Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer seem prepared to voluntarily sacrifice their own dignity in order to serve their boss. As such, they behave like candidates in a TV Reality Show.
In the second half of the year 1948, and continuing into the early months of 1949, a group of German experts from the three zones occupied by the western powers following the end of the Second World War gathered to write a constitution for the newly-planned West German state. It was a formidable task. How could representatives of a nation which had regarded itself (and, indeed, been regarded by most other nations) as one of the most civilized and developed in the world, and which had nonetheless descended into an unprecedented barbarism, dragging the whole world into a bloody orgy of ghastly suffering, deal with that experience and formulate its lessons for a new beginning?
The first article of the Basic Law [Grundgesetz][i] begins with a very simple sentence, but it is inspired. In six words in the original (only four are necessary in the English translation), the whole experience of the Nazi horror and the lesson the newly constituted state intended to learn from it is encapsulated.
Die Würde des Menschen ist unantastbar.
Human dignity is inviolable.[ii]
Making the concept of human dignity the central expression and distillation of all that we mean by our various formulations of “human rights” is stroke of genius. It expresses the deepest truth of everything positive which dawned on the world with the Enlightenment[iii]. Accept the inviolability of human dignity and everything else flows from that.
So, a little while ago I happened to see that piece where Kellyanne Conway was talking about “microwaves that turn into cameras” as some kind of desperate justification for Trump’s unsubstantiated tweets about the Obama administration phone tapping – excused me, Sean Spicer, “phone tapping” – him. And I started to wonder about what makes this woman tick. This wasn’t her first venture into very strange explanations for some of the president’s utterances (or those of others in his staff). There were the famous “alternative facts”, for example. And who will ever forget the Bowling Green Massacre?
I find it hard to credit that Conway actually believes a lot of what she’s saying. And then I realised that I also couldn’t credit that Spicer actually believes a lot of what he’s sent out to say. So what makes them do it, particularly in situations in which they have to realise that any rational person will know that they are lying? After all, these are people you can’t simply write off as being stupid; they are well educated, and have had fairly successful professional careers up to now.
From the outset, we should be clear about one thing. They are quite different to their boss, Donald Trump. Trump, in a sense, is easy; he’s a supremely egoistic narcissist. He is so convinced of his own awesomeness, his inherent magnificence, that he knows anything he intuits must be true. Supporting facts will indubitably be found later, as needed, for in his own image of himself it is impossible that he should be mistaken[iv].
If you could ever get them in a position where they would talk honestly – without any spin – about this question, I suspect that they would answer with an appeal to their professionalism. This is their job, this is what they’re being paid for – to go out and hold the line for their boss. The question of truthfulness doesn’t come into it. They would both identify themselves broadly as “conservatives” and Trump is the representative, in some sense, of a conservative message. Their own understanding of themselves as professionals is supported by the fact that, before they took positions with Trump, both of them were occasionally critical of him in their previous roles; Conway as a member of Ted Cruz’s team, Spicer as the Republican National Committee’s Chief Strategist & Communications Director.
But this answer is too easy. Acting immorally – and consciously lying regarding important issues in the public domain would certainly be regarded by the vast majority of people as seriously immoral – and attempting to justify such actions with “I was only doing my job” has not been regarded as legitimate since the Nuremberg Trials. Should figures like Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer explain their actions as simply their professional duties, then they are effectively putting themselves on the same level as Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, better known perhaps as Baghdad Bob, or Comical Ali, who became a source of amazement and amusement for the western media in his role as Saddam Hussein’s Minister for Information during the 2003 Iraq war.
However, it goes further than this. The more Conway and Spicer flail around, desperately trying to justify the factually unsupported assertions of their master, the more they put their own public credibility at risk, the more ridiculous they appear, and, finally, the more they voluntarily destroy their own dignity. And this fits into a pattern.
Critics of postmodern, neoliberal society[v] often point to an ever increasing and expanding thoroughness of commodification in all aspects of contemporary life. One of the best known, most ironic examples of this is the Che-chic phenomenon, in which an original photo of the Marxist revolutionary, Che Guevara (Guerrillero Heroico), via various artists, has become a popular culture meme, happily marketed in supreme capitalist fashion in all sorts of ways, all over the world. But it goes much deeper than a mostly innocent, ignorant, and superficial fashion trend.
The phenomenon of “Reality TV” is complex and has many forms, but they all have one thing in common. From Jerry Springer to Big Brother, from Idol to Top Model, from Judge Judy to The Apprentice, real people put themselves and their problems, their hopes and their fears, their dreams and their nightmares on public show. In doing so, they largely give up the control of themselves, what they say and do, and how they act and interact with others, to professional producers, showmakers, and hosts. These professionals have their own formats and agendas, ultimately revolving around ratings and profits, and they leave very little to chance. The people who volunteer for such shows are ultimately putting their dignity into the hands of these professionals, agreeing to let that dignity be exploited for the ends of the showmakers and the entertainment of the public. They are allowing their whole lives to become commodified.
