This weekend, a group of us stood in line in our requested “cocktail” attire, and waited in line to be checked in to the “Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner,” the brain child of Full Frontal host Samantha Bee and her Executive Producer/Show runner Jo Miller. Two lines formed: one started at the front doors of Constitution Hall, a river of jewel-toned cocktail dresses reflected by the beating sun. The “General Admission” line spilled down the stairs, down the sidewalk, and then snaked toward a second line of people, the press line who waited to go in the side entrance of the building. All of us were excited, and even though it was ninety degrees, and we were decked out in our fanciest duds, no one complained at the wait to get in. We knew we were in for a great time.
This whole weekend, as I hung out with the talented women who were either involved in putting together the “Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner” or who were there to attend it, one of the thoughts that ran through my head like an earworm song that won’t let go was the phrase God. Give me the confidence of a mediocre white dude. Sarah Hagi gave us that phrase as a recognition of the oh so many times you’ve lost count that you’ve watched a white guy of average intelligence succeed. The issue seems to be with dude’s presentation, with his willingness to assume that what he has to say is brilliant. How else to explain the half-assed op-eds that have somehow ended up in top newspapers, or journals, or the ones who show up as pundits on TV?
In our own lives, we’ve met them at conferences, or at parties, or they’re on our Twitter or Facebook timelines. They proclaim that they’ve just had this “genius, brilliant idea” and that they’re going to present it DIRECTLY to the president of the company or the editor-in-chief of a huge magazine or to a big Hollywood director, like it’s the most natural thing in the world to assume that your idea is so brilliant that even though you are currently unknown by anyone but your mother, after you give your thirty-second elevator pitch, you will automatically land the gig.
Editor friends who are female will report the frequent experience of receiving an email from a male writer they’ve never heard of – meaning this person has no experience. That person informs the editor that he’s “available” to cover a huge story – the big, new film, or book, or person coming to town – and would be happy to do so. As if this isn’t a story that was assigned a long time ago to the best, most reliable writer who has been with the magazine for years.
Contrast that “let-me” attitude with women and people of color who know they cannot contact a potential boss or editor without having an idea fully fleshed out, explaining the reason why they are the best qualified person to cover it, with documentation of experiences covering similar things – in short – to present a complete, perfectly put together package that has been stressed over worrying that its creator is not “good enough” before finally convincing themselves that they can compete for this. And then, they look at the VIDA numbers, which still demonstrate that white men get the majority of bylines and book contracts, and realize that mediocre white guys are still winning.
Consider, too, another common experience for women that is similar to mansplaining but with the added layer of having a man either assert or imply that your job can’t be that difficult because a woman does it.
When I meet people at parties, as is common, people ask me what I do. I don’t make a big deal out of it, but I tell people that I’m a “writer.” Both men and women often tell me that they would “love to write,” although I have discovered a pattern of gendered reasons for why they are currently not writing. Women, even if it turns out that they have been keeping a daily writing journal for years, even if they are writing creative work but not submitting it for publication, will not have the confidence to call themselves “writers” unless it’s getting published somewhere.
Men, on the other hand, often tell me that they are “great writers.” Genuinely curious, I’ll ask them what they might be working on, or where can I read their work? Then they’ll tell me, “Back in high school,” they used to get “As” on their high school compositions, maybe even had a teacher who encouraged them to keep writing. They haven’t pursued it since, but they “know” themselves to be great writers based on long-ago high school grades.
Or, if they don’t refer back to past experiences when they got good writing grades, they will instead tell me that they are going to write a book “one day” and proceed to tell me the plot of the novel, which ninety-nine percent of the time is some type of genre fiction involving violence. Rarely do they mention wanting to write essays or a memoir or some kind of literary fiction.
But the implication of my exchanges with these men who tell me that they’re “great writers” is clear: “You may be earning a living as a writer, but I could do what you are doing if I wanted to. But I don’t want to because I don’t think it’s important enough. Because hey, we all learned to write in school, so anyone can do it, right?”
I had a unique experience at the Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Plenty of men were there, and there were a lot of male journalists covering it for their outlets. But the event featured a female host, and Sam Bee’s showrunner is Jo Miller, another woman. The jokes were sophisticated, raucous, clever, and hard-hitting – and they came from the point of view of a woman. In fact, one of the subtexts was that men had been fucking up politics for a long, long time. It was just that this administration was by far the worst version of male politics ever.
