That is, to quote various Internet commentators—themselves quoting Ice Cube’s character in the seminal comedy Friday—upon hearing the news Sarah Sanders plans to leave the White House by the end of the month, ending her tenure as press secretary.
Of course, now begins the rampant speculation as to who will succeed Sanders in this role. A few people have wryly suggested conservative vloggers, social media personalities, political activists, and Fox Nation hosts Diamond and Silk are the new oddsmakers’ favorites to win the position. This is a joke—although given the disjointed and surreal way the Trump administration has operated heretofore, you can’t rule this possibility out either.
From a survival perspective in the tumult of the Trump White House, Sanders’s run is notable. Certainly, she has well eclipsed the likes of Anthony Scaramucci, whose short service in the capacity of White House Director of Communications is the minimum standard by which future Trump appointees might be judged. For that matter, she also has far surpassed her predecessor, Sean Spicer. If we’re giving Sanders credit—the conditions for which doing so are seemingly miniscule in the Trump era—there’s that, at least.
As Sanders’s watch comes to a close, though, and as per the wont of the American opinion journalism landscape, one is left to ponder what her legacy is alongside her contemporaries and others who have held her title in the past. Brian Stelter, chief media correspondent for CNN, puts it rather succinctly: “Sarah Sanders’ primary legacy as White House press secretary will be the death of the daily press briefing.”
On the infrequency of her appearances before the media, he’s not wrong. At this writing, Sanders’s last press briefing occurred on March 11, more than three months ago. In doing so, she broke her own previous records for the longest span without a briefing held in White House history. As an added bonus, and as Stelter notes, last month, reporters spied a coating of dust on her podium. Yeah, it’s that bad.
To be fair, many might not consider this a significant loss given Sanders’s propensity to stonewall White House reporters if not lie to them outright. From the details of the Mueller report, we know she admitted to fabricating tales of “countless” FBI agents thanking President Trump for firing James Comey as director on multiple occasions. She later characterized her description as a “slip of the tongue.”
But this was more than just misleading. This was a lie. When members of the journalism community found this much out, several called for her immediate ouster or resignation. Whatever credibility Sanders had maintained up to that point, she had destroyed it by acknowledging her prior comments were “not founded on anything.” Without the public’s trust, what good is having her on board?
Sanders’s wanton disregard for truth-telling, paired with the notion that her replacement probably won’t be much of an improvement—if at all—would therefore seem to render her departure inconsequential. As Stelter finds, meanwhile, her abdication of even the pretense of authenticity and transparency is a significant departure from past precedent. Both she and President Trump have contended that these press briefings aren’t essential when the president and other members of the administration are accessible in other ways. Namely Twitter.
And yet, 3 A.M. rants by the Commander-in-Chief aren’t the same as scheduled events marked by the ability of a free press to ask the White House direct questions. As Stelter puts it:
Press briefings matter for both symbolic and practical reasons. Symbolically, televised briefings show that the White House is open for business and willing to answer questions. And on a practical level, briefings are an efficient way for the administration to address numerous topics and engage with a wide variety of news outlets.
Accountability. Directness. Fairness. Visibility. These are hallmarks of good communication notably absent from the White House with Sanders as press secretary. Even within the confines of the Trump era, Sanders is not the only representative of the president to have a contentious and disingenuous relationship with the media; Kellyanne Conway’s thumbing her nose at the Hatch Act as well as the very existence of verifiable facts is an affront to everyone who listens to her speak. From an historical perspective, too, there are umpteen instance of presidents nakedly exhibiting antipathy toward the press. See also “Nixon, Richard.”
This merely provides context, though. It does not exculpate her as a member of an administration that has all but declared war on journalists. It doesn’t clear her of going after Jim Acosta’s press credentials if not his job citing blatantly edited footage, his alleged grandstanding aside. Or for tweeting about the Red Hen restaurant refusing to serve her from her official government Twitter account. Or for accusing the media of spreading “fake news” about President Trump. Or for insisting he has never encouraged the use of violence against protestors.
Wait—there’s more. Or for misrepresenting legal situations involving the president or members of his administration such as Rob Porter. Or for citing the Bible and blaming Democrats for Trump’s family separation policy. Or for seriously overstating the numbers of individuals on the terror watch list getting apprehended at the Mexican border. Or for repeatedly failing to agree with the idea that the press “is not the enemy of the people.” Sanders may not be the only or worst example of bad behavior in the White House—we need look no further than the man setting the tone at the top for the ugliest conduct of all. But she’s an example of it nonetheless.
Indeed, as someone who once tweeted with relish about “Trump derangement syndrome,” a fictitious malady supposedly afflicting Democrats and other liberals, one has to assume Sanders, at least on some level, approves of Donald Trump and his agenda. That she’s jumping ship now like so many other officials have done under Trump’s watch shouldn’t make her look more palatable, nor should she get a round of applause given the difficulty of her placement. She agreed to this arrangement. Like the rest of her fallen comrades, she had to have some idea of what she was getting herself into.
What is perhaps most befuddling about the news of Sarah Sanders’s imminent departure is that it comes attached with multiple reports of her political aspirations, specifically “seriously considering” running for governor of Arkansas, a post once held by her father, former-presidential-candidate-turned-online-conservative-troll Mike Huckabee. Sanders has already established that she’s a professional liar, which some might concede makes her better qualified to be a politician. Our cynicism aside, is this the kind of person Arkansans want to represent them? Because her dad used to be governor, does she therefore make more sense than other candidates? Or is it that she carried water for President “Make America Great Again?” She didn’t even finish a full term as press secretary. What makes voters think she’ll be willing to work with them over the long haul?
Even yet more quizzical is the news that members of the media are evidently planning a going-away party for Sanders involving “farewell drinks” at an upscale D.C. bar. A going-away party? For the woman who refused to say that the press is not the enemy of the American people and who has let her podium literally collect dust? It’s preposterous and yet totally believable coming from a group that sought to console Sanders after her roasting at the hands of Michelle Wolf at the 2018 White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Wolf did her job. Sanders has flouted her responsibility. The only “going-away party” I would want to see or attend if I were a White House reporter is one saying “good riddance” to someone who didn’t have my back after my colleagues came to her defense for being the lying mouthpiece of a would-be despot.
Again, Sarah Sanders may not be the worst the Trump administration has to offer and her yet-unnamed successor stands to be a downgrade. That’s not saying much for her as a person, however. As far as I am concerned, and as I know other conscientious objectors to the Trump presidency feel, Sarah Sanders, you will not be missed. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
Rejoice! If you’re reading this, it means we haven’t yet managed to get ourselves embroiled in a nuclear war and that the future of our civilization as a going concern—despite our best efforts—is still a possibility!
Whatever your outlook on the days, weeks, and years to come, it’s worth looking back on the moments of the past 12 months and revisiting the themes they evoked.
Without further ado, it’s time for…
2018 IN REVIEW: HEY, WE’RE STILL HERE!
Mueller…always a good call.
When the year started, what did you figure the odds were that Robert Mueller’s investigation would still be going? 50% Less than that? At this writing—with Donald Trump and this administration, you never know what might happen and who might suddenly quit or get fired—the Mueller probe into Trump’s presidential campaign and possible collusion with Russia continues largely unimpeded.
This is not to say that its continued operation and final delivery are guaranteed. Jeff Sessions’s watch as Attorney General has ended, and his dismissal created the objectively strange sensation of a furor over his removal by the left despite his support of the Trump administration’s destructive agenda. His replacement, Matthew Whitaker, a Trump loyalist, inspires little faith there will be any obfuscation of the investigation, especially since he has rejected the advice of an ethics official from the Office of the Deputy Attorney General to recuse himself from the investigation.
