The Joke’s on US-A
US President Donald Trump knocked the stuffing out of a modern Washington media tradition on Thanksgiving week, forcing the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) to forgo its satire-laced and laughter-filled annual dinner in favour of what is being dubbed a nerd prom – a speech by Presidential historian Ron Chernow. Although it was a torrid takedown of Trump at the 2011 WHCA dinner — where the comedian Seth Meyers quipped “Donald Trump has been saying he will run for president as a Republican… which is surprising, since I just assumed he was running as a joke” – that is said to have sealed his zeal for the White House, the 45th U.S President has boycotted the Association dinner, apparently not amused at being ridiculed relentlessly. He is now arguably the most joked-about U.S President on a parody-per-day basis.
That may be capped soon, with the WHCA keeling over and doing that the BJP leader L.K.Advani attributed to the Indian media during the Emergency (asked to bend, it crawled), although there is a sense that some comedians transgressed undefined red lines at its dinners. Inasmuch as Trump is an everyday butt of jokes, last year’s dinner featured the comedian Michelle Wolf, whose corrosive takedown of Ivanka Trump (”as helpful to women as an empty box of tampons”) and presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway (”If a tree falls in the woods, how do we get Kellyanne under that tree?”) elicited gasps even in the liberal audience.
While most recent past Presidents typically took the WHCA comedic fare on their chin and dished out some of their own, there have been jaw-dropping moments involving propriety in recent years. In 2016, the comedian Larry Wilmore was genuine in his admiration for Barack Obama. “To live in your time, Mr President, when a black man can lead the entire free world… Words alone do me no justice…” he beamed, before concluding, “ Yo, Barry – you did it, my nigga.” Obama laughed, shook his hand, and embraced him, but not many Presidents have the grace and the nous to step lightly over a verbal grenade.
Certainly not Trump, who is now convinced that the U.S press is the “enemy of the people” that needs to be emasculated – and if nothing else shorn of its satirical impulse. This is alarming for a country whose Constitution’s First Amendment not only guarantees free expression, but whose capacious limits have been well-tested to serve as a beacon to the media everywhere. The joke, alas, is now not just on Trump, but on the US itself.