Kellyanne Conway Says She's Leaving the Trump White House, and Why Wouldn't We Believe Her?

Jack Holmes
·6 mins read
Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

From Esquire

If there was one moment that truly set the tone for the current regime, it was when, in January 2017, then-White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer waddled out to the briefing room podium and loudly insisted that, in spite of everything we all saw and heard, the president had just enjoyed "the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, PERIOD!, both in person and around the globe." It was the very first time Spicer had addressed the White House press corps, one which he used to trumpet a gigantically stupid lie before the administration had even really begun. It was a farce, a spectacle staged to protect the president's wounded ego. But more than that, it was an early assault on the concept of observable reality, albeit a clumsy attempt by a witless practitioner. Don't believe your eyes and ears, Spicer tried to say, even if it proved less menacing than embarrassing.

If Spicer set the tone, though, it fell to someone else to hash this all out as a statement of principle—or lack thereof. Enter one Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, who took to Meet the Press the following day to declare that Spicer had not, in fact, shown his ass to the whole country in service to an easily identified fabrication. "You're saying it's a falsehood," Conway told Chuck Todd, "And they're giving—Sean Spicer, our press secretary—gave alternative facts." This was a classic Conway spin-cycle, sitting amongst a rash of tangents and attempts to change the subject, but it doubled as a philosophy. This crew really do not believe that here is a set of truths we can learn from observing the world that, in aggregate, constitutes reality. The truth is whatever you can get enough people to believe. The contours of reality can be bent to serve your own purposes.

On Sunday, August 23, 2020, Conway announced that she's leaving the Trump White House to focus on her family. We'll have to take her word for it, not that that's been a wise move throughout her tenure. It's not just dumb bullshit about the inauguration crowd that Conway has been pushing these four years. Trump's campaign-manager-turned-trusted-adviser also made up a terrorist attack—"the Bowling Green Massacre"—out of whole cloth while attempting to defend his Definitely Not a Muslim Ban. She then said she misspoke, only for it to emerge that she'd used the line in multiple interviews. Conway once went on television to back one of the abominable Republican plans to Repeal and Replace Obamacare on the basis that a proposed $800 billion cut to Medicaid in it did not constitute a Medicaid cut. She defended the zero-tolerance policy that inevitably led to family separations on the basis that "nobody likes this policy." This was not true, and besides, they could have ended it right there and then.

"You can turn on the TV," Conway once complained in public, "and people literally say things that just aren't true." She has been an innovator in shamelessness, a true entrepreneurial spirit, and that is saying something in this group. It's almost impossible to quantify how much dishonesty Conway has pumped into the public square, how much she has contributed to the erosion of the concept of observable reality. And with it, we've lost a big chunk of the concept that those in power are accountable to the public they purportedly serve. If you can ignore what's actually happening and reject questions about it, you cannot be held accountable.

Conway has grasped more than almost anyone the core power and appeal of Trumpism's rhetorical style, and the limits of the news media in countering these firehoses of lies. Accuse your enemy of that which you're guilty, so that the accusation is stripped of power when it's directed back at you. Say anything and repeat it long enough that it might as well be true. And most of all, that the knee-jerk defense of whatever the president just did is not merely a ploy to fight off his detractors. By lying so brazenly, the president is not trying to convince people—he is claiming ownership over the truth itself, demonstrating his power to shape reality and challenging his enemies to stop him. He is grinding them down through rhetorical force until they lose the will to resist. It's also a means of binding his supporters closer to him. As the tribe rallies around each successive hunk of bullshit, they give more of themselves over to him. By now, the sunk cost is nearly insurmountable. They've invested too much of themselves in him and his constructed world. There's no going back.

Photo credit: OLIVIER DOULIERY - Getty Images
Photo credit: OLIVIER DOULIERY - Getty Images

Conway was always among the cleverest of the acolytes and enablers, a high priestess of the Church of Unreason. She is very difficult to trap in an interview, no matter how outlandish the thing is that she's trying to defend. Her particular technique—often, to seize on one word in the interviewer's question to pirouette out, and into some line of attack that will gin up the well-cultivated resentment in the tribe—is brilliant in the worst way. In a cast of characters primarily composed of dimwitted people who are shameless enough to defend whatever the president does, Conway stands out as both shameless and savvy.

Which is why her incredibly public break over the last year or so with her own husband, vociferous Trump critic George Conway, is more than a little suspect. Both of them are career ratfuckers who spent plenty of time in the murkier waters of Republican politics. They both, presumably, enjoy their Beltway lives and would like to receive dinner-party invites in the coming years. Have they been playing both sides of the fence, hedging their bets to retain influence no matter who wins in November? Can we expect a mea culpa book from Kellyanne should Trump lose, her come-to-Jesus moment once the power lies elsewhere? If he wins re-election, will George realize that this was The Leader we truly needed all along?

Or maybe it really is, as both of them said in withdrawing from politics this week, about The Kids. Again, we'll just have to take their word for it.

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