The Sean Spicer show marks 100 days on the air

U.S. President Donald Trump marks his 100th day on the job on Saturday, and so does White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer. In that time, Spicer's gaffes have been epic, but his ratings have been spectacular. The New Republic's Jeet Heer and Upworthy's Parker Molloy unpack the layers in this surreal new form of reality television.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer gestures as he speaks to the media during the daily briefing in the White House. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

by Brent Bambury

For each of the 100 days Sean Spicer has been President Trump's press secretary, some have wondered if his time was up. On his first day on the job, Spicer was fiery and combative, but nearly everything he said was utterly untrue. It was a strange performance from someone whose job is largely about clarifying information.

Spicer has played many roles in the Republican Party, but none of them seem to have prepared him for the duty of defending and interpreting President Donald Trump.

Before he was White House Press Secretary, Spicer was an assistant U.S. trade representative for George W. Bush. After that, he became a passionate defender of NAFTA, the trade agreement Trump has called a catastrophe, a disaster and "one of the worst deals ever."

More recently, Spicer worked closely with Reince Priebus as spokesperson and strategist for the Republican National Committee. Last year, when Trump called the RNC corrupt, Spicer defended it.

For two years, Spicer was the White House Easter Bunny, and says it was hot in the costume. 

But it turned out to be nothing like the heat Spicer would get from the Washington press.

Sean Spicer holds a press briefing at the White House in Washington. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)


Sean Spicer's terrible, horrible, no good, very bad 100 days

Spicer took no questions from the press on his first day on the job. Instead, he blasted the media over reports on the size of the crowd at Trump's inauguration. On that day, Spicer said so many things that were proven false, it eventually led Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway to coin the Orwellian phrase "alternative facts".

We elected a reality TV star as president, so of course we're getting a reality TV administration to go with it.- Parker Molloy

"There's been a lot of talk in the media about the responsibility to hold Donald Trump accountable," Spicer raged in his debut episode. "And I'm here to tell you that it goes two ways. We're going to hold the press accountable as well."

White House press secretary Sean Spicer speaks to the media during the daily briefing in the White House. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)


Ratings > Truth

"It was almost like a pilot episode of a sitcom or a reality TV show," Parker Molloy, a writer with Upworthy, told me on Day 6.

Pilot episodes set the tone and transmit the values of the series that will follow. They establish the characters, introduce the leads and codify their behavior. Molloy sees all of that in Spicer's first briefing.

Parker Molloy, writer at Upworthy (Parker Molloy/TWITTER)

"So much about his character and the administration was established that day — how they front-load shows like that — and it's led the narrative ever since," Molloy tells me. 

"We learned that [Spicer] is a man who will have a short temper, he'll lose track of what he's talking about, he'll mispronounce words [and] will say things that are just flat out untrue."

"And I think it's what we should've expected going into this. We elected a reality TV star as president, so of course we're getting a reality TV administration to go with it."

I don't remember anyone ever talking about previous press briefings in terms of ratings.- Jeet Heer

Jeet Heer, a senior editor with The New Republic, agrees.

"I think those first press briefings really prefigured everything that was to come," he tells me. "And we really should have been paying attention because the press secretary in these briefings has a real role to play in government. They're sort of the voice of the government."

Jeet Heer, Senior Editor with The New Republic. (Fabiola Carletti/CBC)

"If you have a press secretary that's flat out lying and saying demonstrably false things, that really undermines faith in the government," Heer says. "I mean, this is a situation that's closer to Saddam Hussein's famous Baghdad Bob than what they [the press corps] are used to."

Baghdad Bob, Information Minister in Saddam Hussein's doomed government, assured his audience of Iraq's victory while scornfully dismissing evidence and truth.

His daily briefings became widely popular.

Heer believes Spicer's TV ratings determine his fate.

"This was really strong television," he tells me. "Those early briefings got a lot of really good ratings and they really prefigured the transformation of government into entertainment."

"And apparently President Trump is very attentive and has praised the ratings, which is also something new. I don't remember anyone ever talking about previous press briefings in terms of ratings."


Sympathy for the devil

It's not just the truth Spicer tortures, but the English language itself. His many accidents with words — he called Syria's Bashar al-Assad "Ashad" and referred to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as "Joe" — have inspired mash-ups like this one. But things got worse in April when Spicer said that Hitler "didn't even sink to using chemical weapons." People wanted him fired. He rode it out.

