Opinion

The only skill needed to spin for Trump? A total lack of shame

They aren’t there to engage in the healthy back-and-forth between government and the press. They’re there to provoke the kind of hysterics that usually end up discrediting the media.

Spinning for Trump must be as terrifying as it is useless. How do you front insanity?

Kellyanne Conway, campaign manager for president elect Donald Trump gives a thumbs up as she arrives at Trump Tower, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016, in New York. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)

Spinner. Flack. Liar.

Whatever your preferred term, a political spokesperson's job is to bend his or her politician's words into a passable version of the truth. It's not a job for the faint-hearted; it's full of pressure, the positions you defend can be obnoxious and you labour away under the sword of Damocles or, rather, its modern equivalent: the fast-moving bus. It's also an industry Donald Trump is hammering out of existence with his brazen assault on political and media norms.

Spinning for Trump must be as terrifying as it is useless. How do you front insanity? How can you claim to speak for someone who lashes out spontaneously — and unsupervised — on Twitter at every slight, whether real or perceived? Who holds the position of whoever last sat on him? The West Wing is nice and all, but so is your dignity. With Trump, there is literally nothing you can rule out having to defend.

Decades of skeletons

One of the pleasures of speaking on behalf of former prime minister Stephen Harper, I now realize, was never being forced to address rumours about alleged sexual activities at the Moscow Ritz Carlton. Thank you, sir, for leading a much simpler life.

Trump's surrogates, on the other hand, have 70 years of skeletons to spin. It takes a certain je ne sais quoi. I would say it was rather Orwellian to watch senior Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway fling mud, poop and anything else at hand at CNN's Anderson Cooper in an interview last week, as they sparred over what Trump "kompromat" briefing materials did or did not exist, but even Orwell's math tapped out at relatively sane 2+2=5. How does one argue with someone who isn't tethered to reality, who will lie with impunity?

The only skill needed to spin for Trump is a total lack of shame. Down is the new up, the sky isn't blue, and screw you for thinking otherwise, you mainstream news media lackey. What's worse, after having debased yourself, the great man will, more often than not, tweet that your bravura interpretation of his antics wasn't, in fact, correct. He really did mean whatever insane thing he tweeted that morning. Like, for example, that wacky time Sean Spicer, Trump's press secretary, spent a day on television arguing that Trump's tweeted call for a new nuclear arms race was really a call for the status quo, only for a clip to surface of Trump on MSNBC saying, clear as a bell, "let it be an arms race."

And instead of being outraged at this real-time discreditation, his spokespeople instead return on bended knee to Trump Tower for their next humiliation. It defies convention.

The politician-spokesperson pas de deux is usually a delicate dance, one that relies on full disclosure and total confidence in each other. It doesn't work if you joust in public. Most spokespeople get one, or maybe two chances to be caught completely off guard by their guy. If it happens more often, the press are perfectly within their right to question your utility.

Whatever thimbleful of power I had in Harper's Ottawa flowed from the simple fact that I spoke for Stephen Harper. The press knew he couldn't speak to them every day — or any day — and so I was it. The second I didn't speak for him — or was perceived as not speaking for him — I wouldn't be of any use to him, or anybody else.

Corrosive communications

To hear Sean Spicer, Trump's press secretary, admit that his first stop each day is @realDonaldTrump to see what he'll be defending is totally backwards. You can't do the job knowing the same or less about your guy and his or her thinking than the press that's there to challenge your leader.

This is where Team Trump's total lack of shame is horribly — and deliberately — corrosive. They aren't there to engage in the healthy back-and-forth between government and the press. They're there to provoke the kind of hysterics that usually end up discrediting the media. And if they themselves are discredited in the process too, well, that's just the cost of doing business.

If this sounds incredibly inside-baseball: it is. But its effects will be felt right across the country. Trump was elected, in part, because of a deep dissatisfaction with the way politics was practiced. By dipping convention in acid they're erasing, not fixing or replacing, a troubled system.

The successful end point for Team Trump is when nobody believes anything anybody says about Washington. (Jonathan Ernst/ REUTERS)

But that's the point. Trump has never enjoyed being held to account. He knows the media are struggling financially and with perceptions of bias. Anything he can do to further their journey down the current trajectory will absolve him of needed scrutiny as he pushes deeper into his first term.

The successful end point for Team Trump is when nobody believes anything anybody says about Washington. This puts his press team's task in a stark light: their mission is to birth a new normal, leaving only suckers to observe the traditional rules of the game.

They're off to a flying start.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andrew MacDougall is a Canadian-British national based in London who writes about politics and current affairs. He was previously director of communications for former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.

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