But looking back on it, there’s also something optimistic about the Al Smith dinner—or at least there was in 2012. I think this (along with a sensible aversion to prop comedy) is the real reason Obama said no to the idea of bringing a binder full of women onstage. Since 1945, the Al Smith dinner has been a democratic display of mutual, if slightly forced, respect. The candidates’ punchlines aren’t meant to suggest that politics is a joke, or a game. Rather, they acknowledge a bedrock principle of American society: Even in our most adversarial moments, we’re all on the same team.
How wonderfully quaint that seems today. The night before this year’s dinner, one candidate refused to promise that he would accept the election results, preferring to keep us in suspense. The peaceful transition of power is one of our great democratic traditions. If 2016 had managed to so dangerously jeopardize it, was there any chance a lesser tradition like the Al Smith dinner would go unscathed?
For a short while at least, it seemed likely to beat the odds. While the first 10 minutes of Donald Trump’s speech were a bit of a ramble, they manage to avoid blatantly crossing any lines. There was an attempt at a self-deprecating joke (“Modesty is my best quality.”) There was a predictable shot at the media (describing them as “Hillary’s team”). There was even one genuinely funny moment, when Mr. Trump referenced his wife’s plagiarism scandal from a few months before. “Michelle Obama gives a speech and everyone loves it. It’s fantastic. Melania gives the exact same speech …” We could be forgiven for thinking that, for one night only, the 2016 campaign was approximating normal.
Then, without warning, darkness descended upon the Waldorf. A line about Hillary Clinton’s FBI testimony—more a talking point than a joke—heralded the change in tone. Even so, what came next was shocking. “Hillary is so … corrupt,” Trump barked, with a ferocity all too familiar to anyone who has watched his rallies this year.
The audience was clearly horrified, and no one was more horrified than the white-tie wearing gentleman seated directly behind Trump and to his left. This was our everyman for the evening—the Ken Bone of the 1 percent. One moment he was smiling politely. The next moment it appeared that his face had been replaced with a different face: same nose, same eyebrows, but with far wider eyes, and a mouth frozen somewhere between sadness and abject horror. He maintained this expression for much of the remainder of the GOP nominee’s speech: Hillary’s a liar. She hates Catholics. She’s destroyed villages in Haiti. Last night, New York City’s rich and powerful found themselves at a Trump rally they had definitely not asked to attend.
The expression on the face of that well-dressed man—the mouth flatlining, the eyes popping like a joke can of novelty snakes—was inadvertently one of the funniest parts of the night. A gif of the moment has already been retweeted more than 9,000 times. But it’s the kind of thing voters laugh at to keep from crying. During the 2016 campaign season, all of us have been that man. All of us having been laughing at what we hope is a joke, trying to pretend that everything is normal, only to realize, with horror, that this is now our lives.