Michael Wolff on Trump, "Public Narcissism" and the White House Correspondents' Dinner
The president loves a showbiz red carpet, but even he knows the annual D.C. event is an elitist relic best used to rally his anti-media base.
As the White House Correspondents' Dinner gets underway April 29, the 100th day of the Trump administration, Air Force One, with all due symbolism, will set down in working-class America at a rally in Pennsylvania — far from the swamp swells in black tie deliriously congratulating themselves for their proximity to power.
It isn't hard to figure that President Donald Trump will regret not being at the center of the kind of adulation and mutual self-congratulations that the media annually shared with former President Barack Obama. At the same time, he apparently is self-aware enough, or combative enough, to refuse to swallow the slights and indignities that former President George W. Bush was said to annually feel amid the spring rites of the liberal media — slights and indignities that would, presumably, be much worse for Trump.
The Correspondents' Dinner has always been a last-laugh affair, and in this case Trump might well get his by staying away rather than grinning and bearing it in, say, a bathrobe sketch or, perhaps, a reverse Alec Baldwin impression or — imagine it — Trump making fun of his own hair. Instead of pretending that at the end of the day he shares some sense of drollery about being an ultimate insider with other people who believe they are ultimate insiders, he is — however wistful he might be about missing this showbiz moment — saying phooey.
The White House Correspondents' Dinner is of course not for White House correspondents but has, in its modern incarnation, become for the pooh-bahs and climbers of the larger media and entertainment world. Other than the discordant military rituals — presenting colors — at the beginning, and then its junior-Chamber-of-Commerce-type awards interlude, it's a strictly paparazzi event. Vanity Fair, which extended its Hollywood reach with its Oscar party, did the same in politics with a VIP-only White House Correspondents' party. And one of the crucial byplays this year was VF editor Graydon Carter's cancellation of its party, an overt statement about Carter's antipathy for Trump and his not-of-our-class administration. Trump, long wounded by Carter's contempt going back to Spy magazine during the 1980s, had to respond in kind.
Indeed, it was a moment that forced the hand of Trump's divided self when it comes to the media. If there was no place he would rather be than at a red carpet and headliner gathering, there also was nothing that would so much offend the populist heart and soul of Trumpism as elites in their protected bubble.
An important aspect of Trumpism is, arguably, a kind of counterprogramming to media superciliousness, and now here was a moment that both might spell the end of the Correspondents' Dinner — taking away its proximity to the president — and, as well, give Trump quite a high-minded moral opportunity. Much better for him to go slumming with the base.
The White House Correspondents' Dinner by any reasonable measure has become a very bad political symbol. It's an exclusive and exclusionary event that celebrates power and influence for power and influence's sake. It's public narcissism, wherein all the celebrities become ecstatic at the sight of one another. (Of note, I have never known anyone invited to the dinner to say they actually wanted to go — rather, it is a burden of celebrity, a self-satisfied martyrdom.) The event is too, in its form, a kind of kin to late-night television — invariably hosted by a late-night star or a comedian aspiring to be a late-night star. It extols a cultural knowingness that, to say the least, excludes Trump and the Trump base, who are the reverse of cultural knowingness. One of the most notable aspects of the dinner for the past eight years, and one of the most notable aspects of Obama's character, is how much, stepping out of presidential earnestness, he resembles — in timing, sensibility and archness — a late-night host.
Of course, Trump not long ago was one of the swells who hectored his publicists to make sure he had an invitation to the event. Urban legend now has it that a fateful moment for the republic can be traced to when, in his monologue in 2011, Obama ridiculed the hapless Trump sitting in the audience, hence moving Trump to seek revenge by running for president himself.
From nearly the first moments of the new administration, the Correspondents' Dinner was a worry. After all, Trump had run against this very crowd. This, in the Trump formulation, was the opposition party. So how would it work if he showed up? Of course, this might have been a moment for a detente. That really is more or less the theme of the event: We fight each other, press and president, but we need each other. At the end of the day, we are not really partisans, we are pros — hell, successes — in the inner circle of American life. Hence, we understand each other, really. And that must have been quite a temptation for the new president, to show a different side — the witty, winking, self-deprecating side of Donald Trump. Not to mention, here might be an opportunity to take a little friendly piss out of this bunch. A few Graydon Carter jokes, for instance.
But part of the point here, and part of the reason this group bears this president such hostility and suspicion, is that there is no other side of Donald Trump — no wink wink. He is what he appears to be. He's not only thin-skinned, vain, defensive and way too quick to react in quite an everyman sort of way, but he also is incapable of speaking the language, even perhaps of delivering the lines, of modern cultural agreement and media class badinage. Trump, along with a great part of the country, is not in on the joke, which is what got him elected president and now, wisely, moves him to be as far as possible from April 29's dinner.
This story first appeared in the April 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.