Back in the 1990s, at the moment when history was supposed to have just recently ended, popular culture was awash in moody hitmen and songs about Dealing With Success. The hard part was over, we were right all along, and so would receive what we deserved. With every culmination duly culminated, the most urgent question facing the nation was dividing the spoils. Everything has of course continued to improve at a steady pace ever since.
Given the vacuity and self-congratulation of that broader moment, it made sense that the political culture would be delighted by the romantic relationship between the political operatives James Carville and Mary Matalin. Carville, a barking Cajun who communicated entirely in aphorism and epigram, had been Bill Clinton’s lead campaign strategist in 1992. “It’s the economy, stupid” is Carville’s enduring contribution to the political discourse, easily outpacing, “If it looks like a duck but it smells like a catfish, you might could be a-fishin’ in the wrong bayou.” Matalin had been the Chief of Staff for Lee Atwater, the GOP chairman and pioneering racism brand strategist; she became a deputy campaign manager in George H.W. Bush’s unsuccessful reelection campaign.
Carville and Matalin were also in love, dating throughout the 1992 campaign and getting married after it ended. They would go on to bicker and banter on behalf of their respective sides of various important national questions—is this war underrated or overrated or properly rated—on such television programs as PlayFighters, Sunday Morning Today, and News Beef With Aaron Brown. In time they went from working on campaigns to just working in The Politics Business—the various economies that exist to serve and promote their respective parties. They wrote a book together, the cover of which looks like a hideously defaced promotional photo from Mad About You, and then did it again. Both have healthy pages on the Internet Movie Database that catalogue not just their appearances as “Self” on various news programs but their cameos in various movies and television shows set in Washington D.C., where their presence signifies that the film or show in question is set not just in the world of politics but a specific D.C. demimonde—a world of powerful people and cocktail parties held in old homes with multiple chandeliers, parties with caterers passing around little blinis with some kind of mousse on them. Carville also had a funny bit part in Old School, which admittedly is neither here nor there.
Carville and Matalin did actual things during their life in the politics business—disgusting things, often, because that is the shape these jobs take at the highest level. “I think everybody understood... it was high noon,” Carville said of then-Governor Clinton leaving the campaign trail to execute an Arkansas death row inmate with profound intellectual disabilities in what amounted to a ghoulish campaign tactic. Matalin, after assisting Atwater in his life’s work of making frank racism the unofficial pitch of GOP politics, went on to work in publishing, where she put out future Pizzagate kook Jerome Corsi’s scurrilous campaign book about John Kerry’s military service in Vietnam. Their life’s work is what it is because our politics are what they are, but with the admittedly significant exception of their respective eternal souls, most of what they spent their lives doing just slipped right off of them.
And so they are still today what they were decades ago: characters in a story that has less to do with what politics does or is than the simpler theater of Politics, The Television Program and the broader industry of serving power. Both are in something like their retirement, now, but they still write books and appear in public to prove that it’s possible for people to be friends—to be partners, to love each other—despite being on Opposite Sides Of The Aisle. They are still just around, and that is a strikingly difficult job to lose.
At the end of March, Kellyanne Conway was featured in CNN reporter Dana Bash’s series Badass Women Of Washington. “Women are already breaking barriers in a man’s town, muscling their way into power and staying there,” the producers of the episode “Elaine Chao: From Immigrant Roots To The Presidential Cabinet” wrote in a prefatory note explaining the series. “Their stories show there are Badass Women all around Washington.” The bit on Conway was not an especially informative story, but it was not designed to be.
Bash accompanied Conway to her childhood home in New Jersey’s blueberry belt; she breaks the news that Conway’s relationship with Donald Trump, whose campaign she ran in 2016, is both “personal” and “professional.” It’s mentioned in passing that Conway worked at CNN during the 1990s, and noted that Conway has been criticized, sometimes and by some, for “taking it too far” in defense of her boss. This is the most polite possible way to describe the public-facing duties of Conway’s job, which are going on television and lying on Trump’s behalf while acting somewhat put out at being asked to do so. In a bit of file footage, Conway is asked about the online bickering between her sloppy roaring boss and her priggish husband George, an eminence in Republican politics who has lately taken to tweeting “point of order” at Trump. “I have four kids,” Conway says, “and I was getting them out of the house this morning to talk to the president about substance.”
