In the Land of Willful Amnesia

Sean Spicer lied with impunity. The White House applies revisionism to even the most recent of histories. Americans are constantly being asked—and constantly being primed—to forget.

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There may be no place cheerier, in the America of the present moment, than the Instagram feed of Sean Spicer. The former White House press secretary, embarking on the tour to promote his new book, The Briefing, has been, by all appearances, having a distinctly delightful time, and @seanmspicer has offered, post by post, evidence of all the delight. The feed is populated with various images of the indefatigable politico—#cantstopwontstop, he hashtags several of his grams—smiling from TV and radio studios, yukking with interviewers, hitching a ride on a private jet with Donald Trump, Jr., posing with Laura Ingraham, and appearing on the Today show in a mock-briefing room produced especially for the occasion. One of Spicer’s latest postings, a multi-image summary of the $250-a-head book party held for him in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday evening, eschews the #cantstopwontstop tag for a series of alternatives: #booklaunch #booktour #thankyou #day1 #biggestcrowdever #period.

There is, in all this hermetic merriment, a certain perversity—one that the BBC’s Emily Maitlis pointed out, when she pointedly reminded Spicer during an interview that “you have corrupted discourse for the entire world,” but one that American media outlets have, for the most part, studiously ignored. The awkward truth, however, is this: Spicer, in his brief tenure as the nation’s publicist-in-chief, regularly lied, blatantly and blithely, to the public. (#Biggestcrowdever. #Period.) And yet he has, in his post–White House career, found himself on the lucrative speaking circuit and at a lucrative super PAC and at Harvard’s prestigious Kennedy School. There’s been talk of a talk show. And, now, there’s the book and its requisite publicity tour, which together have relaunched Sean Spicer into the national attention span, not merely evading accountability for the lies but indeed directly benefiting from them. As Spicer told my colleague McKay Coppins, at his #booklaunch: “I’m having a blast and enjoying this, and frankly I’m blessed by the amount of opportunities that have come my way.”

It’s a cycle that is as deeply familiar as it is distinctly lacking in virtue: Sean Spicer was, manifestly, bad at his job, but he was so bad at it that he was, in the more cynical sense, good. Because he was bad at it in a swaggering, sweating, unhinged kind of way that was, in spite of itself, entertaining: a way that got him mocked on Saturday Night Live and invited to cameo at the Emmys because it was, for whatever it lacked in civic utility, undeniably diverting. (So much drama, in those briefings! What would that guy say next?) Which led—the cycle is nothing if not efficient—to even more attention paid to him, which led to the kind of easy marketability that leads to, say, book deals and book tours and a situation in which, on his Instagram and out in the world, Sean Spicer #cantstopwontstop.

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“There are no second acts in American life,” F. Scott Fitzgerald, bard of indolent privilege, is said to have declared. He was wrong at the time, of course, and he is wronger still, today: There is, in fact, an epidemic of secondactism currently afoot in the country. Forgiveness and patience, those small, soft graces that might otherwise be at play in a story like Spicer’s—who among us hasn’t deserved a second chance?—now chafe against the blunt forces of willful amnesia. The 19 women who have accused President Trump of sexual misconduct have seen their testimonies consigned, for the most part, to the fog of failed memory as his presidency has continued apace. Bill Shine, the executive ousted last year from the Fox News Channel for his alleged enabling of a culture of sexual harassment at the network, was recently hired by the White House to run its communications and advise the president—a promotion that laid bare not only the Trump administration’s attitude toward the #MeToo movement, but also its capacity to disregard recent history.

Harvey Weinstein, similarly, has recently attempted a wade into the cleansing waters of revisionism: The man who will soon stand trial on charges of rape recently made a reappearance, via an article in the U.K.’s Spectator, that attempted to refocus the story about him back to his cinematic achievements. (The article’s author, Taki Theodoracopulos, proceeded to retract elements of that article—rewrites of history can take many forms—after they had been injected into the culture.) Larry Nassar, the U.S.A. Gymnastics team doctor convicted on multiple counts of sexual abuse against women and girls in his medical care, filed papers on Wednesday asking for a revision of his prison term, arguing that the judge who had sentenced him in January had not been impartial. (According to a settlement, 332 victims have come forward with allegations against Nassar.) Jim Jordan, the Ohio congressman accused of covering up the alleged sexual abuse of athletes when he was the assistant wrestling coach at Ohio State, is, far from resigning, rumored to be running for speaker of the House. The FBI agent who discharged his loaded gun while dancing in a bar, shooting and injuring a bystander? He is back, now, having been efficiently second-acted, able to firearm-frolic once more.

History may be written by the victors, but it is revised by them, too. And those in power—the ones who decide who will get second chances, and who, conversely, will not—are, on top of everything else, the stewards of the national memory. Hannah Arendt, considering the intersection of politics and language, was concerned not just for the fate of facts, but also for a broader possibility: that a “mixture of gullibility and cynicism” would make those facts—and collective memory itself—effectively irrelevant. People, she worried, might become so suspicious of each other that they would cease to accept the notion of meaningfully shared realities. Everything was possible and nothing was true.

Those fears are at play when Americans are constantly asked—constantly being primed—to look away, to be distracted, to cede attention, to forget. And when, whether through Sean Spicer and a revisionist publicity tour or through Donald Trump and a revisionist presidency, recency alone is presented as the salient fact of any matter. The new thing—the new book, the new job, the new scandal, the new tweet—becomes the thing. The shininess wins again. As when Sean Spicer tells an absurd lie on behalf of the brand-new Trump administration—and then, a little later, with the kind of impishness that so often accompanies impunity, treats that lie as a gauzy fact of a past that has been cheerfully overwritten. #Biggestcrowdever. #Period: It is no longer a great shame, Spicer is insisting, because it has been converted into a great joke.