With Mitch McConnell the obstructionist refusing to allow a vote on a bill that would safeguard the investigation, there’s little hope Congress will act to intervene should Trump move to fire Mueller. Which, as he has reminded us umpteen times, he can do because he’s the president. Whatever Mueller’s fate, the results of his team’s findings are yet impressive and suggest the probe should be permitted to run its course. Over 30 people and three Russian companies have been charged in the special counsel’s investigation, producing more than 100 criminal charges, and more yet might be on the way.
Despite Trump’s hollow concerns about the cost—Mueller’s probe is a “waste of money” and yet we should fund a wall that a lot of people don’t want—Robert Mueller and Co. have been remarkably effective and efficient. Trump shouldn’t mess with this investigation if for no other reason than not to risk a major public outcry against him.
“Guns don’t kill people,” but more people killed people with guns
The February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in which 17 students were killed and another 17 injured was perhaps the most notable for the activism it helped inspire, but there were other newsworthy shootings around the country. Yountville, California at a veterans home. Nashville, Tennessee at a Waffle House. Santa Fe, Texas at the high school. Scottsdale, Arizona in a series of shootings. Trenton, New Jersey at the Art All Night Festival. Annapolis, Maryland at the Capital Gazette building. Jacksonville, Florida at a Madden NFL 19 tournament. Aberdeen, Maryland at a Rite Aid. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania at the Tree of Life synagogue. Tallahassee, Florida at a yoga studio. Thousands Oaks, California at a bar. Robbins, Illinois at a bar. Chicago, Illinois at Mercy Hospital and Medical Center.
Gun rights advocates may point to the varying locales of these shootings and suggest that no matter where you go and how restrictive the gun laws, people can still acquire firearms by illicit means and can do harm. In any number of cases, however, shooters haven’t needed to subvert legal channels. Either way, this shouldn’t deter lawmakers from passing more restrictive gun laws. It should be difficult for individuals to acquire guns. There are too many guns. More guns means a higher likelihood that people will get shot. This is not complicated.
If you want to talk about mental health aside from the gun issue, I’m with you. If you want to insist that we just need more good people with guns, I’m not with you, but I still think we should talk about it. In the case of Jemel Roberson in the Robbins, Illinois shooting, he was the good guy with a gun, and got shot because he was black. We haven’t come close to solving the gun violence problem in America, and as long as groups like the National Rifle Association will continue to lobby against gun control and resist statistical research into fatalities related to gun violence, we won’t make progress on this issue. Here’s hoping the NRA continues to suffer a decline in funding.
Stormy Daniels alleges Donald Trump had an extramarital affair with her back in 2006. Trump, who denies everything, denies this happened. Meanwhile, someone paid her $130,000 in advance of the election. Who do you believe? Also, and perhaps more to the point, do you care?
I have no reason to doubt the veracity of Daniels’s account. For some people, though, the mere notion she gets and has gotten money to have sex on camera puts her word in doubt. She’s an opportunistic liar looking to cash in on her 15 minutes of fame. Ditto for her lawyer Michael Avenatti, who naturally has political aspirations.
Even for those who might believe her or who would like nothing more than to nail Trump on some dimension, the nature of her profession is such that they might be loath to discuss the matter of Trump’s infidelity and hush money payments. Talking about sex and adult entertainers is, well, icky for some.
In this respect, our willingness or unwillingness to confront this chapter of Daniels’s and Trump’s lives is a reflection of our own set of values and morals. It’s especially telling, moreover, that so many white evangelicals are willing to forgive Pres. Trump his trespasses. For a group that has, until Trump’s rise, been the most insistent on a person’s character to eschew such concerns demonstrates their willingness to compromise their standards in support of a man who upholds “religious liberty” and who exemplifies the prosperity gospel.
Thus, while some of us may not care about Stormy Daniels personally or may not find campaign finance law riveting, there’s still larger conversations about sex and money in politics worth having. Despite what nonsense Rudy Giuliani might spout.
FOX News continued its worsening trend of defending Trump and white supremacy
Oh, FOX News. Where do we begin? If we’re talking about everyone’s favorite source for unbiased reporting (sarcasm intended), a good place to start is probably their prime-time personalities who masquerade as legitimate journalists.
Sean Hannity, now firmly entrenched as FOX News’s night-time slot elder statesman with Bill O’Reilly gone, was revealed as a client of Michael Cohen’s (yes, that Michael Cohen) and an owner of various shell companies formed to buy property in low-income areas financed by HUD loans. Surprise! That surprise extended to Hannity’s employer, to whom he did not see fit to disclose a potential conflict of interest when propping up the likes of Cohen and Ben Carson, or his adoring viewers. Not that they care, in all likelihood. Hannity tells it not like it is, but how they want to hear.
As for more recent more additions to the prime-time schedule, Laura Ingraham, when not mocking Parkland, FL survivor David Hogg for not getting into colleges (he since has been accepted to Harvard) or telling LeBron James to “shut up and dribble,” denounced the “massive demographic changes” that have been “foisted on the American people.” She says she wasn’t being racist. She is full of shit.
Tucker Carlson, meanwhile, remained the go-to guy for white supremacist viewpoints, questioning the value of all forms of immigration and more recently deriding immigrants as poor and dirty. He has lost more than a dozen advertisers since those latest comments. Good. The only criticism is that it took them this long to dissociate themselves from Carlson’s program.
FOX News has seemingly abandoned any pretense of separation from the Trump administration in terms of trying to influence the president’s views or tapping into his racist, xenophobic agenda. It hasn’t hurt them any in the ratings—yet. As those “demographic changes” continue, as television viewership is challenged by new media, and as President Trump remains unpopular among Americans as a whole, however, there is no guarantee the network will remain at the top. Enjoy it while you can, Laura, Sean, and Tucker.
Turns out big companies don’t always do the right thing
Facebook, Papa John’s, and Wells Fargo would like you to know they are very truly sorry for anything they may or may have not done. Kind of.
In Facebook’s case, it’s selling the information of millions of users to Cambridge Analytica, a consulting firm which did work for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and was founded by Steve Bannon (yes, that Steve Bannon). It also did a piss-poor job of weeding out fake news and hate speech and has since taken to relying on a questionable consortium of fact-checkers, most suspect among them The Weekly Standard.
Papa John’s had to reckon with the idea John Schnatter, the company’s namesake, is, well, kind of a racist dick. They’ve been battling over his ouster and his stake in the company ever since. As for Wells Fargo, it’s still dealing with the bad PR from its massive account fraud scandal created as a function of a toxic sales-oriented corporate culture, as well as the need to propose a reform plan to the Federal Reserve to address its ongoing shady practices (its proposals heretofore have yet to be approved).
In all three cases, these companies have sought to paper over their misdeeds with advertising campaigns that highlight their legacy of service to their customers or the people within their organization who are not bigoted assholes. With Facebook and Wells Fargo in particular, that they continue to abuse the public’s trust conveys the sense they aren’t truly repentant for what they’ve done and haven’t learned anything from the scandals they’ve created.
Unfortunately, cash is king, and until they lose a significant share of the market (or the government refuses to bail them out), they will be unlikely to change in a meaningful positive way. The best we can do as consumers is pressure our elected representatives to act on behalf of their constituents—and consider taking our business elsewhere if these organizations don’t get their shit together.
Poor Sarah Sanders. It seems she can’t attend the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner or go out for a meal with her family without being harangued.
While I don’t necessarily think people like Sanders, Kirstjen Nielsen, and Stephen Miller should be denied the ability to eat (although it’s pretty f**ked up that Miller and Nielsen would go to a Mexican restaurant amid an immigration crisis), calls for “civility” are only as good as the people making such calls and the possibility of substantive action in key policy areas.
