The Al Smith Dinner is supposed to be easy. Trump is too much of a child to even accomplish that.
(Warning: this post contains bad langauge, as well as minor spoilers for an 11-yr-old movie)
One of my sneakily favorite movies is A History of Violence, directed by David Cronenberg. It’s about a small town dude, as solid and as decently Midwestern as you can get who may, in fact, have once been a psychotic mafia killer out of Philly. It’s got amazingly intense and absurdly sexy performances from Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello, Ed Harris in full “menacing Ed Harris” mode, which is awesome, terrifyingly realistic violence, and an all-time great extended cameo by William Hurt as the mafia leader.
Not to get too deeply into it, but there’s a part where he has one of his men sneak up behind Viggo to strangle him with wire. Viggo slips out and quickly dispatches the henchman, mortally wounding him. Harris looms over the dummy, and says, in more confused disappointment than anger, “How do you fuck that up?” (Then he’s angry, and kills him.) I can’t do it justice on the page, but this clip is obviously NSFW.
Relevant dialogue about 1:18 in.
Anyway, that’s what I thought when reading about Donald Trump at the Al Smith Dinner last night: a mean and nasty performance that got him booed by people who just wanted a swank evening of forced comity. He talked about how corrupt she was, how she should be in jail, and how she hates Catholics. You’re supposed to joke about your rival candidates’s flaws. But supposed to joke. Trump is so tissue-paper insecure that even an evening like this, he has to erupt, resort to talking points, and remind everyone that he’s being treated very unfairly.
There’s a world where bombing at the Al Smith Dinner, or at least not treating it with any dignity, isn’t a bad thing. The Al Smith Dinner isn’t as bullshit as the Correspondents’ Dinners, but it is still pretty bullshit. These are very serious times! We have a white nationalist demagogue running for President! That he almost certainly won’t win isn’t time to treat it normally.
Even in the best of occasions, it is still that forced nonsense that makes people hate politics. Like, was all this animosity just a show, gents? You can yuk it up? I think that’s slightly unfair–they are just people, and are allowed to have fun, and sometimes can be legitmately funny–but can see the point. Especially this year.
Even in the best years, though, you’re still sitting next to the miserable Cardinal Timothy Dolan, as Republican a man as have ever worn the cap, who has a muscular hatred for anything generous or gracious about his Church (in this, he’s the opposite of Pope Francis, or Chicago’s Cadinal Cupich). He might not be the most political man of the cloth ever, as that’s a pretty high bar, but he’s a political animal, and as firmly on the side of the Right as is possible.
As is his newshound way, he demanded an apology on the Hillary campaign’s “anti-Catholic” nonsense, in which Podesta and Jennifer Palmieri yakked about how some Catholics only care about rules, and not social justice. This is: not controversial. But the mud-stirrers decided this was proof of Hillary being anti-religious and amoral, so…vote Trump? (If he demanded an apology for pussy-grabbing, I missed it)
Anyway, that’s the difference between the two. Hillary had to sit on that dais with those two terrible men who palpably hate her, and she dealt with it. She treated Dolan like an old chum, and was showed stiletto warmth toward Trump. Like a professional should.
Trump, on the other hand, couldn’t help but be Trump: petty, vain, unable to be actually deprecating or reflective, angry, childish, insecure, and unable to even partially embrace the spirit of the event.
Now, you can say, but dude, didn’t you say the dinner was pretty much bullshit? Shouldn’t he treat it with disrespect? There’s a world in which I agree with you, and want a President to treat the correspondents’ dinner like Norm at the Bob Saget roast, but here’s the thing: approximately 45% of a President’s job is putting up with bullshit.
You have annoying people clamoring for favors. You’re dealing with the egos of 100 Senators, 435 Congresspeople, and every foreign leader who has made it to the top of their country’s politics, and want to be treated as such. You’re dealing with a million little fires all the time, and have to be able to read a room, to subvert and display your ego at the the right times, to flip modes depending on what the situation calls for.
Being “not a politican” is a terrible thing for the President of the United States. It is a job that requires, by its very definition, politics. You know who was a great politician? Ronald Reagan. Being political–that is, using your ability to understand people’s wants, needs, vanities, and pain points, in order to get the best possible outcome out of a situation–is key to it.
You’d think a businessman like Trump would be good at that, but anytime you read him talking about business it’s all about bluster and bullying, backed up because he was born rich. Maybe at one point he was more subtle, and could flatter and tear down in equal measures, but it’s clear he’s calcified into caricature.
Although, he probably never was anything but. The story of his idea of negotiating the end of the world, told by diplomat Richard Burt, is instructive. This was in 1990. “Trump expressed envy of Burt’s position and proceeded to offer advice on how best to cut a ‘terrific’ deal with the Soviets. Trump told Burt to arrive late to the next negotiating session, walk into the room where his fuming counterpart sits waiting impatiently, remain standing and looking down at him, stick his finger into his chest and say, ‘Fuck you!'” Never a serious person.
Look, there are a million reasons why Trump shouldn’t be President, and I think we’ve gone over all of them. Being bad at a comedy roast isn’t really one of them. I doubt, you know, although, looking back, it’s hard to think of a good President who wouldn’t have been good at it. If you are temprementally unable to do the simplest part of your job, maybe you shouldn’t have the job? Just a thought.