The segment might have ended in any number of places—the insert of Bash and Conway’s high-heeled feet on D.C.’s flagstones, some moment of on-message reverie in the offseason blueberry fields outside Hammonton. But because Trump and his team have called Conway’s husband “a total loser” and a “stone cold loser” and a “wack job” whom Trump “doesn’t even know” the segment expands to enfold that tension. “I thought it was him being Donald J. Trump,” Conway says. “I thought it was clever.” Conway tells Bash that she would not be interested in doing a joint speech/playfight “at Harvard” in the Carville-and-Matalin style, not because she and her husband disagree only on their willingness to notice that Trump’s brain is a pail of moldy soup, but because doing so would “give him my power.”
There was a moment, in the days after Trump’s initial salvo against Conway’s husband, when all this was considered quite interesting. The Washington Post reported that George Conway and Trump had in fact met multiple times, and that Trump even offered him a spot on the Trump Tower condo board. Beyond or beneath the impossibly tiresome Rich Person Gossip element attached to every Trump story, though, there was something interesting here. It wasn’t the two mediocre rich people from New Jersey having a proxy spat about immigration in which one circuitously argues the We Must Be Open To Limiting Population Flows side and the other testily and repeatedly refuses to disavow the Exterminate The Invading Wave Of Inhuman Vermin one. The interesting part was what, in the words of Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick, the couple’s outwardly fraught dynamic says about “questions of complicity and enabling.”
“What if there is a rest stop, just past empty political theater, in which you genuinely cannot live with your partner’s complicity?” Lithwick writes. “I continue to fail to understand how Trump’s key enablers get to swan back-and-forth between the public sector, the academy, the media, and the White House, even while decrying his other enablers for their enabling. But the Conway marriage has become an example of something different. It’s a natural experiment in what can happen when attempting strategic silence becomes soul-destroying.”
Lithwick is very smart, and considers these important questions in an intelligent and searching way, which only makes it more bleak. Not just because of how repellent and oafish everyone is, although there’s that, but because of how clearly those important considerations do not apply to people in this milieu. The power industry has always been self-centered and self-congratulatory, but in its bloated ongoing baroque phase the old petty bullshit has burst out of the subtext to become the text itself. The squabbling and side-taking and posturing, which is all Trump really has it in him to care about, bellows along nonstop at the center of the discourse. Bigger things are still happening, of course—horrible things, including towering historic crimes that raise real questions of complicity and enabling about everyone working to bring them about—but those things are not what this particular TV show is about. It’s about the sprawling cast of grotesques and watching them fight. It’s about their grasping and wild deceit, who they’re willing to hurt to get to the top. It’s a perfectly Trumpian competitive-reality dynamic, exactly as arbitrary and blithely sadistic as its author, except no one ever really gets kicked off.
It is hard to know what exactly CNN had in mind with Badass Women Of Washington, but the Conway profile plays as a sort of sizzle reel for the TV job that awaits her when she decides to leave Trump’s employ. Conway has lied with vigor and venom in defense of the sprawling crimes that her TV-addled boss regularly has initiated on various sour whims, but she has also tried to make every one of the hapless lies he helplessly tells seem true. Her knack for that rotten work is what makes her useful to Trump, but it is only part of what will make her rich on television whenever the time comes. She will stick around because she is fluent in the language of euphemism that D.C.’s permanent class speaks in professional settings, and because she is a recognizable Power Player.