People were upset with Michelle Wolf, for instance, for telling the truth about Sanders’s propensity for not telling the truth by making allusions to her as Aunt Lydia from The Handmaid’s Tale and by referencing her smoky eye makeup as the ash from burned facts. Members of the press tripped over themselves to comfort Sanders and to disavow Wolf’s performance. But Wolf was doing her job, and told truth to power. It’s Michelle Wolf who deserves the apology, not habitual liar and Trump enabler Sarah Sanders.
I believe we shouldn’t go around punching Nazis—as satisfying as that might be. That said, we shouldn’t allow people to dispense hate simply to appease “both sides,” and we should be vocal about advocating for the rights of immigrants and other vulnerable populations when people like Miller and Nielsen and Sanders do everything in their power to pivot away from the Trump administration’s destructive actions. After all, it’s hard to be civil when children are being taken from their mothers and people are being tear-gassed or dying in DHS custody.
There’s something about Alexandria
Love her or hate her, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has arrived on the national stage following her upset of incumbent Joe Crowley in the Democratic Party primary for New York’s 14th congressional district.
If you’re a devotee of FOX News, it’s probably the latter. The incoming first-year representative has joined Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Nancy Pelosi in the vaunted space of people to be booed and hissed at for pretty much everything she does. She took a break before the start of her first term? How dare she! She refused to debate Ben Shapiro? What is she afraid of? As a young Latina socialist, she ticks off all the boxes their audience possesses on their Fear and Hate Index. All without spending an official day on the job.
Like any inexperienced politician, AOC has had her wobbles, chief among them when she flubbed a question on Israel and Palestine. Nevertheless, she has handled the numerous attacks on her on Twitter and elsewhere with remarkable deftness and grace. More importantly, she appears ready to lead her party on key issues, as evidenced by her outspokenness on the concept of a Green New Deal.
Party leaders may downplay the significance of her upset primary win, but Ocasio-Cortez’s emergence, to many, heralds a progressive shift for Democrats, one in which its younger members and women are not just participants, but at the forefront. At a time when establishment Dems only seem more and more unwilling to change, there is yet reason for genuine excitement in the Democratic Party.
John McCain died. Cue the whitewashing.
I don’t wish death on anyone, but John McCain died at the right time. That time would be the era of President Donald Trump, and by contrast, McCain looks like a saint.
McCain is best remembered for his service to the United States and for helping to kill the Republicans’ intended replacement for the Affordable Care Act. But we shouldn’t brush aside the less-savory elements of his track record. As a Trump critic, he still voted in line with the president’s agenda most of the time. He was a prototypical war hawk, advocating for intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as a proponent of armed conflict with Iran—even after all he saw and endured in Vietnam.
Meanwhile, as a presidential candidate, though he is celebrated for defending Barack Obama at a town hall as a good Christian man (though he didn’t specify that he’d be worth defending if he were actually a Muslim), he was an unrepentant user of a racial slur directed at Asians and he signed off on the unqualified Sarah Palin as his running mate. A lot of the fondness he receives now from journalists likely stems from the access McCain gave reporters while on the campaign trail. Even his vote not to quash the ACA was done with a flair for the dramatic that belied the seriousness of its implications.
John McCain wasn’t the worst person to inhabit the U.S. Senate. But simply being more civil than Donald Trump is a low bar to clear. Regardless, he should be remembered in a more nuanced way in the name of accurate historical representation.
There were a lot of shameful occurrences in American politics in 2018. I already alluded to the Trump administration’s catastrophic mishandling of the immigration situation and of ripping apart families. The White House also seems intent on hastening environmental destruction, doing nothing to protect vulnerable subdivisions of the electorate, and pulling out of Syria as an apparent gift to Assad and Vladimir Putin.
And yet, the nomination and eventual confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court somehow became the most galling example of D.C. partisanship witnessed in sometime. Of course, any discussion of Kavanaugh would be incomplete without the mention of Merrick Garland. On the heels of Republicans’ refusal to hear him as a nominee following the death of Antonin Scalia and after Neil Gorsuch was sworn in, things were already primed for tension between the two major parties.
When reports of multiple alleged instances of sexual misconduct dating back to Kavanaugh’s high school and college days surfaced, though, the GOP’s stubborn refusal to budge and choose a new candidate was downright appalling. Kavanaugh didn’t do himself any favors with his testimony on the subject of these accusations, lashing out at the people who questioned him, insisting this investigation was a partisan witch hunt, and assuming the role of the aggrieved party like the spoiled frat boy we imagine he was and perhaps still is.
Kavanaugh’s defenders would be wont to point out that the rest of us are just salty that “they” won and “we” lost. Bullshit. Though we may have disagreed with Gorsuch’s nomination and conservatism prior to his being confirmed, he didn’t allegedly sexually assault or harass anybody. Brett Kavanaugh, in light of everything we now know about him, was a terrible choice for the Supreme Court. Senate Republicans should be ashamed of this chapter in American history, and this might be a good segue into talking about term limits for Supreme Court justices. Just saying.
Death by plastic
In case you were keeping score at home, there’s still an ass-ton of plastic in the world’s oceans. According to experts on the matter, the global economy is losing tens of billions of dollars each year because of plastic waste and we’re on a pace to have more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050. Doesn’t sound appetizing, does it?
By all means, we should keep recycling and finding ways to avoid using plastic on an individual basis. Every bit helps. At the same time, we’re not going to make the progress we need until the primary drivers of plastic waste are held accountable for their actions. Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Starbucks, Unilever—looking at you.
In terms of world governments, China is the worst offender hands down, and numerous Asian countries line the top 10 (Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia), but we’re not exactly above reproach. In fact, with Trump at the helm, we’ve been active in helping water down UN resolutions designed to eliminate plastic pollution.
Plastic pollution is not an isolated problem, and it’s not going away either. Literally. That stuff lasts a long time. We need to stop plastic production at the source, and push back against companies like Nestlé who exploit downtrodden communities with lax water safeguarding laws. This isn’t a game.
The Dems flipped the House, Brian Kemp stole an election, and other observations about the midterms
It’s true. Though Republicans widened their majority in the Senate, Democrats flipped the House, presumably paving the way for Nancy Pelosi to return to the role of House Majority Leader. Groan at this point if you’d like.
With the Dems running the show in the House, there’s likely to be all sorts of investigations into Donald Trump and his affairs. I mean, more political and financial, not the other kind, but you never know with that guy. That should encourage party supporters despite some tough losses. Beto O’Rourke fell short in his bid to unseat Ted Cruz from Senate, despite being way sexier and cooler. Andrew Gillum likewise had a “close but no cigar” moment in the Florida gubernatorial race. Evidently, voters preferred Ron DeSantis, his shameless alignment with Trump, and his thinly-veiled racism. Congratulations, Florida! You never fail to disappoint in close elections!
Perhaps the worst of these close losses was Stacey Abrams, edged out by Brian Kemp in the Georgia gubernatorial race. If you ask Kemp, he won fair and square. If you ask anyone else with a modicum of discretion, he won because, as Georgia’s Secretary of State, he closed polling stations, purged voters from the rolls, failed to process voter applications, and kept voting machines locked up. Kemp’s antics and the shenanigans in North Carolina’s Ninth Congressional District give democracy a bad name, and beckon real voting reform championed by grassroots activists. After all, if Florida can restore voting rights to felons—Florida!—the lot of us can do better.
George H.W. Bush also picked a good time to die
Like John McCain, I didn’t wish for “Bush Sr.” to die. Also like John McCain, people on both sides of the aisle extolled his virtues at the expense of a more complete (and accurate) telling of his personal history.
Bush, on one hand, was a beloved patriarch, served his country, and had more class than Donald Trump (again, low bar to clear). He also was fairly adept at throwing out first pitches at baseball games, I guess. On the other hand, he campaigned for president on dog-whistle politics (see also “Willie Horton”), pushed for involvement in the first Gulf War by relying on fabricated intelligence, escalated the war on drugs for political gain, turned a deaf ear to people suffering from AIDS, and was accused by multiple women of trying to cop a feel. So much for being miles apart from Trump.
