Sean Spicer as the face of the Trump administration somehow captured the peculiar mood of these crazy days like no other player in this risible little drama. Those that know him often spoke of a good man in an impossible situation. That might well be true but there was something emblematic about his forlorn figure standing at the podium, trying to play the role of press secretary in a world where nothing seemed to make much sense. A somewhat bumbling figure constrained by a suit ever so slightly too small for him and an irrational logic he could never make straight, Spicer became a parody of press secretaries before him, as if his 1950s Mad Man aesthetic was being viewed through a warping prism. He argued numbers, facts, and reality, and tried to do so with a bull-neck and straight face. Yet what was always telling was that his face wasn’t *quite* straight. We sensed that he knew what we sensed. We knew he wasn’t a true believer. We always sensed that he’d be the first out of the door.
Saturday Night Live could have made life difficult for him but, in the weird way that sometimes happens in this paradoxical world, the satire played to the conflictions of his character. Melissa McCarthy’s portrayal was abrasive, funny, and, some might have thought, damning. Yet it also seemed to capture a likable vulnerability about ‘Spicey’ that was always there at the press podium. That’s something important to remember. Many of Trump’s team, family, and agents are spared no sympathy in the press. Spicer was always the exception. He garnered widespread sympathy when the news leaked that Trump, for reasons that seemed only to border on sheer spite, prevented this committed Catholic from meeting the Pope. Spicer, it was rumoured, was devastated.
That moment seemed to underline the fact that Spicer was in no way suited to the role of being the public face of this deeply conflicted President. No president wants to be loved as much as President Trump yet no president has done more to ensure the public’s loathing. Trump wants his spokespeople to look good, deliver a strong clear message, yet also project that slightly psychotic front-foot aggression he was taught by Roy Cohn. If you hit Trump, expect him to hit back harder.
Spicer, to his credit, was never a heavy hitter. He struggled to present the contradictory face of his friendly hyper-aggressive master and one always sensed the brooding presence of Trump, like a bullying father, urging his ‘son’ to be brave, strong, and ultra committed. Trump, it has been said, became obsessed with Spicer’s appearance, from the colour of his suits to his physical bulk, with the White House’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, supposedly quipping in a text message that ‘Sean got fatter’.
If you wonder why some of us will miss Spicer, it’s because of that sympathy we had towards a good man being ridiculed and broken before our eyes. This was a peculiar kind of abusive relationship being played out in public. We laughed because of Trump. We didn’t always laugh because of Spicer. Behind the humour, there was a tragedy unfolding.
In contrast, there was never any sympathy towards his replacement-who-wasn’t-his-replacement. Sarah Huckabee Sanders was (and is) a very different creature, presenting no vulnerability but, instead, the wide-eyed zombie stare of the true believer. If you want to know which way this White House is heading, we should look no further.
Spicer’s departure feels like a significant moment because it probably is a very significant moment. Forget, for the moment, about Russia, emails, and meetings with Putin. Trump had built his presidency on the loyalty of a few but, more broadly, on the good reputations of the serious people he’s hired. For Trump to succeed, he needs men like James Mattis, Rex Tillerson, and H.R. McMaster to succeed. He also, in a way, needed Spicer. The departure of his press secretary means that Trump has jettisoned one of the few ways that his presidency has maintained any buoyancy in the realm of the rational. The arrival of New York heavy hitter, Anthony Scaramucci, as the new White House Director of Communications , suggests that Trump is pushing his boat out into the deep waters where he’ll test the limits of the law and the US Constitution before he’s done.
The departure of Sean Spicer will mark the beginning of the end of this presidency. Don’t be surprised when the less committed in the White House follow him. Be even less surprised when the virtuous few who believed this was a chance to serve their nation also depart.
When this presidency ends, there will be few but the true Cultists of Donald that go down with the ship.