It’s not easy to draw a straight line between oral arguments at the Supreme Court and the White House correspondents’ dinner, but I’m going to give it a try. It’s not just that both are highly selective, members-only gatherings. The two events are also closely linked by the fact that they rely on public showcasing of institutional norms for their continued survival. Taken together, they reflect the no-win conundrum faced by those who embrace norms at the expense of reality in an era in which institutions are all we have left to save us. It’s hardly radical to posit that in the year and a half since Donald Trump took office, the press and the courts have been the strongest checks against his campaign of distorting reality and attacking the credibility of fact-based institutions.
With the Republicans who control Congress unable and/or unwilling to raise their seat backs enough to do anything of substance, political journalists and judges have, in a deft one-two move, uncovered secrets and lies and halted the worst offenders and offenses in their tracks. But that binary model is too simplistic, and it elides the problem that both journalism and the law face when they rely on their own immutable norms to protect themselves. Over the weekend, we saw what happens when the norms of “civil discourse” among journalists collapsed in the face of Michelle Wolf’s comedic takedown. And at the Supreme Court, during last week’s oral arguments in the travel ban case, Trump v. Hawaii, we were transported to a bizarre world in which this president was discussed as if he were a normal head of state.