Was George H.W. Bush a good man? I didn’t know the man, so I can’t say for sure. But he was no saint. Nor was his son or Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton or Barack Obama or any other president. He led the country. Let’s not erase his flaws in the name of “togetherness.”
I chose to review these topics because I covered them at length on my blog. This obviously doesn’t cover the sum total of the events that transpired in 2018. Let’s see.
Congress reauthorized Section 702 of FISA and rolled back Dodd-Frank, extending our use of warrantless surveillance and making it more liable we will slide back into a recession. That sucked. Devin Nunes released a memo that was reckless, misleading, dishonest, and not quite the bombshell it was made out to be. That sucked as well. Our national debt went way up and continues to rise. American workers are making more money because they are working more, not because wages have risen.
What else? Trump got the idea for a self-congratulatory military parade—and then cancelled it because people thought it was a waste of time, effort, and money. DACA is still in limbo. U.S. manufacturing, outside of computers, continues its downward slide. Sacha Baron Cohen had a new show that was hit-or-miss. Oh, and we’re still involved in Yemen, helping a Saudi regime that killed journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
So, yeah, in all, not a whole lot to get excited about in 2018 on the national news front. Moreover, that there seems to be mutual distrust between liberals and conservatives dampens enthusiasm for 2019 a bit. And let’s not even get started on 2020. If you think I’m raring to go for a Biden-Trump match-up (based on current polling), you’d be sorely mistaken.
And yet—step back from the ledge—there is enough reason to not lose hope. Alongside Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a record number of women won seats in Congress. Ayanna Pressley became the first black women elected to Congress from Massachusetts. Michelle Lujan Grisham became the first Democratic Latina governor. Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland were elected as the first Native American women to Congress. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib were elected as the first Muslim women in Congress. Guam got its first female governor in history in Lou Leon Guerrero. That’s real progress.
Indeed, while Donald Trump as president is intent on standing in the way of progress, and while his continued habitation of the White House is bad on so many fronts, his win has been a wake-up call to ordinary people to get involved in politics, whether by running for office, by canvassing for political candidates and issues, or by making their voices heard by their elected representatives one way or another. Politics can’t be and is no longer just the sphere of rich old white dudes. Despite the efforts of political leaders, lobbyists, and industry leaders with a regressive agenda as well as other obstacles, folks are, as they say, rising up.
There’s a lot of work to do in 2019, the prospect of which is daunting given that many of us are probably already tired from this year and even before that. It’s truly a marathon and not a sprint, and the immediate rewards can feel few and far between. The goal of a more equal and just society, however, is worth the extra effort. Here’s hoping we make more progress in 2019—and yes, that we’re still here to talk about it same time next year.
Sacha Baron Cohen’s new show Who Is America? premiered this past Sunday on Showtime, the first episode in a seven-episode series that sees Baron Cohen return to the world of donning disguises and accents, and continuing to dupe people of influence into interviews and supporting positions publicly that undermine their credibility.
Ahead of its release, few details were released about who or what would appear on the show, save for Dick Cheney signing a “waterboarding kit” (which amounted to little more than a jug of water) in the promotional materials. Also, Sarah Palin copped to being played by Baron Cohen, although not without calling him “evil and sick” for tricking her, and Roy Moore threatening to sue Showtime over his chicanery. Clearly, the man has already struck a nerve.
At this writing, reviews are yet sparse, with only a handful having been aggregated by the likes of Metacritic. Having seen the premiere, I can say that Republicans are not the only targets of his comedy, although whether these figures are the jokes or whether Baron Cohen’s send-ups of American culture are tends to vary more as we move more leftward across the political spectrum. Bernie Sanders appears in a segment with Baron Cohen’s character Dr. Billy Wayne Ruddick, an Alex Jones-style conspiracy theorist, engaging in an absurd conversation where “Ruddick” engages in some warped math involving the 1% and 99% before Sanders confesses he has no idea what Ruddick is talking about.
As Rick Sherman, meanwhile, an ex-con who paints portraits with bodily fluids, Baron Cohen also meets with Christy Cones, a fine art consultant for Coast Gallery in Laguna Beach, who praises the bravery behind “Sherman’s” story and work. Since finding about the ruse, Cones has evidently expressed a desire to meet face-to-face with Baron Cohen as “compensation for his underhanded tactics,” criticizing him for “pretending to be someone who suffered when he probably hasn’t suffered a moment in his life.” To what extent Cones may have “suffered” in her own life, who knows, but for someone who seemed a willing participant in the throes of the filming, certainly, she is not taking it all in stride after the fact.
Sacha Baron Cohen’s “art”—some might say I am being generous in calling it that—relies on deception and making people feel uncomfortable, both on screen and off it. It’s not a style for everyone, particularly those who feel victimized by their encounters with him and his portfolio of personas. In terms of perceptions of its quality, as noted, reviews are still being written or are in the waiting, but from my estimation, while entertaining, some segments play better than others. Baron Cohen, in his sit-down with June Page Thompson, a Trump delegate from South Carolina, and her husband and fellow Trump voter, Mark Thompson, as Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello, a liberal Democrat who apologizes for his identity as a white cisgender male, tells accounts of raising his children that are obvious caricatures of liberalism taken to an extreme. The Thompsons don’t bite, though, or not to the extent that they angrily ask him to leave. It’s as if Baron Cohen is slow-playing them for a reaction he never gets, and the final product seems flat as a result.
The payoff proves larger for a segment in which Baron Cohen, as Col. Erran Morad, an Israeli anti-terrorism expert, convinces numerous gun rights advocates/Republican lawmakers to lend their support to an initiative that would arm children with guns as a means of curbing gun violence in schools. Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida does not take the bait, but others, including Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California, Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina, and former U.S. senator Trent Lott, appeared only too happy to endorse the measure. It’s both funny and terrifying, and the most redeeming value is that these men consented to appearing as they did and reading from prepared materials. That is, they can’t claim this is “fake news” because the tape doesn’t lie.
Whether or not the show is subjectively “good” or “bad” as a comedic creation does not approach, however, the subject of whether or not Who Is America? is a show that real-world America needs in the current political climate. This topic is at the heart of a recent piece by Aja Romano, Internet culture reporter for Vox, who believes Baron Cohen’s “prankster provocations are a bad match for our current cultural climate.” Declaring them “exhausting” and “dangerous,” Romano attempts to quickly poke a hole in the liberal balloon of giddiness in delighting over the trickery and debasement of conservative figureheads:
On the one hand, all this may seem like the beginning of a glorious sublime parade of politicians owning themselves. But on the other hand, these politicians were tricked into appearing on the record as themselves, in a way that further perpetuates and entrenches not only the cultural ideological divide, but the idea among conservatives that “liberal” media, including entertainment media like Baron Cohen’s production, is a constant and perpetual trap to be distrusted at all costs.
Not only that, but the mileage Team Reality will get out of Baron Cohen’s performance-art antics won’t be nearly as potent as the validation Team Fake News will get out of claiming that Who Is America? represents a new low for liberals. And that’s because Team Reality was losing its hold over a single dominant reality paradigm long before Baron Cohen cycled back onto the scene.
As Romano would have it, it’s not so much that Sarah Palin et al. allowed themselves to be deceived, but that someone like Baron Cohen, who may or may not have an ax to grind, is doing the deceiving and providing cannon fodder for conservatives in the ongoing “culture war” coloring much of political interaction today. In other words, the right does not need any more material, not when they are especially good at creating it—out of thin air, if need be.
