent steps backward, that the moral arc of the universe does bend slowly toward justice.
That may be overstating the case, or only logical if somewhat sanctimonious, but there’s a less abstract way to look at this:
Culture is created mostly in urban environments, where traditions and ethnicities and influences mix and merge, often in conflict and often in cooperation, creating new understandings and new experiences. Goods and ideas are traded. People are freer to express their identity than elsewhere. Cities are also economic powerhouses. Large companies are centered there, picking the best possible talent. Artists congregate for inspiration. Universities absorb and interpret these influences free of old doctrines.
This is not a perfect process, of course, nor is it free of its own prejudices and blind spots. But the overall result is music, art, film, media, scholarship, journalism and commercial products that push boundaries and threaten many established social hierarchies – some more than others as many an economic and anti-war progressive would be quick to point out – but still enough to more than discomfit a stodgy traditionalist.
That explains the conservative rants against big-city folks and the coastal elites and Hollywood and Nancy Pelosi’s San Francisco too, which is not the Real America, as Sarah Palin once said, but Atkins is fine with that:
It doesn’t matter how many elections conservatives win, or how much power they hold. Politics is downstream of culture, and they will never get the cultural respect they crave.
They don’t deserve it, and those who shape our culture will never give it to them.
So, in Michigan on an odd Saturday night, Donald Trump was actually right about at least one thing, and in Washington, on the same Saturday night, Michelle Wolf was right too – and the Bay City Rollers were wrong. Saturday nights aren’t really all that good. Everyone is in the gutter now, and this is war.