I have been debating for hours now whether to say anything about how last night’s White House Correspondents Dinner was a watershed moment in our national discourse — and not a good one. Comedienne Michelle Wolf’s scathing denunciation of Sarah Huckabee Sanders embarrassingly pushed the envelope for good taste in a Comedy Central-type roast format and was greeted with scattered chuckles, occasional boos and sometimes outright silence.
Before I go any further, let me qualify myself in no uncertain terms as someone who thoroughly despises Sarah Huckabee Sanders and everything she stands for. She has degraded the office of White House press secretary. I have compared her to everyone from Joseph Goebbels to Hanoi Hannah, I have called her an “Arkansas korndog” and most recently I was criticized for “taking a cheap shot” for using a meme depicting her as Miss Piggy. So there’s no love lost between me and Sweet Sarah.
Nor is this a call to “go high.” When Michelle Obama made her now famous rhetorical comment in Fall of 2016, “When they go low, we go high,” my response was, “Respectfully, when they go low we need to dig a trench and dig in, high moral ground be damned.”
No, my point is simply this: the painfully awkward silence in the room last night was due to the fact that, once again in the reign of Trump, a cultural norm was violated. For 90 seconds Huckabee Sanders was the target of concentrated abuse. We weren’t laughing with her, nor were we laughing at her, even, we were listening to her being savaged. And — this is my point — while she may be a deserving target of attack due to the unremitting attack she herself mounts daily against the free press, not to mention common sense itself, the White House Correspondents Dinner was not the place for such a display.
Wolf’s monologue contained a few zingers. The “Aunt Lydia from Handmaid’s Tale” was a great line, evoking a spot on image. If it had been left there, this discussion would not be taking place. What followed was a school yard bully type of tirade on how fat and what a liar Huckabee Sanders was. Again, one can argue that rigorous honesty was being employed and in another venue that argument might fly. At the WHCD, it did not fly, and scattered boos were heard throughout the auditorium. Whether you liked Huckabee Sanders or not became immaterial. At that point, the monologue was simply in poor taste and violated the norms of the venue in which it was being delivered.
The constitution puts time, place and manner restrictions on free speech. One cannot yell “Fire” in a crowded theater, for instance, because to do so is disruptive and dangerous. Here, we must ask at what point does humor or candor become disruptive to the event at hand, which in this case was to gather once more for the purpose of a few hours of self-mockery and good natured ribbing of journalists and politicians. There was nothing good natured about last night.
Ironically, although Trump’s main lapdog was the object of the disputed comments, the attack itself was vintage Trump, cocky vulgarity combined with casual cruelty. You can’t distill down Trump’s signature comments to any more concentrated a formula than that.
The issue becomes, not apologizing to poor Huckabee Sanders for the assault on her fee fees; not in the least — the point is, safeguarding our institutions, norms and practices so as to not let them slip slide down to the level of Trump and his cohorts, including Huckabee Sanders, who certainly had no problem disparaging a young widow and her congresswoman friend, using the term “empty barrel,” a few short months ago.
No, Huckabee Sanders had it coming to her and then some. Again, that’s not the point. The only point to be made here is that if we don’t want to accede to Trump and become like Trump then we need to not act like Trump. Last night was a watershed moment in our national discourse. Once again, we descended several notches further downward with this unfortunate public display. Buttons were pushed or you would not be hearing outcries for immediate apology on the one hand and claims that Michelle Wolf was a hero on the other. A chord was struck.
The chord that was struck was not one saying, “no, not this” but rather one saying, “no, not here and not now.” When I was in college an anti-Vietnam demonstration that was planned to go down a certain street was re-routed because of a funeral procession taking place at that same hour for a soldier who had lost his life in that conflict. Demonstrators were not told they were wrong, they were merely asked to detour a few blocks out of respect for the solemnity of the occasion already in progress.
We need to preserve our norms and safeguard our inherent decency as Americans because if we do not, Trump will win and cocky vulgarity and casual cruelty will replace simple common decency and become the order of the day. We cannot allow that to happen or this will become Trump’s Amerikkka and stop being ours. Aladdin’s genie left the lamp last night and there’s no getting him back but we can learn from this mistake and safeguard our institutions more diligently going forward.