The problem, as Romano tells it, is that Baron Cohen is an “old comedy dog with old comedy tricks.” Back in 2006, when the Borat movie was first released, his comedy was still fresh and novel, and YouTube and the 24-hour news cycle had yet to really explode. Now, YouTube pranksters are numerous, outrage over news is Twitter’s currency, and it’s getting harder and harder to tell what is the genuine article and what is a meme designed to provoke hysteria. As such, in an era when real news seems like a parody of itself, exposing celebrities as Baron Cohen does loses its (shock) value.
Romano also cites Ted Koppel, who reportedly was also interviewed for the show. While dealing with his being duped better than others, Koppel expresses real concern about whether or not the whole exercise is productive, saying that “if there’s one thing we don’t need any more of in this particular era, it’s people posing as documentarians,” and that “to undermine whatever tiny little bit of confidence might be left by pulling a stunt like this” may make for good comedy, but at the same time, might not be terrific for the “overall atmosphere.” When so much focus is levied on the cultural “divide” and on people adhering to their social media “bubbles,” as a seasoned journalist, Koppel knows full well what is he talking about when he refers to such an atmosphere.
In all, as Aja Romano sees it, Sacha Baron Cohen is not adding to the national dialog, “but…gleefully poking at it and watching everyone — politicians and onlookers alike — get upset.” To wit, I am not familiar with Romano or her work, though that doesn’t mean her commentary is to be dismissed. It’s not like she is the only one concerned about where Who Is America? fits into the whole modern political conversation, either.
While any number of celebrities and humorists have extolled the show’s virtues—presumably because they genuinely enjoy the show and not merely as a show of solidarity—not everyone is as keen on labeling it “essential” viewing. Indeed, Charles Bramesco of The Guardian, for one, finds much of the program’s content “inconsequential,” and Mike Hale of The New York Times prefaces his review of the first episode with the tagline “Should We Care?” When Romano speaks to a larger exhaustion at having to deal with real politics, her assessment of Baron Cohen’s comedy as exhausting might just hit the nail on the head. Certainly, not everyone affixed to the “liberal media” is so amused by his antics.
Then again, it could be that the program is but one amid a glut of comedic programming devoted to the state of political affairs in the United States. With so many competing voices, perhaps it’s natural that Baron Cohen, delivering material in a format not dissimilar from his previous efforts, loses his appeal in light of all the alternatives. In a sea of angry (or wryly amused, at least) voices, maybe he was bound to be unable to add anything to our discourse before he began.
In asking whether or not Sacha Baron Cohen’s new show is “bad” for America, it should be stressed that, while this question is phrased in terms of a yes-or-no binary, a fitting answer may be simply that it is neither bad nor good for America—it just is. Even if Who Is America? isn’t deliberately provoking outrage from detractors on the right, therefore—already, it’s evident that it is provoking outrage, so the remaining debate is whether Baron Cohen should shoulder the lion’s share of the blame or whether his victims should for allowing themselves to get so PO-ed in the first place—and assuming, as Ms. Romano insists, that the program doesn’t add to the discussion but only entertains, might this be a counterproductive creation in that it keeps us stuck in place when we should be making progress on bridging the divide? That is, if we’re not moving forward, are we essentially moving backward?
In considering the utility (or potential lack thereof) of Baron Cohen’s show, I’m reminded of the media’s attempts to grapple with The Daily Show‘s popularity in the Jon Stewart era. At its peak, about 12% of Americans cited The Daily Show as a place where they got their news, according to an online poll by Pew Research in 2015. That didn’t make it a leader in news, of course, but it put the show roughly equal to sources like USA Today and Huffington Post. Stewart, ever self-effacing, has always been quick to downplay the show’s influence, at least as much as he brought to it, and even the results of the poll suggest most respondents watched for the entertainment value during his tenure rather than for in-depth reporting, the latest headlines, or views and opinions.
Any inherent limitations as a news source aside, Stewart’s 16-year stewardship of Comedy Central’s flagship program was admired for his being tough on public figures when the occasion arose, notably Barack Obama and Tony Blair, the latter for his insistence on military solutions to a war on terror which was becoming increasingly apparent could not be fought be purely on military terms, but also had to confront the underlying ideologies.
Accordingly, while interviews with various entertainers seemed comparatively lightweight, the show’s regular dissection of the motives of established political figures and aspiring candidates alike, as well as the agendas of authentic news media outlets, was seen as meritorious. As with Michelle Wolf’s takedown of the news media alongside the political elite in the most recent White House Correspondents’ Dinner (Wolf herself is a Daily Show alum), comedy was a tool for Stewart and his confrères to cut through the bullshit and hold the objects of their critical lenses accountable.
And while Stewart downplayed this aspect of the show, too, his measured, rational approach to confronting the issues of the day prompted favorable responses, not to mention this column in The New Yorker from Amy Davidson Sorkin entitled “Jon Stewart, We Need You in 2016.” In an era in which more traditional news sources are either losing customers (newspapers) or credibility (cable news), The Daily Show seemed less like an escape from reality and more like a bastion of sanity, capped off by its trademark closing “Your Moment of Zen.” By this token, antipathy from the FOX News wing of political belief systems was considered more of a badge of honor than a legitimate admonishment to be honored or feared, with the conservative network billing itself as “fair and balanced” guilty of more than its fair share of biased “reporting.”
Besides, it is not as if Jon Stewart hasn’t been critical of Democrats. In fact, since ending his run as host of The Daily Show, he arguably has reserved his harshest rebukes for figures outside the GOP fold, as if to express his dismay and disapproval with a party that has appeared, at times, to lack a unified message or to act in accordance with its stated values. In a notably tense exchange in a live podcast taping with David Axelrod for The Axe Files, Stewart blamed the Dems, in part, for the rise of a demagogue like Donald Trump by not doing their part to make government more effective and efficient for their constituents. There was still plenty of humor to be enjoyed throughout, although perhaps not as irreverently told as when he was host of The Daily Show—and not without plenty of harsh words for “man-baby” Trump.
This is where I’m a little unsure how to regard Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest act. The backlash from the Joe Arpaios, Roy Moores and Sarah Palins of the world is to be expected, and deceiving them, one might argue, is going after some low-hanging fruit, politically speaking. Then again, when has the provocateur suggested he is interested in anything else but entertainment? If the first episode of Who Is America? is any indication, everyone is fair game, including liberals, so allegations of bias might be deemed overstated.
What’s more, this irritation at Baron Cohen’s humor seems indicative of a larger trend of conservatives reacting negatively to jokes made at their expense, either because of their inability to take a joke, their frustration with having drastically fewer comedians at their disposal in alignment with their ideologies, or both. Liberal humor panning conservatives seems rooted in poking fun at people like Sean Hannity, Sarah Palin, and Donald Trump who carry themselves so seriously and yet merit none of the respect they crave.
When the script is flipped, meanwhile, stabs at comedy feel predicated on lazy stereotypes, if not real contempt for the objects of the joke-maker’s gaze and/or resentment of the perceived snobbery of the left. Or it could be that so many people who enjoy humor with their political news tend to be younger, and by association, more liberal. Or it could be that conservatism is about preserving the status quo, and is therefore fundamentally at odds with comedy, the milieu of the underdog. Or, as comedian Dean Obeidallah would aver, it’s that conservatives want desperately to be funny, but just aren’t very good at it. While humor indeed is subjective, statistically speaking and for what it’s worth, it’s hard to come up with many examples of successful right-leaning comedians. You can fill in the blanks herein as you see fit.
Is Who Is America? a great show, or even among Sacha Baron Cohen’s best work? Probably not. Is it good for America? Maybe, maybe not, though having already outed a number of GOP lawmakers for supporting the right of kindergartners to bear arms, it feels like Baron Cohen has already done fine work. But at the end of the day, perhaps it’s not Baron Cohen’s job to provide hard-hitting commentary, much as it wasn’t incumbent upon Jon Stewart to be a clarion call amid the static of the cable news cycle and the entropy of the social media sphere. Let the funny man play dress-up and prank people, calls for civility aside. There are those in Congress, in the Supreme Court, and the White House who are specifically tasked with upholding major American institutions, and are thereby more deserving of our scorn. No kidding.
