Trump, the boor, ruins the Al Smith dinner

This story appears in the Election 2016 feature series. View the full series.

by Michael Sean Winters

View Author Profile

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts to Letters to the Editor. Learn more

To be clear: Donald Trump insulted the Catholic church last night at the Al Smith dinner in a way that was far worse than anything ever emailed to John Podesta. Completely misunderstanding the nature of an otherwise splendid evening, unable to let the generosity of the event temper his snarls, he became, appropriately, the first candidate in the history of the dinner to be booed.

Inadvertently, Trump provided a moral lesson to the entire country and, one hopes, to the leaders of the church who hosted the evening. He is a boor and worse than a boor. I know it is the Year of Mercy and I pray daily to be less judgmental, but he is a bad person. After months of trying to analyze why he does what he does, why he says what he says, it comes down to this: He is a bad person. You don't want him at your party. You certainly don't want him in the White House.

In his speech, Trump had a few funny lines. He said that it was not true that he and Hillary Clinton were incapable of being civil to one another, that they had bumped into each other back stage and she had said to him, "Pardon me." That was a cute line. He had a very funny line about the media being unfair because Michelle Obama delivered a speech and everyone loved it, but when his wife, Melania delivered the exact same speech, they did not approve. That was very funny.

Then unable to contain himself, he called Clinton "corrupt" and the first set of boos emerged from the back of the room. Then he said she deceives people, and there were more boos. Finally, he said, "Here she is, in public, pretending she doesn't hate Catholics," and it seemed like everyone in the room was booing. The TV angle showed the other people on the dais squirming.

Hillary Clinton's performance did not make anyone on the dais squirm, nor did it make any comedians fret for their career. She opened with a good line about how her attendance at the event required her to take a break from "my rigorous nap schedule." And she made a self-deprecating joke about speaking fees. Her joke about most people viewing the Statue of Liberty as a beacon of hope, but that for Donald the statue is a 4, fell flat. If she had only changed the reference to "Lady Liberty" it might have worked better. But, while her jokes were off, they were not off-color; they did not disrupt the feel or the flow of the evening. No one booed.

"Breitbartization" is not a verb but it is a reality. The crude alt-right website that pretends to be a news site lent chairman Steve Bannon to Donald Trump's campaign this past summer, but that was only the explicit recognition of a bond between the site and the candidate that goes far back. Which came first? Trump's political vulgarity or Breitbart News? These questions put me in mind of a classic New Yorker cartoon that pictured a chicken and an egg in bed, both smoking a post-coital cigarette, with the caption, "Should we tell them?" However we answer those questions, we know that the rejection of Donald Trump on election day will be a great day for the country.

Clinton made a joke about how everyone can't wait for the election to be over. That's true. But we have to say that Clinton is not responsible for the ugliness of the election. True, she has not excited very many people at the prospect of her presidency. True, she is woefully wrong on the issue of abortion and may well make our already overly liberal legal regime more liberal as it pertains to the availability of abortion for any reason and at any time. But regrettable though that would be, it does not compare to the nightmare a Trump presidency would represent. As Charles Camosy pointed out yesterday, the pro-life movement would suffer from a Trump presidency like nothing else that can harm it. He ruins everything he touches. No one who finds themselves associated with him is the better for it.

There was a lot of discussion about whether or not Cardinal Timothy Dolan was right to host both candidates at this year's dinner. That discussion will only intensify given Trump's performance. As a general rule, however, if we are going to invite the nominees of the major parties, we are going to invite them. Short of Holocaust denial, I can't really think there is anything that would warrant rescinding that invitation. Yes, Clinton is wrong on abortion, but her reasons, though wrong and consequential, do not spring from malice towards children. For a variety of reasons, a lot of people evaluate the issue of legal abortion wrongly. Yes, Trump has built his campaign on race-baiting and misogyny, and those are gravely (and intrinsically) evil, but it is also unlikely that his attitudes are rooted in malice so much as, to borrow from moral theology, a variety of invincible ignorance. I would add that there should be many dissertations written on the degree to which the culture of the CEO in the world of high finance has enabled Trump's narcissism.

The church can and should take the long view. We have lived through a variety of unsavory partisan governments, and indeed under a variety of different kinds of political regimes. The Gospel can perdure in any of them. But this observation, while it brings a certain equanimity, cannot obscure the fact that in recent decades, the church's social doctrine has developed a deep appreciation for, and commitment to, democratic norms, albeit with significant qualifications. Given Mr. Trump's disdain for democracy expressed in recent days, it would be appropriate for the leaders of the church to speak up in its defense. 

One thing we Roman Catholics have not been so good at is achieving a comfort level with a culture in which values are plural. Pluralism is not the same thing as relativism, and the confusion of the two has led to some lousy evangelization. Perhaps the Catholic left can help both the church and the political left to find a better way of addressing each other. Against those on the left who really are relativists, we can point out the moral repugnance of a politics of solidarity that finds no room to consider the unborn or the infirm, that employs libertarian moral language to mask the exercise of power against the defenseless. Against those in the church who think the natural moral law is the only viable form of societal moral analysis (even though those same people usually do not employ the natural moral law as the grounds for shared discourse so much as they use it as a bludgeon to beat people over the head), the Catholic left can explore other moral frameworks, provided we remain rooted in the Gospel of Jesus Christ which alone can provide a Catholic with an understanding of what we mean when we employ the most basic words of moral thinking: human person, solidarity, obligation, human rights, and liberation. 

In the past two election cycles, the Al Smith dinner provided an evening at which both parties' candidates could set aside the hard edges of a contentious campaign, say some kind words about their opponent, and remind people that what divides us as partisans is not greater than what unites us as Americans and as human beings. Humor is an almost uniquely valuable salve to achieve that purpose. Its absence last night ruined an otherwise successful dinner. No, that's not right. Donald Trump ruined the dinner. It was his nastiness that got people booing. Let's hope that on election day, the whole country boos him into a retirement from public life.   

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

Latest News


1x per dayDaily Newsletters
1x per weekWeekly Newsletters
2x WeeklyBiweekly Newsletters