Some former press secretaries have expressed sympathy for Spicer, caught between a hostile, critical media and his boss, an impulsive, serial liar.

I asked Heer if he thought Spicer's job was difficult.

"I think it would be very difficult if you had a conscience. And I think it would be very difficult if you had a sense of shame or decency, because you're basically showing the world that you're a complete hack and will say, you know, whatever Trump wants you to say."

White House press secretary Sean Spicer speaks during the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

"I mean, some people want to turn this into a drama and have speculated on what Sean Spicer's internal life is like. Is he agonized? [But] I mean, if he had a problem with any of this, he would have quit long ago."

Parker Molloy says Spicer must have expected some of the pushback.

"You knew that if you're going to represent Donald Trump — someone who has no problem just lying to people, no problem making promises that he has no ability to actually follow through on — that you're going to be put in this position."

"And no one held a gun to his head and told him he had to take this job."


Melissa McCarthy owns the podium

In February, following Melissa McCarthy's take-no-prisoners impersonation of him on SNL, some journalists felt Spicer was subdued in his next briefing.

Molloy and Heer both find reasons to be cautious of McCarthy's uncanny accuracy.

Mellissa McCarthy portraying U.S. Press Secretary Sean Spicer as the Eastern bunny on SNL. (NBC/Saturday Night Live/Facebook)

"I think Melissa McCarthy's portrayal of him really tests the limits on what satire and parody can be," says Molloy. "Because it's not all that exaggerated. Sure, Sean Spicer has never brought a super soaker to his briefings. But if you watch it, it's not too far off."

"What interests me about this though, is whether … Melissa McCarthy's parody of Spicer actually made Spicer more likeable or not," says Molloy. "Because I know that there were some conflicting ideas about what Tina Fey's Sarah Palin did [that] for Sarah Palin."

"That's actually already kind of happened," says Heer.

Melissa McCarthy portraying White House press secretary Sean Spicer on SNL. (SNL/Instagram)

"The philosopher Herbert Marcuse once said that the reason American capitalism is so strong is it absorbs any critique and makes it part of itself. And so, Melissa McCarthy does this thing where she uses her podium as a kind of weapon against the press. And a few weeks ago, Spicer kind of made a gesture in that direction saying, like 'Don't make me use the podium against you!'"

"The unfortunate effect of this sort of satire is humanizing," says Heer. "Because it's like, 'Oh well, let's laugh at this and not realize that there's something a bit sinister about a press secretary that's sort of lying and barking at the press."



Turn off the cameras

Ari Fleischer, former press secretary to President George W. Bush, thinks the Spicer briefings are becoming a distraction and things might cool down if cameras were removed from the briefing room.

"It's a smart recognition for them to recognize the Trump White House needs to be a calmer White House," Fleischer told Politico. "And the briefings have often veered into red-hot TV show land, which is not good for everyone."

I asked Jeet Heer if journalists have a duty to stop feeding the machine.

"They do, but it's very hard because of the system that we're in. Look, if any individual journalist or journalistic company decides not to cover that, their rivals will and they'll get the ratings. So, it's a really deep systematic problem. I mean, I think Donald Trump's genius has been as an entertainer, as a reality show figure, who's really hacked the system."

"He finally figured out that if he gave these outrageous speeches, then cable news would cover him all the time and drown out his rivals and drown out any policy discussion. And we're seeing a continuation of that."

"People talk about Twitter. But Trump's real venue is television and he's a sort of sinister Chauncey Gardner, from the novel Being There. There's this figure who watches TV, repeats what he sees on TV, and becomes popular, even though he knows nothing. "

"I mean I'm very glad that you decided to cover Spicer because he really goes to something deep that's going on here, which goes beyond politics, beyond left and right, which is this breakdown of any difference between TV and reality."

"I mean it's odd, because [TV] is in some ways a dying medium, but in it's sort of last gasp, it is somehow taking over the world still."

100 days into the Trump presidency, Sean Spicer has lasted longer than most people expected.

1,361 days to go.

To hear Brent Bambury's conversation with Jeet Heer and Parker Molloy, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.