You’ve probably seen T-shirts or memes devoted to instructing others to “PUNCH MORE NAZIS.” This sentiment, which invokes Richard Spencer—who doesn’t call himself a “Nazi” or a “white supremacist,” but an “identitarian,” though that basically means he’s a white nationalist and doesn’t want you to know he’s a white nationalist—getting punched in the face by a protestor on the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration, is one that many of us can probably get behind. After all, who really likes Nazis outside of actual Nazis?
As sympathetic as we may be to the idea of Spencer and his ilk getting decked, however—or, for some of us, wish we could’ve been the ones to do it—just because we can punch more Nazis, does it mean we should? Political theorist Danielle Allen, in an August 2017 column for The Washington Post, emphatically rules for the negative on this question. She writes:
White supremacy, anti-Semitism and racism are false gods, ideologies to be repudiated. They must be countered and fought. We must separate the violence that flows from those ideologies from the ideas that animate them. Different tools are at hand for fighting each.
We need to counter extremism’s violence not with punches but with the tools of law and justice. Where hate crimes and acts of domestic terrorism are perpetrated, our judicial institutions must respond. We as citizens must make sure institutions do their jobs, not plan to take the law into our own hands.
When the legitimacy of legal and judicial institutions has come into question — as has occurred because of police shootings and mass incarceration — we must strenuously advance the project of reforming those institutions to achieve their full legitimacy. But to take the law into one’s own hands is only to further undermine legal and judicial institutions. It provides no foundation for reform.
As Allen sees it, we need to be thinking more Martin Luther King, Jr.’s brand of civil disobedience and nonviolence, and less, you know, Charles Bronson’s brand of vigilantism from Death Wish. In doing so, we must address the failings of major institutions—namely the courts, the criminal justice system, and the legislative branch—enduring the process of advocacy for reform. Punching Nazis, while perhaps providing more immediate satisfaction, doesn’t put us on the same long-term path of reform.
In fact, as Allen stresses, countering violence with more violence only takes us further away from the peaceful society many of us would envision—one devoid of white supremacists and their hate. It does not make our world any more just than it was before we started throwing haymakers, rocks, and the like. It certainly doesn’t make it any more stable.
In other words—Danielle Allen’s words—”Once political violence activates, shutting it off is exceptionally difficult.” Her closing remarks reinforce this theme, with special attention to the morality of nonviolence as well as the impracticality of its opposite:
Why should anyone believe that people who have been committed to political violence will change their minds and recommit to peaceful forms of litigating conflicts? That kind of distrust erodes the foundations of stable political institutions. The path to justice always lies through justice, including the basic moral idea that immediate self-defense is the only justification for the use of force. We need moral clarity on this point.
Along these lines, violence is not the cure or negotiating tool we might conceive it to be. As the saying goes, it just begets more violence, and makes people that much more predisposed to taking sides and fighting, rather than willing to change. When people are made to think of political and social matters in terms of a war, they treat it like one—casualties and all.
The topic of punching Nazis is an extreme example, but one that facilitates a conversation about how we as Americans try to interact with and otherwise react to people with whom we disagree on matters of culture, politics, and morality. Recently, Sarah Sanders was asked to leave a restaurant named The Red Hen in Virginia because of her connection to the Trump White House.
The owner of the restaurant, Stephanie Wilkinson, was home when she got a call from the chef that night, who expressed to Wilkinson the notion that the staff was concerned about Sanders’s presence there. For Wilkinson, Sanders’s defense of Donald Trump’s policies within her role as White House Press Secretary was a deal-breaker. As she (Wilkinson) feels, it’s a matter of moral standards. Compassion. Cooperation. Honesty. These are not the kinds of things that Sanders and her briefings are not known for, and as such, Wilkinson took a stand. What’s more, Wilkinson said she would do it again if given the same opportunity.
News of Sanders’s removal from the restaurant has prompted all sorts of reactions, many of them indicative of a political divide that events such as these only seem to help widen. If The Red Hen’s spike in popularity on Yelp is any indication, the actions taken by its owner have proven very polarizing indeed, with scores of 1-star and 5-star reviews being affixed to the restaurant’s online profile in light of the controversy. While I suppose the treatment of guests should be a factor in reviews of eateries, lest we call these new additions illegitimate, to say nothing of the other elements of the customer experience really seems like a waste of an entry. I mean, what if the trout Grenobloise is truly transcendent? You can say what you want about the owner—but leave her and her restaurant their fish dish, OK?
Beyond reputation assassination via social media from anonymous sources, there are other issues raised by Sarah Sanders getting the boot from The Red Hen and subsequently calling out the restaurant on Twitter. For one, Sanders did so in her official capacity as Press Secretary, and that’s an ethical no-no. According to Walter Shaub, former ethics chief under Barack Obama and Trump, Sanders’s condemnation of a business for personal reasons using her government account can be construed as coercive and a violation of a corollary to the ban on endorsements that someone like Kellyanne Conway has blatantly disregarded in the past. As Shaub reasons, Sanders can “lob attacks on her own time but not using her official position.”
Also, people have drawn a comparison between the way Sanders was refused service for her political positions and the way some businesses have sought to refuse service to homosexuals, claiming “religious freedom.” As far as detractors on the right are concerned, this is just bigotry on the part of the left, but this is a false equivalency; since it has come up frequently enough, it’s worth addressing. Sanders chose her line of work and accepted her current position, and continues to serve as Press Secretary of her own volition. Gays and lesbians, on the other hand, don’t choose to be gay. It’s who they are. The best argument one can try to make is that Sanders, were she to proverbially fall on her sword, would put her career and her livelihood at risk. Still, that’s a stretch when considering the ostracism members of the LGBTQ community have faced over time.
The issue that appears to loom largest here, however, is the matter of whether or not owners of establishments should refuse service to patrons based on their political beliefs or their association with a disinformation machine like the Trump White House. This is where I’m a little unsure that Stephanie Wilkinson’s choice is the right one. Now, it’s one thing if Sanders and her group were actively trying to cause distress to members of the staff or other patrons, or they were trying to espouse discriminatory views. If I were a restaurant owner, I wouldn’t want, say, Ku Klux Klan members waltzing into my place and ordering cheese and crackers. There are limits to freedom of expression, to be sure.
Assuming Wilkinson has the right to ask Sanders and Co. to leave, though, whether or not she should ask them to leave is a subject worthy of debate. It’s like refusing to serve or otherwise accommodate someone wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat. In April, a New York City judge ruled a bar was legally allowed to refuse service to a man wearing a “MAGA” hat, as it wasn’t discriminating based on country of origin, race, religion, sexual orientation, or other demographic characteristic. It also didn’t help the man’s cause that he reportedly was verbally abusive to staff. In Sanders’s case, meanwhile, there is no indication that anything more than her presence was the source of unrest. Even in the court of public opinion, this seems like less of an open-and-shut case.
What especially gives me pause is that few people seem to be on Sarah Sanders’s side on this one, and I’m not sure if this is my failing in my refusal to join in, or just the left looking to stick their tongues out at a Donald Trump supporter like the White House Press Secretary in the midst of the administration’s flagging popularity, and as we plumb the depths of a crisis facing immigrant families which feels less like border security and more like ethnic cleansing.
Other Trump administration officials have met with similar treatment, with DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and senior policy advisor Stephen Miller both being met with protests as they ate at—irony fully noted—Mexican restaurants. It’s not just Cabinet members and racist advisors to the President, either. A video of New York-based attorney Aaron Schlossberg berating and threatening employees of a restaurant with deportation because they spoke Spanish went viral, and condemnation and ridicule were soon to follow. Heck, a GoFundMe page was even erected to pay for a mariachi band to play outside the man’s office. At a moment in time marked by visible tension between groups, especially whites who support the President vs. minority groups and their defenders, everyone seems to be fair game. The racist rants of yesteryear now run the risk of damaging people’s careers.