The confidence of the mediocre white man could be used to describe this entire administration. At its center, you’ve got a mediocre white guy who won the genetic lottery of having been born into a wealthy family. He did nothing to earn that money other than being lucky enough to be the result of his parents’ egg and sperm. And as president, he’s surrounded himself with his mediocre children, and then such mediocre white men as Steve Bannon and Sean Spicer to be the face of his presidency. It’s not hard to imagine any of these guys telling someone to “hold my beer” while they go off to give being a presidential adviser a shot.
Right now, people try to argue that the reason that Trump thought the presidency was going to be “easy” is because he assumed it would be like running a business. But this is a man who couldn’t even make a business like a casino – heavily weighted with odds in favor of the house – work.
I think the real reason that Trump thought the job would be easy is a reason that a lot of pundits can’t bring themselves to talk about. It seems clear to me that the reason Trump assumed the job would be easy is that, for the past eight years, the office has been held by a black man. In his racist thinking, white men are superior to black men. Is this surprising? No, considering Donald Trump’s history of racism.
It’s very possible that Trump, who has a history of thinking that African American men are not his equal, might have believed that Barack Obama’s occupancy of the White House was all the proof that he needed: If President Obama could do it, so could he.
Trump’s mediocrity has shown up in every plan that he has put forward to deal with complex issues confronting the country. His solutions demonstrate a shallowness of thought, a type of thinking that sees the problem as being defined by only one aspect of it; thus the simplistic solution is so much worse as it didn’t grasp the complexity of the problem in the first place.
Complexity doesn’t interest Donald Trump. I don’t think it’s because he has a short attention span due to some kind of attention deficit disorder. I think it’s more likely that he is not interested in having to do the work to understand something complex. Trump’s language skills provide us with evidence of his rejection of complexity. His sentences use superlatives as descriptive terms – he’s not interested in degrees of difference. He is not going to describe something in terms of metaphor, or use comparative forms of adjectives to distinguish one thing from another. Things are “huge,” or the “best.” Once he has to describe something that is larger or better than something he has already described in terms of a superlative, than he only has the ineffable left as means of description. Now he tells crowds that “they’re not going to believe it” or “it’ll be the best they’ve ever seen” or “there are no words to describe how great it is.” There are words, but not in a vocabulary as stunted as the president’s.
It’s not surprising that Trump’s vocabulary is so small. He identifies himself as someone who “doesn’t have time” to read books. The obvious retort to this is that he has enough time to live tweet his watching of “Fox and Friends,” in fact, many of his tweets indicate that he’s watching TV for large portions of the day, and he’s not watching the types of television – documentaries, or any news coverage that is not produced by FOX that might increase his base of knowledge or his vocabulary. Or, if he is, he’s not tweeting about it.
Trump has given no indication that he has any appreciation of language. He doesn’t claim any favorite books or authors. His response that All Quiet on the Western Front is his favorite book in response to a reporter’s question has the same panicked mendaciousness of Sarah Palin’s claim that she read “all” of the newspapers. Reports are that Trump reads newspapers in the morning, but mostly as a means of searching for mentions of his own name.
Reading books not only increases our vocabulary skills, it also gives a person some sense that not everyone thinks the same or feels the same things that we do. One doesn’t have to read fiction: consider nonfiction, the type that educates you about the world, from the lifecycle of a butterfly to the history of the conflict in the Balkans and everything in between. Consider memoir. Or biographies. Books about science. Anything that shows that you have some intellectual curiosity about the world, which seems a bare minimum requirement for being president of the United States: intellectual curiosity.
But what interests Trump is money and what money can buy. Despite having the money that can buy a first-class education, Trump comes across as an uneducated man. And I don’t mean a man who didn’t go to college. Some of the best-read people I have known didn’t go to college but were autodidacts.
Trump’s willingness to lend credence to conspiracy theorists and their theories is yet another sign of how poorly educated he is. If Donald Trump had his way, the young men who were charged with raping and brutalizing the Central Park jogger would be dead. Trump took out full-page ads in the New York press calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty in New York state in that moment. Despite the fact that all of these young men had their sentences overturned by DNA evidence that proved they did not do it, and the revelation of the interrogation methods that coerced these teen boys into confessing to crimes they didn’t commit, and the evidence that stories of “wilding” were made up, Trump has never once apologized for fighting to get these boys murdered.
