Everything Donald Trump did on Saturday night was designed to insult and infuriate the very people who will forever see him as a stain on the American republic. Swaggering through Pennsylvania on the night of the White House correspondents’ dinner, Trump savaged his usual targets: the “failing” New York Times, CNN, MSNBC and Hollywood.
“A large group of Hollywood actors and Washington media are consoling each other in a hotel ballroom in our nation’s capital right now,” Trump told the crowd during the campaign-style rally. “They are gathered together for the White House correspondents’ dinner – without the president. And I could not possibly be more thrilled than to be more than 100 miles away from Washington’s swamp, spending my evening with all of you and with a much, much larger crowd and much better people.”
For journalists and pundits, the mere act of skipping the annual dinner, which no president has done in almost 40 years, was a grievous insult. To stand in front of his supporters and attack the media on the very night they always celebrate themselves – and allow the wealthy and powerful to peacock through their echo chamber – was a bridge too far. Calling the speech “deeply disturbing”, David Gergen, a former adviser to Ronald Reagan and other presidents, said on CNN that Trump delivered “the most divisive speech I have ever heard from a sitting American president”.
Whether it was the most divisive ever, or merely in the top five, the speech inadvertently represented one of the rare times Trump has done something genuinely refreshing since storming the White House. Posing as a populist outsider while stacking his cabinet with oligarchs and crafting a tax plan engineered to make the supremely wealthy a lot more comfortable, Trump walked the walk for once: he attempted to deliver a deathblow to one of the worst traditions a moneyed, out-of-touch Washington media class ever concocted.
Founded in 1921, the White House correspondents’ dinner technically exists to raise money for scholarships and underscore the importance of accountability journalism in America. Over time, it’s morphed into a navel-gazing orgy of self-congratulation, with A-listers like Emma Watson and Will Smith swarming a black-tie gala where reporters and White House officials, the president included, are supposed to lay down their guns for one night and laugh together.
Traditionally, the president mocks himself in a skit for the amusement of the press and the glitterati. Lobbyists, operatives, government officials, and journalists are all united in the cause of having a smashing time at the afterparties.
Most remarkable about this tradition has been its relative impregnability: like Trump, correspondents’ dinner organizers and attendees are mostly immune to shame. One of the great journalistic failures in the last century was the mainstream media’s coverage of the lead-up to the Iraq War, parroting Bush White House lies to build a case for an invasion in the wake of 9/11. Washington reporters and columnists with splendid sources in the White House beat the war drums, isolating the brave few who dared to warn of the catastrophe to come.
The role of the press in a functioning democracy is to hold the powerful in government and elsewhere accountable. Hobnobbing with sources does the opposite and leads to the worst kind of journalism, a strain dependent on access to power to tell power’s story alone.
Part of the press’ failure to account for Trump’s startling political rise stemmed from its concentration in affluent, cosmopolitan areas where such a president – uncouth, belligerent, and mendacious – was unfathomable, especially after an Obama presidency that seemed sprung from an Aaron Sorkin screenplay. When reporters only talk to people like themselves, they fortify their own worldviews instead of challenging them.
Trust in the media was declining long before Trump came on the scene. Cozying up to the people they cover will not help journalists restore any of it. By skipping the dinner, Trump has done the DC class a favor, unintentionally offering up a path to redemption. The correspondents’ dinner never had much of a purpose and certainly doesn’t have one now.
Partying with a White House committed to blatant misdirection and deception would be the epitome of Washington ignorance. If Trump somehow kills off the dinner for good, he will have accomplished at least one nice thing during his presidency.