In all, there doesn’t seem to be much sympathy for Ms. Sanders—and I don’t know that there should be, quite frankly—but despite what someone like Rep. Maxine Waters would aver, maybe these officials shouldn’t be kicked out of restaurants, and definitely, I submit, they shouldn’t be harassed. That is, if one were to convey his or her opinions to them in a civil manner, it’s one thing, but it’s another to shout epithets at them while they try to eat enchiladas.
At the end of the day, we may find the positions of Nielsen and Miller reprehensible, but they’re human beings. Like you or I or the immigrants who live in fear of the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy, they still need to eat and spend time with family. While I suppose Sanders and her group could have just gone, say, to a Chili’s instead, to try to abnegate the humanity of one because of his or her own abnegation of another’s humanity is to make two wrongs without making a right. It might feel good for a spell, but as with punching Nazis, it doesn’t put us on a path to reform.
To boot, for those looking to discredit people on the political left as intolerant in their own right, the decision to ask Sanders to leave The Red Hen has the power to turn her into somewhat of a sympathetic figure, and given that she’s served as the mouthpiece of an administration which doesn’t seem to have the word “sympathy” in its vocabulary, such is a regrettable turn in these cultural conflicts because concern for her feels unearned.
It comes on the heels of criticisms levied on her by Michelle Wolf, for which members of the media were quick to come to her (Sanders’s) defense, a defense not only unearned, but undeserved given that Wolf was only pointing out Sanders’s role as an enabler and liar for President Trump. Thus, when Sanders tweets to say that The Red Hen’s owner’s actions say “more about [Wilkinson]” than they say about her and that she tries to deal respectfully with those with whom she disagrees, you tend to hate that she seems even somewhat credible—compromised ethics and all.
I know my position is liable to be upsetting to some people because it screams Democratic centrism to them (Chuck Schumer, among others, has criticized the desire to harass Trump administration officials). Believe me—I don’t wish to be lumped in with moderates when the Democrats’ refusal to move further left is one of my chief frustrations as someone trying to become more engaged with politics. And I certainly don’t wish to appear as if I agree with Donald Trump, who, though he has much more important things to do—facilitate peace on the Korean peninsula, help Puerto Rico, reunite kids with their families, etc.—felt compelled to rant about The Red Hen’s decision on social media. Say what you want about POTUS, but he’s consistent, you know, in that he never misses a chance to point a finger in a petty way.
In the situations recounted above, no one beat up these officials, broke any property, or threatened them in any way.
If anyone is “uncivil,” it’s the con artists, criminals, and/or racists of the Trump administration and people of a like mind such as Rep. Steve King of Iowa.
President Trump is, like, the most uncivil of us all, and he has a platform much bigger than any dissenter on the left.
This is a natural and perhaps unavoidable reaction to a lack of immediate electoral solutions or an absence of meaningful legislative representation.
Fretting about civility on the left internalizes the belief that it is pointless to try to appeal to people on the right, especially the far right, on moral and rational terms. Moreover, it sows division within “the Resistance.”
Cooper also dismisses concerns about incivility from the left being used as political capital for Trump and other officials, and while I agree to a certain extent that one shouldn’t necessarily worry about the feelings and potential votes of others in the course of public discourse, I also think that these definitions of “civility” and “incivility” are somewhat vague and get muddled with moral judgments. Being “civil” doesn’t necessarily relate to the moral rectitude of your behavior or your speech, but merely to formal courtesy and politeness in their expression. By the same token, however, “political civility” isn’t exactly the same thing as civility as per the dictionary definition, so maybe the problem is simply with our specificity of expression and how we delineate the terms, first and foremost. The line is an apparently fine one, and who is using this terminology is as important as what words are being used.
Plus, for those decrying this fussing over civility as just a ploy to stifle free speech, while addressing how to reach people in the face of carelessness or lack of composure is critically important, and while not all calls for civility are equal considering the source—this can’t be stressed enough—this doesn’t strike me as an occasion to participate in relativistic exercises. So Trump’s henchmen and henchwomen are uncouth. Does that mean we should all up and call them “feckless c**ts” in the style of Samantha Bee? Even if I feel Bee, like Michelle Wolf, shouldn’t feel duty-bound to apologize, her use of profane language didn’t make her argument more credible. At least we should be able to agree on this point.
I get it—so many of us are angry at Donald Trump and his enablers, and heartbroken about the plight of immigrant children, and feeling powerless with the midterms months away and 2020 still seeming remote, and tired of the onslaught of bullshit day after day. It’s not easy. Then again, it never was going to be easy, and for all the hemming and hawing about civility, if this is not to be the goal, at least we can aim for precision of language and factual correctness. Even in the face of haphazard tweets and “fake news,” rationality and truth yet have value.
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Michelle Wolf, comedienne, Daily Show alum, and writer, hosted this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner. You, ahem, may have heard about it.
Wolf, delivering her routine with a wry sort of smile that often belied a caustic tone, was an equal opportunity joke teller, hurling insults mostly at President Donald Trump, but not sparing members of his administration either. Nor were other media and political figures off limits, as Wolf also assailed the likes of Ann Coulter, Chris Christie, Harvey Weinstein, Hillary Clinton, Michael Cohen, Rachel Maddow, Sean Hannity, and the stars of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, among others. On top of this, she took the news media community to task for their part in propping up Trump for the sake of their profits and at the nation’s expense.
Before we get to the myriad responses to Wolf’s monologue, which tidily ran under 20 minutes in length, let’s first go over some of the highlights of her speech, as identified by yours truly:
Michelle Wolf began by asserting that her role was to tell jokes, and that she had no agenda or wasn’t “trying to get anything accomplished.” You can question the merits of her statement if you will, but if she came with any “agenda,” it wasn’t apparent by virtue of her barbs aimed in all directions.
Wolf did not dwell on the Trump-Russia situation, except at one point suggesting #45 is in some way compromised by this connection. Otherwise, she professed that she didn’t want to titillate the liberal media among the audience by going on about it, and seemed to express frustration at how this story has dominated headlines and has encouraged discussion panels reminiscent of a bad family argument at Thanksgiving dinner.
That said, Wolf went after Trump. Hard. She called him a “pussy” for not attending the Dinner, and rather than harping on his misogyny, racism, and xenophobia—though not letting him off the hook about these qualities either—she made a series of jokes designed to eat away at a key part of his image and truly gall him: that he’s not as rich as he says he is.
Wolf also referenced Trump’s pandering to white nationalists, and surmises the term “white nationalist” itself is a cop out. As she said during her monologue: “Calling a Nazi a ‘white nationalist’ is like calling a pedophile a ‘kid friend,’ or Harvey Weinstein a ‘ladies’ man’.”
Wolf expressed the belief that Trump shouldn’t be impeached, if only because Mike Pence is waiting in the wings.
Wolf also mentioned Trump’s Cabinet, and joked she had specific comments for its members, but that they keep changing. She quipped, “You guys have gone through Cabinet members quicker than Starbucks throws out black people.”
As mentioned earlier, if Wolf wrote her routine with any sort of agenda, it was political—especially in the feminist sense—but not partisan. She took Hillary Clinton’s campaign to task for abandoning Midwest states like Michigan, and more broadly chided Democrats for their strategic miscues in races up and down tickets.
