How Donald Trump Broke the Al Smith Dinner

It isn’t the only democratic institution that finds itself in danger.

Andrew Harnik / AP

Four years ago, as a speechwriter for President Obama, I commissioned a binder full of women.

A little context. It was the morning of the Al Smith Dinner, the election-year tradition in which both parties’ nominees don white-tie attire and deliver comedy monologues to New York City’s elite. Our opponent, Governor Mitt Romney had recently used the words “binders full of women” while discussing gender parity in government. Eager to mock the clumsy phrase, I asked a staffer on the advance team to put together a prop.

But our binder never saw the light of day. Obama nixed the idea. I remember being disappointed by the president’s decision, and wondering if POTUS was phoning it in. Of the jokes that did make it into the final draft, one in particular stood out for its authenticity.

“In less than three weeks, voters in states like Ohio and Virginia and Florida will decide this incredibly important election. Which begs the question—what are we doing here?”

Fair point. Even in its best, most amicable years, the Al Smith dinner is a festival of uncomfortableness. Two candidates have spent the better part of a year locked in fierce, often personal, head-to-head competition. There’s something cruel about forcing them to pretend to enjoy one another’s company.

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.

Whoever wins this November, Americans have some soul-searching to do. The Al Smith dinner is only one democratic institution that finds itself in danger, and Trump is only one of the reasons it is under threat. After all, Donald Trump wasn’t the first to warn, without evidence, of elections being stolen through widespread voter fraud. He is not the reason a seat on the Supreme Court has gone unfilled for almost a year. Nor should Democrats be entirely immune from self-examination. At the beginning of this election many, myself included, relished the havoc Trump wreaked upon his party. Only later did they fully realize that, win or lose, the Trump campaign was wreaking havoc upon our country as well.

For too long, delegitimizing democracy has been a means: to win the next election, to hold a coalition together, to fire up a base. What this year must teach us is that if democracy is not the end, a lack of it will be. The next four years must be spent repairing the institutions that make America—despite the increasing nastiness of its politics—a beacon to the world. That’s a responsibility for all of us, regardless of which party we normally vote for. We should repudiate not just vulgarians like Donald Trump, but the respectables who know better and support him anyway. We should recognize that in a democracy, protecting the process is sometimes more important than achieving a desired outcome. Most of all, we should set boundaries: If a joke can cross a line, then surely an assault on our entire political system can cross a line as well.

It’s too late to save the 2016 Al Smith dinner. But it’s not too late to save everything it was supposed to represent. If we take just a fraction of the time and money spent on this campaign, and put it toward restoring democratic institutions, we will be better off four years from now than we are today. So here’s something to work toward: a 2020 Al Smith dinner in which a president and challenger can honestly, if grudgingly, display mutual respect. Let’s rebuild a country where two candidates can dress up like extras from Downtown Abbey, stand at a podium, and, in true tribute to our shared values, wonder what we are doing here.