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The revisionism is everywhere. New narratives arise to replace the old—#cantstopwontstop—with a striking frequency. The key word of the political discourse of last week, following the press conference (“disgraceful,” “disgusting,” “disturbing,” “nothing short of treasonous”) that found President Trump questioning the validity of U.S. intelligence findings in an apparent effort to capitulate to Vladimir Putin, was clarifications. He had said “would,” but meant “wouldn’t,” the president explained, reading from a prepared statement on Tuesday. Yes, but really no. Sort of a double negative. “I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place,” Trump said, unable to resist a clarification of his own clarification: “Could be other people also. A lot of people out there.”

And so, “in the span of three days,” PolitiFact summed it up,

President Donald Trump said he didn’t see why Russia would interfere with the U.S. 2016 elections, then he said he didn’t see why it wouldn’t. He gave Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin the benefit of the doubt, and then said he held him responsible for meddling. He said he thought Russia was no longer interfering with U.S. elections, then his press secretary said he hadn’t said that.

What was additionally striking about all this, however, was that the presidential whiplash was generally met, on the part of the president’s fellow leaders, with … relief. Acceptance. Acquiescence. Just kidding, the president had told the world, with his no-yeses and would-wouldn’ts and up-downs, as he suggested that the whole thing had been, somehow, a fever dream staged in the seventh circle of Helsinki—and his fellow power brokers chose to take him at his (latest) word. Senator Marco Rubio, relief-sighing in response to the presidential do-over: “I’m just glad he clarified it. I can’t read his intentions or what he meant to say at the time. Suffice it to say that for me as a policy-maker, what really matters is what we do moving forward.” Senator Rob Portman: “I’m glad he clarified his comments today. But I wish he had said it in front of President Putin and the world yesterday. I take him at his word if he said he misspoke, absolutely.”

I’m just glad he clarified it. It’s become a truism that, in this political moment—3,000 lies in 466 days—language itself, as a tool designed to reflect reality, has been steadily cheapened. The leader attempts to invent reality, and his publicist yells at those who point it out, and his adviser goes on Meet the Press and talks about “alternative facts,” and the words Americans once relied on to understand the world and their place within it get cast into history’s bargain bins. “Clarified” is one of those words. Used in the corrective sense—decision and revision and reverse, all at once—it takes on Orwellian dimensions: It has come to mean both itself and its opposite. The word that once connoted the polishing of something—dairy, diamonds, thought—into glistening purity now suggests, in the political culture, a certain sloppiness. And, indeed, the kind of willful revisionism that Sean Spicer has been relying on this week, and that Donald Trump relied on in the last: Put out the new narrative, wash away the old.

To “clarify one’s comments” often means just what it meant for President Trump last week: to get a do-over. To get, in fact, multiple do-overs, with no penalty (and, in fact, as his fellow GOPers suggested, with relief). The president’s multiple clarifications about Russia echo the multiple clarifications he made in the aftermath of the violence at Charlottesville, when he was asked to condemn Nazis and, over several attempts, could not quite bring himself to do it. They echo, as well, all the tweets issued forth from @realDonaldTrump whose claims nullified and reversed and overrode the account’s previous declarations. They suggest a situation in which it becomes, for the public, nearly impossible to keep track of which is the most recent draft. They hint at a situation in which the public might give up trying.

The Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen recently clarified—which is to say, reversed—comments she’d made, herself, on Russia’s hacking of the American election. Mark Zuckerberg recently clarified comments he had made about Facebook and the Holocaust. Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons, responded to criticisms of the show’s egregious stereotyping of Apu with a series of dismissive comments on “outrage culture”; he later clarified that his comments were not “specifically about Apu,” but instead “about our culture in general.” Henry Cavill clarified the callous thoughts he had shared about #MeToo’s inconvenient encroachment on his dating life: Superman, doing his best to turn back time.

Last month, Bill Clinton, at the tail end of the publicity tour for the novel he wrote with James Patterson, made an appearance, with Patterson, on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. During the conversation, Colbert asked about the now-infamous interview the former president had given, at the start of his own book tour, to the Today show—an interview in which Clinton seemed both surprised and indignant to have been asked the most predictable question in the world: about Monica Lewinsky, about power and its abuses, about the dimensions of Clinton’s own #MeToo reckoning. Would Clinton, Colbert asked, like a do-over of his Today response? And: Yes, he would, the former president suggested, going on to claim—with no evidence—that the Today interview had been edited to take his words out of context and going on to reveal, effectively, how little self-reflection he has done in response to #MeToo.

How many tries does Bill Clinton need? How many tries will he get? The answer may well be the same as the one afforded to Trump, and to Sean Spicer, and to the many other people who benefit from the easy inertias of the status quo: As many as it takes. As many as he needs. Scott Fitzgerald, unfamiliar with the rote mechanics of the 21st-century media machine, couldn’t have fathomed how many second acts would in fact be available for the taking in American life. He couldn’t have realized how many second acts would stretch to become the third and fourth and fifth and sixth. He couldn’t have anticipated how easily even recent history could be made to recede from view. “I think that probably clarifies things pretty good by itself,” President Trump told an addled nation last week, of his exceedingly complicated relationship with Russia. His comments clarified little, of course; but what this particular leader understands so well is that, for his purposes, they didn’t need to. Soon enough, after all, he—along with the people in his orbit—would be on to the next thing.