Indeed, for all her (deserved) criticism of Trump, her particular disdain for women in positions of relative prominence was apparent. She identified Kellyanne Conway as an out-and-out liar who has no business appearing on news channels, she characterized Ivanka Trump, self-professed advocate for women, as “as helpful to [them] as an empty box of tampons,” likened Sarah Sanders to the character of Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale, a brutal authoritarian figure and spreader of propaganda. Last but not least, she took a shot at Megyn Kelly and NBC’s handling of her contract: “Megyn Kelly got paid $23 million by NBC, and NBC didn’t let Megan go to the Winter Olympics. Why not? She’s so white, cold, and expensive, she might as well be the Winter Olympics.”
Wolf’s harshest words perhaps were aimed at the media, and specifically for the way they’ve taken advantage of Donald Trump’s rise within the sphere of U.S. politics. Comparing their attitude toward Trump like a woman who professes to hate her ex-boyfriend but secretly loves him, she uttered, point blank, “You helped create this monster, and now you’re profiting off him.” For Wolf, this point was one that she sees that members of the media are loath to acknowledge, but bears discussing and repeating.
Wolf’s closing words, underscoring the seriousness of her commentary and serving as a reminder in case anyone forgot (or chose to ignore it): “Flint still doesn’t have clean water.” As far as responses to emergency situations are concerned, I’m sure there are those in, say, Puerto Rico who would nod their heads and add their own situations to the mix.
Reactions to the speech have been fairly predictable. Pres. Trump, of course, hated it, calling it “a very big, boring bust.” Takes one to know one, Donald. Sean Spicer called it a “disgrace.” Ditto. Other conservative publications and sites panned Michelle Wolf’s performance, highlighting the opinion she “bombed.” One tends to wonder if they actually watched her performance or simply formed their opinion based on snippets from blogs and their own kneejerk reactions in defense of the President, but this apparently is the state of critical political analysis in our country today.
To be fair, Wolf has had her detractors outside the political right, too. The media, perhaps likewise predictably, have balked at the idea they have helped create the “monster” that is Trump. As someone like Chris Cillizza of CNN and formerly of The Washington Post would aver, he and other reporters have covered Trump to the extent that he has done and said things that no other president/candidate has done, but that Trump, as the “angry id of the GOP,” was on the rise whether the mainstream media gave him the attention or not. That is, while sites like CNN have indeed profited off of Trump’s increased exposure, Cillizza believes this is different from “creating” him.
Other criticisms seem directed at Wolf’s perceived mean streak, particularly in her take-down of Trump administration officials like Kellyanne Conway, Mike Pence, and Sarah Sanders. In addressing the media and telling various outlets not to book Conway, she joked, “If a tree falls in the woods, how do we get Kellyanne under that tree?” She immediately qualified that she wouldn’t want Conway hurt or killed by the falling tree, just stuck, but the image was enough for some people.
In assailing Pence and his anti-abortion views, a sore spot for many women and people concerned with personal rights, she riffed, “Don’t knock it ’til you try it, and when you do try it, really knock it. You know, you’ve got to get that baby out of there.” Abortion jokes, even for the pro-choice crowd, are always a questionable choice. As for Sanders, Wolf’s comments about her make-up and her resemblance to Aunt Lydia from The Handmaid’s Tale have been branded as unfair and tantamount to bullying, though Wolf professes she was not making fun of Sarah’s looks, but merely her propensity to lie and spin as a buffer between Trump and the press corps. Despite not having an “agenda,” Wolf was clearly not playing to the room, or for that matter, playing nice.
The bilateral backlash to Wolf’s routine has been such that even White House Correspondents’ Association president Margaret Talev publicly distanced herself from the content of the monologue, putting forth the notion that Wolf’s remarks were not “in the spirit” of what the WHCA tries to accomplish, that the occasion should be one of civility, and of defending a free press and celebrating great reporting, and not intentionally divisive. In making this statement to fellow Association members, Talev seemed to be indicating a bit of buyer’s remorse, and at one point, after making an off-color joke about her own anatomy, Wolf herself followed it with the perhaps-too-on-the-nose line, “You should have done more research before you got me to do this.” Touché, Ms. Wolf. Touché.
At the same time, however, Michelle Wolf has her defenders, especially among her comedian brethren. As they contend, Wolf did the job she was asked to do, and if she ruffled a few proverbial feathers, so be it. Their sentiments echo the feelings of some people that the White House Correspondents’ Dinner is the problem, not Wolf or her “speak truth to power” mindset. For years, critics of this annual tradition have highlighted the oddity of an event designed to champion fearless reporting and freedom of the press and yet encourage reporters and political or otherwise public figures to coalesce with one another.
The mere suggestion that members of the press are in some way complicit in Trump’s political rise or in downplaying his administration’s dangerous propensity to lie is therefore bound to be uncomfortable. To put this another way, and to sympathize with the views of chief New York Times television critic James Poniewozik, maybe the WHCA should just not hire a comedian if they want less controversy, and as he puts it, “send the cameras away [and] have a nice dinner in peace.” After all, there’s nothing obligating the Association to hire a stand-up performer. Why do it if you’re unable to handle criticism in your own right?
Michelle Wolf, for her part, has responded to criticism of her speech by indicating she wouldn’t change a word of it, and that the backlash she’s received from her comments means she was actually in the right. Poniewozik, in his closing remarks, also defended Wolf to the extent that the White House Correspondents’ Association did not:
The irony of the association’s disavowing Ms. Wolf is that her routine, whether you agree with it or not, was ultimately about defending the mission of the White House press: sticking up for the truth. Michelle Wolf had the W.H.C.A.’s back Saturday night, even if it didn’t have hers the day after.
As Margaret Talev has made evident by distancing Wolf and her jokes from the Association and its purported mission, she is a comedian and not a member of the press. From where Wolf stands, this is probably a good thing, in that it frees her from any conventions which might prevent her from calling a spade a spade. Still, that the WHCA would publicly disavow the contents of Wolf’s monologue and risk chumming the waters for conservative trolls seems like a questionable stance to take.
It’s reminiscent of when Donald Trump, shortly after the contents of the Steele dossier started becoming public news, shouted down CNN’s Jim Acosta during a press conference, calling Acosta and his employer “fake news.” Looking at this situation retrospectively, it’s not so surprising that Trump would verbally attack a member of the media given his frequent angry Tweets lobbed at the “liberal media.”
At the time, however, it was unnerving to see Acosta shut down by the President and have none of his colleagues come to his defense. Sure, Neil Cavuto and others at FOX News may have been glad to smirk and sneer at CNN for what they perceived as their comeuppance for biased reporting and an overall snobby elitist attitude. But this confrontation foreshadowed the all-out assault Trump has levied upon the mainstream media, and it has ominous implications for the future of news media given Trump’s authoritarian streak and the proliferation of genuine fake news—if that makes any sense.
In other words, if individual members of the press don’t stand in solidarity when freedom of the press/freedom of speech is challenged, it stands to become that much easier to pick them off in the future. Wolf, in laughingly referring to print news as an “endangered species,” punctuated her joke by saying, “Buy more newspapers.” Much as she might disagree with their model, and to stress James Poniewozik’s insights, Michelle Wolf, a comedian with no agenda and not trying to get anything accomplished, recognizes the importance of investigative journalism. This shouldn’t be a partisan issue, and such explains why FOX News personalities came to CNN’s defense when their rival was besieged by Trump early in 2017. Over a year later, though, it already feels like members of the media/press are less inclined to cross Trump, or in the case of FOX News, are unabashedly biased in his favor. Gulp.
It’s anyone’s guess what Wolf’s performance will mean for the future of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, if anything. Chances are good that the furor over her routine will die down by the time next year rolls around and we’ll be reacting with the usual outrage again, having all but forgotten that dinner’s predecessor. For the media outlets implicated in her speech, meanwhile, it might behoove them to look at themselves in the mirror before putting this episode in the rear view. Given the public’s flagging confidence in the news media, an institution that won’t confront its own accountability may just end up hastening its own decline.
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