Trump has his pick of some brilliant minds, and yet chose Steve Bannon to serve as one of his executive advisers. Prior to serving Trump, Bannon was the executive editor for Breitbart News, an extremist rightwing site that publishes information it describes as “news.” Among some of the stories published by Bannon prior to being hired by Trump were those that blamed Muslim immigrants for a rape epidemic in Europe (no such immigrant rape epidemic exists); that taking birth control pills makes women unattractive; that Barack Obama was born in Kenya; that the Confederate flag is not connected in any way to racism because the Confederacy didn’t fight the Civil War to defend slavery; and that liberals want to do away with genders completely and produce human beings who are one sex.
Of course, we’ve recently seen further revelation of the limits of Trump’s historical knowledge that revealed a man who it appears never should have been admitted to college. While white racists love to complain of the supposed advantage given to people of color through affirmative action programs, they fail to take into account the ways in which the legacy system allows the average children of alumni to attend their parents’ colleges. For that matter, money functions as a form of affirmative action. While many schools claim that they base their admissions on “need blind” decisions, it’s tough to reconcile that with the fact that Jared Kushner, the man Trump has chosen to, among other things, broker Middle East peace, was a C-average student, and yet, after his father made a substantial donation to Harvard College, Kushner was granted admission to a school that is considered to be one of the most difficult schools in America to get into.
So what are the costs of allowing mediocre white men to run the country? Well, we could start with Trump’s first military action: his disastrous raid on a village in Yemen. It led to the death of a U.S. service man and also the documented death of children on the ground.
But even during the campaign, Trump had made it clear that the answer to having suspects living among civilians was to “bomb the shit out of them,” which is another way of simplifying the problem of complexity. Rather than having to deal with the problem of any action taken potentially causing the death of civilians, or as in the case of Yemen, the death of American service personnel, one accepts that the goal is to rid oneself of “them,” by whatever means necessary.
Trump had posted repeatedly on his campaign website that his solution to the problem of terrorism was to issue a blanket ban on Muslim entry into the U.S. The sudden announcement of Trump’s travel bans stranded thousands of people. But as much as some of us may think the guy is an utter buffoon, people emboldened by Trump’s rhetoric find motivation in his words to go out and injure and kill people. In the case of the terrorist who murdered people in Montreal, both Trump and FOX news attempted to blame “Islamic terrorism” for the attack, although the terrorist turned out to be a known right-wing troll and fan of the president. And while not all of the hatred inspired by Trump rhetoric has been violent, multiple reports of racial slurs – accompanied by the additional invective that “now that Trump is president” and the person being attacked won’t be around much longer” – have poured in to clearing houses such as the Southern Poverty Law Center.
I think that one of the reasons that Samantha Bee’s Wednesday night show, “Full Frontal,” has struck such a nerve, and why the Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner was such a success, is that her audience is aware that Bee is not treating the Trump presidency like low-hanging fruit. Certainly many comics are out there right now, mocking the president. It’s not hard. Certainly a narcissistic, rage-crazed, lazy, low-intelligence rich guy who would prefer to spend his day tweeting rather than being the president is going to generate enough material to keep a lot of comedians busy with the low-hanging fruit. That stuff is going to be for the mediocre white guys who think that this president’s actions are funny and easy to mock.
What Bee provided for those of us who were there this weekend was a humor that was the kind of laughter that is generated when you’re so upset that you’re trying not to cry. Even the purpose of the dinner was righteous – the event raised nearly $200,000 for the Committee to Protect Journalists. When a president like Trump encourages his crowds to jeer at the reporters who are sent to cover his rallies, and he stokes anger at those journalists by insisting that everything reported about him and his disastrous policies is “fake news,” a lot of us are afraid that Trump is going to inspire the kind of violence against journalists that has resulted in their deaths all over the world, in countries where governments that are not democratic and do not believe in free presses see the press as the enemy.
I bought a nice dress and some high heels for an opportunity to play dress-up and hang out with a lot of hard-working, high-performing journalists with a lot of integrity. All of us need to hold on to our own integrity while developing – and quickly – that insane confidence of the mediocre white man so that we can join Sam Bee in fighting back against the quintessential mediocre guy in the White House who is a threat to us all.