Sean Spicer's Hollywood rehabilitation
On Wednesday, ABC unveiled its new cast for the upcoming season of its hit show Dancing with the Stars. Those stars — a generous word for a lineup that includes a former lead from The Bachelorette — include none other than Sean Spicer, the disgraced former Trump White House press secretary. Predictably, the nation's biggest television addict, has voiced his approval. "He will do great," Trump tweeted on Thursday. Elsewhere, the choice has not been greeted as kindly.
Although not directly mentioning Spicer's selection, Tom Bergeron, DWTS' beloved host, signaled his displeasure by releasing a statement shortly after Wednesday's announcement saying that he had encouraged the show's producers to put together a season that "would be a joyful respite from our exhausting political climate."
Given the awfulness of our current moment, that's a laudable suggestion. It's also a laughable one. As I've written before, rather than offering an escape, reality TV far more often has provided a magnifier to some of the worst elements of American life. And Spicer's casting is no anomaly. Hollywood has become prime stomping grounds for former Trump officials looking to rehabilitate their public image.
Beyond that — and far more insidious — DWTS' decision attests to the increasing blurriness between American politics and entertainment and the ever-growing inclination to treat them as one and the same. Donald Trump's rise to power depended, in part, on that blurring. How else does a reality star become president but in a world that treats both with the same lack of seriousness? Trump's presidency has only turbocharged this tendency further.
DWTS isn't Spicer's first stop on his rehabilitation tour, however. Harvard provided that, granting Spicer a plum visiting fellowship at its Kennedy School just months after he resigned from his White House job. Other universities have also provided a soft landing pad for former Trump associates, including Marc Short at the University of Virginia, H.R. McMaster at Stanford, and Corey Lewandowski also at Harvard. Critics rightly blasted these universities for allowing themselves to be used to, as Michelle Goldberg at the New York Times put it, "launder" their reputations from the filth of their Trump connection. Still, however much respectability that the ivory tower confers, primetime television may do a lot more for cleaning up former Trump officials' reputations and sanitizing their presence in public life. Far more Americans tune into television each night than keep close track of Harvard appointments, after all.
On the web page for DWTS' new cast, ABC described Spicer as "one of the most recognized staffers in the Trump administration," reminding us again of how easily infamy counts for fame in Hollywood. But it's worth remembering the substance of his notoriety. From the start, Spicer gamely lied on behalf of the president. He used his very first press briefing to berate a room full of reporters and claim Trump had brought out "the largest audience to witness an inauguration, period," an assertion so demonstrably untrue it foreshadowed how thoroughly falsehood and reality distortion would characterize the Trump administration.
Those lies continued apace throughout Spicer's tenure. He wrongly claimed Trump had won the most electoral votes of any Republican since Reagan. He repeated Trump's crazy conspiracy that the Obama administration had wiretapped him. He lied about voter fraud to back up Trump's outrageous assertion that millions of undocumented immigrants had been able to vote in 2016. He even said, preposterously, that Hitler had never used chemical weapons, the only statement he eventually agreed to walk back.
That's only a small selection of Spicer's daily dishonesties, but they demonstrate how broadly Spicer carried out Trump's direct assault on truth and his undermining of American democracy.
Appropriately, news networks have closed their green rooms to Spicer. But Hollywood has happily laid out the red carpet for his re-entry into the spotlight. At the 2017 Emmy Awards, Spicer yukked it up in front of a supposedly-liberal crowd as he pushed a replica of his press secretary podium on stage and exclaimed, "This will be the largest audience to witness an Emmys, period!"
On Good Morning America this week, Spicer repeated the gimmick. As the show's hosts introduced the new DWTS cast members, Spicer took his position behind another replica podium.
It's all just a joke, you see? The guy who once treated American democracy as a big punching bag has become the willing punchline. But laugh tracks and makeup artists shouldn't cover up the dangerous work being done here. As they have done in other cases, like both Omarosa Manigault Newman and Anthony Scaramucci appearing on consecutive seasons of Celebrity Big Brother, Hollywood is helping normalize the Trump presidency — and minimize its worst injustices — by greenlighting the restoration of former Trump officials in the public mind. Every minute Spicer spends on camera dancing or self-deprecatingly laughing about his two-left-footedness helps obscure the import of those White House lies, and will undercut Americans' understanding of Trump's destructiveness.
With Thursday's news that Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Spicer's eventual replacement as press secretary, will be joining Fox News as a political contributor, Spicer's stint on DWTS may seem inconsequential compared to the revolving door between the Trump White House and the president's favorite propaganda outlet. Certainly, the celebritization of network news — especially when those "celebrities" come from the Trump administration — presents a serious threat to the public's ability to make informed judgments. And the news rooms in Washington and New York certainly don't need Hollywood's help in turning American politics into just another entertainment diversion, as the College GameDay style of the recent Democratic debates demonstrated. All of this amounts to a media universe that treats the Trump presidency like a game as much it does a real crisis.
As the saying goes, though, it takes two to tango; just as much as Sean Spicer needs Hollywood, Hollywood needs viewers. It's always our choice whether to watch.