I want to unpack Michelle Wolf’s takedown of Sarah Sanders. It’s old news by now, but I can’t stop thinking about it.
You’ve probably guessed that Sarah and I don’t agree on much. She’s Donald Trump’s press secretary, for crying out loud. Her job is to stand at the podium, day after day and defend the indefensible. I could never do that. Sarah can. We belong to different tribes.
But when I heard — and later watched — clips of Michelle Wolf making jokes at poor Sarah’s expense, and I saw poor Sarah sitting there in her evening gown, taking it like a trouper, I felt sorry for her.
Actually, it went deeper than that. I felt protective. I wanted to make it stop.
I’m still not sure why.
Everybody hated Michelle’s performance at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. For a day or two. Then everybody seemed to love it. The first responders were people who had been in the room. The positive reviews came from members of Wolf’s tribe.
Wolf haters didn’t like the fact that Wolf had attacked poor Sarah’s appearance. Wolf defenders pointed out, quite rightly, that mean Michelle hadn’t actually said anything about poor Sarah’s appearance. Sarah burns lies, Michelle said, and uses the ash to make a perfect “smoky eye.” That’s not a comment on Sarah’s appearance. The smoky eye, after all, was “perfect.”
Wolf defenders argue that, on his nicest days, Donald Trump is far nastier than Michelle Wolf at her worst, so what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.
What’s more, Trump is the purported leader of the free world while Michelle is a plucky 32-year-old comedian who “speaks truth to power.”
Little of what Michelle said was literally true, of course (Sarah doesn’t literally get her makeup by burning lies), but Trump’s press secretary does defend his lies in public. From the pro-Wolf perspective, Michelle was simply calling out the lies of Trump and is enablers. Sometimes the truth hurts. End of story.
I heard Wolf repeat this argument on NPR’s “Fresh Air” and I couldn’t disagree with her. But that didn’t change my gut reaction to the Correspondents’ Dinner episode. Something very wrong went down that night; I just wasn’t sure what it was.
And then I listened to Steven Colbert’s speech at the same function in 2007. I remember thinking that Colbert was hilarious, even though his routine didn’t play well at first. Colbert was ruthless. But since he was hiding behind the persona of the rightwing dim-bulb he played on his television, his jokes possessed a flair and nuance that Wolf’s lacked.
At one point, Colbert begged George W. to make him press secretary. “I’d do a terrific job,” Colbert said, gesturing toward the journalists in the room, “I have nothing but contempt for these people.”
That’s when it hit me. Michelle Wolf displayed utter contempt for Sarah Sanders. Trump’s press secretary was Michelle’s nemesis and she made no attempt to disguise her feelings.
When I was researching this piece I noticed that Wolf used to open for Louis C.K., the celebrated comic who recently admitted that, alas, the bizarre rumors about him masturbating in the presence of dozens of women were true. The game was not consensual.
Michelle Wolf is a feminist who was infuriated by the Access Hollywood tape in which Trump brags about grabbing women by the you-know-where. Will Michelle savage Louis C.K. the way she goes after Donald Trump and his defenders?
No, she will not. Wolf understands Louis too well. She knows from experience that there is much more to the man than one sexual predilection. As disgusting and hurtful as his behavior has been, Michelle regards him with compassion. She feels his embarrassment and wishes she could make it go away.
Louis C.K. is part of Wolf’s tribe, after all. It isn’t the liberal tribe or the Democrat tribe; it’s the tribe of hip coastal cynics who love pushing the comedic envelope.
Wolf’s defenders may not be envelope-pushers, but they like their comedy edgy.
Michelle used a lot of vulgarity at the Correspondents’ Dinner. It was the kind of stuff you might hear in raunchy comedy clubs but that sounds out of place in prime time.
People don’t talk that way in Sarah Sander’s world. Not in front of Sarah, at least. But Sarah’s world is a place Michelle knows practically nothing about, and she wants to keep it that way.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders graduated from a small university where three-quarters of the students were Arkansas Baptists just like her. Sarah grew up attending Sunday school and summer church camps designed to get you saved. But these days she prefers churches that have dropped the Baptist brand and her children are all baptized Catholic because Sarah married outside the fold (the family attends weekly worship at both Catholic and evangelical churches).
Sarah’s husband may not be a Baptist, but he is a Republican and, these days, politics trumps religion. Card-carrying members of the religious right spend a lot more time listening to Fox News than they spend in church, and it shows. The fastest growing congregations have adapted by making small-government conservative politics an article of faith.
Sarah Sanders identifies strongly with her white evangelical tribe, but her religion is simple and devotional; more a matter of heart than head. Sarah’s passion has always been politics, but she starts her workday with prayer. These days, she’s reading Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling for her morning devotions. Sarah Young reads the Bible, meditates a while, and then writes down whatever comes into her head. And whatever comes into her head appears in print as the words of Jesus.
Some evangelicals condemn Sarah Young as a Bible-denying heretic, but Sarah Sanders doesn’t know that and wouldn’t care if she did. The Bible can be confusing, troubling and just plain difficult, whereas Sarah Young’s Jesus is so warm, practical and utterly predictable.
If Michelle Wolf is right, defending Donald Trump requires the cynical repetition of damned lies. Which is why members of my liberal tribe feel not one scintilla of sympathy for Sarah.
The Washington Post says Donald Trump has uttered over 3,000 lies since taking office, and I am inclined to believe it. But does Sarah Sanders know when her boss is lying?
Sometimes. She might argue with Trump behind the scenes, but when she steps behind the podium she will defend his position because, well, that’s her job.
I suspect there are a lot of things Sarah doesn’t like about her boss. For all I know, she may even question his love for Jesus. But Trump has promised to stand up for her white evangelical tribe and Sarah believes he’ll follow through.
A lot of the time, the president doesn’t know when he’s lying and Sarah doesn’t know it either. To cite one prominent example, Trump keeps saying that violent crime has reached epidemic proportions like we haven’t seen in years. The truth is that violent crime rates have been plummeting since the late 1990s. Compared to other Western democracies, America remains an inordinately violent nation, but, by every measure, we’re not nearly as bad as we used to be.
But if you live in a world dominated by white evangelical churches and Fox News, do you know that crime rates have fallen in recent years. No, you don’t. Who would tell you? The facts don’t fit the accepted narrative so they are ignored.
Many of the lies Trump tells don’t sound like lies to his base. And even if Trump supporters know he’s misrepresenting what is, he’s telling the truth about what ought to be, and that’s good enough.
This is a very human tendency. There are some ugly facts about the rapid disintegration of low-income American families that liberals find inconvenient. But ask any public school teacher, regardless of political persuasion, and you’ll get an earful.
Michelle Wolf has chosen a childless existence because a family would interfere with her career. Sarah Sanders is a mother of three who holds America’s most stressful job. Sarah says she’d quit tomorrow if she thought she was shorting her kids.
I’m not saying Sarah is right and Michelle’s wrong, but these women come from distinct tribes that view the world — and assess the truth — in radically different ways.
And here’s the interesting thing: Michelle has utter contempt for Sarah, but I doubt Sarah reciprocates that feeling.
Sarah and I don’t agree on much, but we both grew up Baptist, so I know what her childhood looked like and why she became the woman she is.
I do not hold people like Sarah Sanders in contempt because Jesus forbids it.
Sarah Sanders makes room in her world for people like me because Jesus demands it.
Michelle Wolf and I share the same politics, but I’d rather spend an evening with Sarah Sanders. Jesus might be the only thing we had in common, but he’d be enough.