At some point I’m gonna be so presidential that you people will be so bored…I’ll come back as a presidential person, and instead of 10,000 people, I’ll have about 150 people. And they’ll say: ‘But, boy, he really looks presidential!’ – Donald Trump, spring 2016.
“I’m very excited to come here and ruin your evening in person.” On March 3rd, 2018, over a year after assuming the Presidency – a year, which by any standards was one of the most bizarre in American history – Donald Trump donned white tie and tuxedo and, reported the New York Times,
…joined the very journalists he loves to malign for an evening of humorous — and sometimes uncomfortable — verbal sparring at the 133rd annual Gridiron Club Dinner.
The club is “the Washington embodiment of political correctness.” The audience of 660 included Mike Pence (last year’s headliner), Madeleine Albright, Jeff Sessions, Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, most of the Cabinet, six senators, four House members, media executives and military officers.
It also included dozens of journalists who make their livings attacking Trump. Each year, the dinner, wrote the Times,
…features speeches, skits and songs performed by the club’s members and invited political guests. But the highlight of the night always comes when the journalists offer the stage to the president for some self-deprecating jokes and good-natured roasting.
Trump joked about Sessions (“I offered Jeff a ride to the event, but he recused himself”), Kushner (“We were late tonight because Jared could not get through security”), Steve Bannon (who “leaked more than the Titanic”) and chaos in the White House (“Who is going to be the next to leave? Steve Miller or Melania?”). Everyone enjoyed the schtick – and everyone understood that Trump’s appearance was especially meaningful.
Toward the end of his remarks on Saturday, Mr. Trump apologized that he had to be “up early tomorrow morning” to watch “Fox and Friends…This might be the most fun,” he added, “since watching your faces on election night.”
This a ritual that lets off the steam created in the daily battles of partisan politics. It also makes fun of those battles, and in doing so, subtly acknowledges that the people in the room – and there were plenty of Democrats – agree on probably 90 % of the issues, because most of them are rooted in the same social classes, attended the same elite universities and share a common sense of privilege and well-being.
We intuitively understand that the most powerful political and media leaders display their utter confidence when they are willing to made fun of. This was one of the functions of the Jester in medieval courts, and of Carnival tradition. The brief inversion of social roles actually re-enforces the validity of those roles.
But why was Trump’s appearance so significant (and did you notice the NYT’s use of the prefix Mr. before “Trump”)? Prior to that event, the NYT had often seen Trump, according to Michael Wolff, as “aberrant…a figure of ridicule.”
Since Trump had entered politics from the world of business hucksterism, reality TV and – yes – professional wrestling, the media had long seen him as a con man and a joke. During the campaign, however, The Atlantic observed that “ . . . the press takes [Trump] literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.” Soon after the election, writes Wolff,
…a theory emerged among Trump’s friends that he was not acting presidential, or, really, in any way taking into account his new status or restraining his behavior…because he hadn’t taken the leap that others before him had taken. Most presidents arrived in the White House from more or less ordinary political life, and could not help but be awed and reminded of their transformed circumstances by their sudden elevation to a mansion with palacelike servants and security, a plane at constant readiness, and downstairs a retinue of courtiers and advisers. But this would not have been that different from Trump’s former life in Trump Tower…The big deal of being president was not so apparent to him.
Formality and convention—before he became president, almost everybody without high celebrity or a billion dollars called him “Mr. Trump”—are a central part of his identity. Casualness is the enemy of pretense. And his pretense was that the Trump brand stood for power, wealth, arrival.
A year before, the newly arrived – yet obviously insecure – Trump refused to attend this dinner, as well as the White House Correspondents Association’s annual dinner. It was the first time a president had skipped such events in decades. Despite inheriting great wealth, his decades of constant bragging, tacky taste, reality-show celebrity, Mafia rumors, bankruptcies and nasty business deals had long marked him as nouveau riche. To the Washington and New York aristocracies, he had never been “our kind of people.” And he had not fared well among such company in the past. Indeed, said the Times,
In 2011, when Mr. Obama savaged him at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner, Mr. Trump appeared to take it badly, and some say his decision to run for president was a result in part of his anger at Mr. Obama for the jokes.
But that had all been then. So yes, this was an opportunity for self-identified representatives of the ruling class to party well, to do a little networking, to congratulate themselves on their increased wealth and, in welcoming Trump, to ratify their authority as gatekeepers. It was a ritual of normalization.
This year – despite the saber rattling; despite the eviscerations of environmental regulations and health care; despite the transfer of billions to the mega-rich; despite the horrific attacks on Blacks, Latinos, immigrants and the disabled; despite empowering right-wing violence; despite all the corrupt cronies nominated to destroy entire federal departments; despite the nasty tweets, the insults, the investigations, the chaos, the scandals, the corruption, the firings; despite the unrelenting attacks on the media (the people in this room!); despite the sleazy adulteries, divorces and lawsuits; despite the preposterous displays of piety before evangelical groups; despite a hundred days at his golf resorts; despite all the petty, juvenile infighting; despite the possibility that he might not even survive his first term; and perhaps most of all, the daily, brazen, pathological, unashamed stench of lies – the gatekeepers were opening the gates, and Trump was confidant enough to enter in triumph, like a Roman Emperor.
After all his promises to the angry white working class that he would drain the swamp and destroy politics as usual, it was now clear to everyone present at this formal dinner that Trump was now an honored member of that same Deep State. Despite the fact that he had no class, he was the New Normal. And, after a year of his presidency it was clear that he, in turn, had normalized (that is, given permission) racist, misogynist and violent behavior that had previously been considered unacceptable.
Next: What is normalization? Why does it matter? Read Part Two here.