News & Politics

How Washington Post Columnist Alexandra Petri Finds Humor in the Trump Era

Sometimes you just have to laugh.

Photograph by Lisa M. Allen.

Washington Post opinion columnist Alexandra Petri has become a key chronicler of the Trump era’s dark comedy, finding clever ways to satirize events that satirize themselves—Scott Pruitt’s moisturizer habit, for instance—and channeling the impotent rage many people feel while living through it. She tends to approach the news from unexpected angles, capturing the absurdity of the moment with brutal precision. “If you just go head-on, you wind up describing the thing,” she says, “and the thing is so horrible that there’s no comedy there.” When online extremists suggested that the Parkland shooting was the work of “crisis actors,” for example, Petri imagined—with biting wit—what might go through the mind of a thespian who found herself pursuing such a role.

Now Petri is releasing some of her most satisfyingly scathing columns as a book, Nothing Is Wrong and Here Is Why, and it’s as good a summary of the bewilderment of our era as anything yet published. Petri really knows DC, having spent her life around Washington politics. Her father, Tom Petri, is a former Republican congressman from Wisconsin, and her mother, Anne D. Neal, is an attorney who once ran the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. Petri attended National Cathedral School and Harvard, then returned to Washington to intern at the Post, where she later got a permanent spot blogging with Dana Milbank.

Eventually, around 2012, she went solo. “I just sort of barnacled on and refused to go,” she says. Now her brand of politically charged humor has become something of an institution. “Some people say I fill an Art Buchwald–shaped hole in their lives,” she says, referencing the Post’s most famous former humor columnist, “although for extremely understandable reasons they do not use that exact phrase.”

Like Buchwald, Petri dabbles in writing plays—Inherit the Windbag, her show about Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr.’s 1960s debates, was due to premiere in March but has been postponed because of the coronavirus shutdown. She would also love to try her hand at screenwriting, though “not full-time, because I just really love writing a column,” she says.

Petri has been disappointed to miss out on much of the book-promotion hoopla that’s been lost to the pandemic: “I was looking forward to all the book-tour stuff where you get to be like, ‘I’ve emerged from my writing hole, and now here I am to clasp you to my bosom.’ Now I guess I’ll be doing all the clasping to my bosom virtually.”

This article appears in the June/July 2020 issue of Washingtonian.

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Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute, TBD.com, and Washington City Paper. His book A Bigger Field Awaits Us: The Scottish Soccer Team That Fought the Great War was published in 2018. He lives in Del Ray.