It is that last bit that matters most. To rise in national politics at this broken and bought-off moment demands a certain comfort with serving power regardless of its demands; to rise in Trump’s orbit requires a willingness to prioritize that over every other thing. But once you’re in the show, you’re forever. For those who rise high enough, D.C.’s think tanks and lobby shops and cable networks make up the nation’s only fully functioning social safety net. Kellyanne Conway will never be in jeopardy; when she leaves, Sources With Knowledge Of The Situation will speak up for the work she did behind closed doors, for the ways she managed and moderated the roaring powdered dip watching Raymour & Flanigan commercials on a big TV in the most powerful office on earth. Those sources will mention that she quietly marshaled arguments against the more overtly exterminationist voices in Trump’s orbit. They will note that—not always, not always in ways you could see—this Badass Woman got results.
How bad do you have to be to not get this sort of treatment? It is already happening for Kirstjen Nielsen, who spent the last few years implementing and administering Trump’s quixotic but ambitious ethnic cleansing program at the Department of Homeland Security. When she resigned under duress this week after years of getting reamed out on the phone by a president who lives in fear of Lou Dobbs calling him a pussy on television, Nielsen was faced with an uncertain future in the private sector. Her years of experience overseeing an industrial-scale child-theft organization will eventually be enough to get her a job at one of the think tanks advocating those policies or lobbying for one of the private companies that aim to profit off them, but for the moment there is the question of optics. Nielsen, Jeffrey Toobin said somberly on CNN, “was a reasonably admired bureaucrat. For the rest of her life people will look at her and think, ‘Oh, that’s the woman who put children in cages.’”
Nielsen and Sources With Knowledge Of The Situation have given the requisite quotes about the times that she counseled moderation or talked Trump down from various manias. “I think Nielsen has been treated unfairly,” a former George W. Bush DHS staffer named Thad Bingel told Politico. “A caricature was created by people who oppose the way the President talks about immigration or who even oppose current immigration law that’s been on the books for decades—and that caricature is nothing like the person she actually is.” There is a bleak comedy to how ghoulish this all is, both in its familiar specifics and the outlandishly lurid brazenness of arguing that the woman who lied to congress about the existence of the government-sanctioned kidnapping program she was then orchestrating isn’t who her opponents say she is.
Bleaker still is that there’s every reason to believe that it will work. Kirstjen Nielsen, like her predecessors and successors, has already demonstrated that she is unfit in the most elemental way to work in American politics. She did this simply by doing her job. And yet, simply by virtue of having had that job, she is qualified to stay around in some capacity or other. It was lame and unmerited when Carville and Matalin received their unofficial lifetime contracts to tussle and twinkle about their respective sets of hacks and horrors, but they were understood rightly or wrongly as professionals working for professionals. Nielsen botched the rollout of a mincing authoritarian’s ethnic cleansing gambit, and while she did so as one of the employable professionals on her political side, there is no veneer of professionalism that could prettify any of this—what she did is plain to see, and plainly beyond any pale. And yet the old apparatus stirs into action on her behalf. There will be some institute or institution for her; Elliott Abrams held similar jobs for decades after suborning appalling war crimes in the Central American countries that now send migrants north, and he might well get the chance to do it all again. Nielsen may have to wait, but she won’t have to leave. As everything that was supposed to endure corrodes and crumbles, it reveals what is actually permanent.
Here is how Kellyanne Conway’s segment in CNN’s Badass Women Of Washington ends. She talks to Dana Bash about how difficult it was for her kids to accept D.C. as their new home. And then the scene shifts back to New Jersey, as Conway brings her kids down to her childhood home, 110 miles south of the suburban Jersey manse that is the family’s non-D.C. residence, to remind them where she came from, and of What Really Matters. The kids seem nice enough, and Conway’s daughter says that she thinks about her mother’s childhood all the time. It’s hard not to think of it while watching the abject spectacle of it—to think of the long-gone insecurity of Conway’s old life, of her vast ambition and talent before it curdled into its current shape, of the low home with saints on the walls to which Conway can only return as a visitor. Her home is elsewhere, now.