Respect for dignity is not, to put it mildly, a priority for reality TV shows. Though there are a few whose formats more strongly stress decency and kindness towards all the participants[vi], most of them seem to base a large part of their appeal on showing the humiliation, in some form, of nearly all of those taking part. The candidates are thrown together for days or weeks, periods of frenzied, driven action and testing alternating with long phases of idleness and boredom, during which conflicts are carefully created, diligently fostered, and gleefully filmed for a sensation-hungry public. From episode to episode, one contestant after another is eliminated, usually in a highly dramatized penultimate section, with delays, suspenseful music, camera close-ups of the tense participants. And then … finally … You’re out, You’re eliminated, I have no rose/photo for you, You’re fired! Afterwards, a final section where the loser’s tears and devastation are shown in all their misery. If the showmakers get lucky, there may even be a raging rant.
Dignity for sale. Hell, not even for sale; in most of the shows the losers get nothing – all they’ve got for handing over their dignity is their fifteen minutes of fame, and next week they’ll be forgotten.
Above all else, perhaps, this is the world of Donald J. Trump. In 2003, still recovering from a near brush with bankruptcy, he was approached to front a new reality TV show, The Apprentice. “Trump has said he earned $214 million during 14 seasons of the NBC broadcast, and he made more from related licensing deals for products including ties and cologne. His name became a valuable brand.”[vii] The Apprentice saved him, more, it gave him an environment in which he could freely express all those facets of personality which had often created difficulties for him in his previous business ventures. It is a world which, even since he became president and handed over his role as show host to Arnold Schwarzenegger, he has never really left.[viii]
The show is still running, but now 24/7, nationwide. The Apprentice – Presidential Edition, with a four year run. Cabinet candidates have presented themselves for interview in a typical casting format, Trump even using this to ritually humiliate his most prominent critic, Mitt Romney. Poor Romney fell for it. But this too fits into the Reality TV model, where measured and premeditated cruelty is part of the recipe, something to keep the voyeuristic appetites of the viewers whetted. And this new version offers the host the additional thrill of appearing before live audiences of adoring supporters.
In the middle of all this are still the apprentices, even if they are no longer the centre of the show, for this show can only have one centre – the continuing ego trip of the host. Conway and Spicer (increasingly joined by Stephen Miller) beaver away, desperately trying to fulfil the tasks that the boss has set them. In order to keep him happy, they are willing to offer up their honesty, their credibility, their integrity. Ultimately, they are prepared to sacrifice that fundamental aspect of their personhood which the German constitution defines as its most basic, inviolable characteristic – their dignity. All to avoid hearing the dreaded words that could at any time be uttered by the great impresario – You’re fired!
[i] The term “Basic Law” rather than Constitution [Verfassung] was consciously chosen to express a certain provisional nature for the new state, for the Soviet occupied zone was not included. Following German reunification in 1990, though this provisional state no longer applied, the term was retained.
[ii] The official translation I’ve linked actually says “… shall be inviolable.” Even though this can explained as being framed in conventional legal language, it is unfortunate. “Shall be” has a certain aspirational, hortatory character, which does not do the original justice. The writers of the Basic Law could have used the German verb sollen to express an aspirational intent, and, had they done so, the English translation would be correct. They did not. Instead they chose a simpler, stronger formulation, stating it as an unadorned, uncompromising fact. And it is this choice, which expresses clearly the recognition of the horror of the past and the determination to never let it happen in Germany again, that is so inspired.
[iii] See the opening paragraphs of my last post here on this site. One could, indeed, argue that it is also the expression of the Abrahamic religious teaching, common to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, that humanity is made in “God’s image.”
[iv] That this self-adopted basic attitude actually masks a much deeper sense of insecurity would be a classical Freudian explanation. Following this model, the insecurity has probably been supressed to such a degree that he himself is (mostly) not consciously aware of it. Only in the deep of the night when, on his own in the White House without any worshippers, with Melania in New York, sleep is fractured, does this insecurity manifest itself inchoately, sublimating itself into that restless rage which ultimately leads to ranting, rambling early-morning tweets.
[v] Many of these can loosely be described as adopting a “neo-Marxist” position, Frederic Jameson perhaps being the most prominent of them. His Postmodernism: Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, even if notoriously difficult to read, is a must for anyone who wants to understand anything of contemporary thought concerning (post)modern culture.
[viii] Which explains why he soon started a negative Twitter campaign to disparage the ex-California Governor’s handling of the show; it is much too close to his heart, something he just can’t give up.
The illustration used in this post is based on a photo by Gage Skidmore, published on Wikipedia under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. It has been graphically reworked by the author.