Washington’s sizzle was supposed to fizzle when President Trump was inaugurated last month. “With Obama’s departure, will Washington still be cool?” the Boston Globe wondered aloud in December. Trump is “triggering an identity crisis,” the Washington Post wrote. The New York Times has asked whether he’ll turn the city into a backwater at least three different ways since November. Eight years after Barack Obama officially made the capital city hot, the reasoning went, his replacement by a singularly non-sexy, non-idealistic chief executive would allow America to once again see DC as a land of anonymous bureaucratic drones.
Three weeks into the Trump era, it’s worth rethinking that prediction: Washington, and its signature industry, have become central to American popular culture in a way they never were during the last administration. Cable news is wall-to-wall Washington these days. Trump’s staffers and cabinet members are household names. Even Saturday Night Live has found a cultural renaissance of its own (though alas not funnier skits) through making fun of them, as well as even DC-based journalists. Glenn Thrush is a recurring character on a national comedy show for goodness’ sake! There was a skit about Jake Tapper this week! When Zach Braff begs to play a 31-year-old White House strategist, it’s a sign that Americans are paying attention.
That’s actually quite a contrast from the Obama years. Yes, Hollywood types angled for invites to White House soirees and other Beltway galas, while only a few celebrities descended on Washington for Trump’s inauguration. But did any of those visiting celebs create work that turned the likes of Robert Gibbs or Eric Holder into household names like Sean Spicer or new SNL target Jeff Sessions? No way.
As it turns out, good restaurants and trendy boutiques may not be the best barometer of cultural significance. Those are the type of amenities that reflect starpower rather than provide it. Everyone around the country is talking about Kellyanne Conway because they love her straight talk or because they hate her lies. We want to know whether Reince Priebus is gonna get the boot. And also what’s the deal with Sebastian Gorka? Trump and his crew of oddballs are a giant vacuum in the nation’s brainpans, sucking out our ability to talk about anything else.
Is it good for the republic to have Washington be the predominant force in pop culture thanks to these ding-dongs? Probably not long-term! People here didn’t ask for them, they sure as heck didn’t vote for them, and frankly all this drama is exhausting. But they’re giving us a cultural resonance we could only have dreamed of a few years ago.