[Marxism] How Michelle Wolf Blasted Open the Fictions of Journalism in the Age of Trump

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Apr 30 08:37:24 MDT 2018

The New Yorker, April 30, 2018
How Michelle Wolf Blasted Open the Fictions of Journalism in the Age of 
By Masha Gessen

On Saturday, the comedian Michelle Wolf, performing at the annual White 
House Correspondents’ Association dinner, delivered the most 
consequential monologue so far of the Donald Trump era. Some of the 
attendees claimed to have walked out of the dinner in protest during the 
performance; others, like the President’s press secretary, Sarah 
Huckabee Sanders, have been lauded for remaining stoically in place in 
the face of scathing humor. The tension of it all might have been too 
much. The Times’ White House correspondent Peter Baker lamented on 
Twitter, “I don’t think we advanced the cause of journalism tonight.” 
Commentators wondered—not for the first time—whether the White House 
Correspondents’ Association should discontinue the tradition of having 
comedians perform at the function.

Wolf’s monologue—sharp, unflinching, and pointedly unfunny in 
places—called bullshit on the role laughter has been performing in 
Trump’s America. Over the last year and a half, much of the culture has 
sought relief in humor in much the same way as citizens of extremely 
repressive countries. Back in the early nineties, in her book “How We 
Survived Communism and Even Laughed,” the Croatian writer Slavenka 
Drakulić described laughter as the ultimate personal triumph over the 
daily humiliations of life under Communist rule. In today’s Russia, 
people make jokes about the fear Vladimir Putin inspires (he opens the 
fridge and the jellied meat begins to quake, but he reassures it by 
saying he is getting the yogurt) or the suicidal nature of Russian 
foreign policy (we’ll retaliate against American sanctions by bombing 
the Russian city of Voronezh), the same way that they used to joke about 
Leonid Brezhnev’s inability to talk or stay awake during official 
functions. Jokes serve a transparent purpose: they reclaim the power to 
define—and inhabit—reality. They also reclaim the goodness of laughter, 
for regimes weaponize laughter to mock their opponents, creating what 
the cultural theorist Svetlana Boym called “totalitarian laughter.” Its 
opposite is anti-totalitarian laughter.

I recognize laughter in the age of Trump as though it were a cousin of 
anti-totalitarian laughter. It is the reaction to seeing act-based 
reality, as when “Saturday Night Live” essentially reënacts White House 
press conferences, or when late-night comedians offer up what amounts to 
straightforward reportage and analysis. The hunger for a reflection of 
reality is so desperate that, I have discovered repeatedly over the last 
year and a half, one can reliably get laughs simply by quoting Trump 
during a public talk.

Last month, Hillary Clinton got laughs and applause during her Arthur 
Miller Freedom to Write Lecture, which concluded pen America’s annual 
World Voices Festival, by merely referring to Trump’s lie about the size 
of the crowd at his Inauguration (around the twenty-three-minute mark 
here). There was nothing funny about any of it: not about the 
President’s lies, nor about the grief that this had not been Clinton’s 
Inauguration, nor about the fact that, speaking a year and a half after 
her electoral loss, addressing the friendliest of all possible 
audiences, Clinton was as stilted, scripted, and unapproachable as ever. 
She was still campaigning, still losing, and there was no reason to laugh.

Political satire in less troubled times exaggerates existing facts, 
pointing out the absurdities inherent in all ideologies, or playing up 
smaller disagreements and failures for bigger laughs. But Trump is hard 
to exaggerate—it is enough, it seems, merely to mirror him. But why does 
faithful portrayal of fact-based reality elicit laughter in a country 
that has a free press and a healthy public sphere in which, it seems, 
reality is robustly represented? What do late-night comedians reclaim 
from the Times?

Wolf’s performance at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner 
suggests an answer. She called the President a racist, a truth as 
self-evident as it has proved difficult for mainstream journalists to 
state. Her humor was obscene: she joked about the President’s affair 
with a porn star; about his “pulling out,” as promised (of the Paris 
agreement); and about the G.O.P.’s former deputy finance chair Elliott 
Broidy’s $1.6 million payoff to a former mistress. She also made minced 
meat of White House staff, House and Senate Republican leaders, the 
Democrats, and journalists on the right and left, in their presence or 
in that of their colleagues.

The White House Correspondents’ Association dinner is a peculiar 
institution. It brings together White House correspondents, other 
members of the news media, and the people they cover: government 
employees and elected officials. (In years past, though not so much in 
the Trump era, it also attracted a gaggle of Hollywood celebrities.) 
What makes these dinners possible are fictions about civility and 
performance. There is a fiction that holds that journalists and their 
subjects can eat and socialize together and yet maintain the distance 
necessary to continue performing their professional roles. There is a 
fiction that they can laugh at one another and themselves and not take 
offense, that the divisions among guests are ultimately bridgeable, that 
all of them inhabit the same reality, and that both the humor and the 
objects of the humor are innocuous.

The same fiction continues to dominate our public sphere. In this story, 
Trump performs the role of President, albeit poorly, and those in the 
media maintain a strained civility in their coverage of him. In this 
story, the statement that the President is a racist is still 
controversial. In this story, the media can discuss his affair with a 
porn star, and even the question of whether he used a condom, without 
undermining respect for the office. This is an essential pretense, 
because respect for the office of the President is indeed a value that 
should transcend the current Presidency. But it is this pretense, and 
these fictions, that cast a pall of unreality over most media coverage 
and make late-night comedy shows the better news outlets. And then there 
is the pretense that the late-night comedians exist in a parallel 
universe, separate even from the television channels that broadcast them.

Wolf’s routine burst the bubbles of civility and performance, and of the 
separation of media and comedy. It plunged the attendees into the 
reality that is, in the Trump era, the stuff of comedy. Through her 
obscene humor, Wolf exposed the obscenity of the fictions—and the 
fundamental unfunniness of it all. Her last line, the most shocking of 
her entire monologue, bears repeating: Flint still doesn’t have clean water.

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