Last week on CNN, Anderson Cooper presented to viewers a short clip of Kellyanne Conway talking about Donald Trump’s wall. Or refusing to say, “wall,” to be exact. It was Cooper’s “Ridiculist” segment and on that evening, he said sometimes the one-minute piece writes itself.
Indeed. Next came footage of Conway, her tone cantankerous, strident and discordant and, frankly, looking irretrievably lost to reality, telling a CNN reporter that an opinion poll about the wall had asked the wrong question. Because it’s not a “wall.”
It was not vintage Conway. There was a stumblebum quality to it; this feckless attempt to shift the narrative, done with less heart and less dignity than used to define her. Conway is much less visible on TV these days and we’ll be sorry when she’s gone, as she surely will be, soon.
Conway has defined the Trump era on TV. In the same way that Paris Hilton defined the decade that ended in 2010. Hilton was the ultimate non-achieving celebrity who was rich and idle, insufferably self-absorbed and her antics were the perfect distraction in the post-9/11 period. Conway is the same sort of cultural watermark, the crucible of all insights into the meaning of stuff.
In a way, Conway actually introduced the Trump era to us on TV. Like the magician’s assistant, the glamorous female sidekick who distracts the audience and then goes “ta-da!” when the trick is complete, Conway sprung the Trump period on us with a grin and a lot of gumption.
Made Trump’s campaign manager in August, 2016, and the first woman to run a Republican presidential campaign, she was ubiquitous on TV speaking on his behalf. And she was considered adorable. Remember that? On Saturday Night Live, Kate McKinnon portrayed her in a skit called “Kellyanne Conway’s Day Off.” It was an affectionate spoof of Conway trying to spend time with her husband and kids but being continually interrupted to appear on TV and explain away something inflammatory that Trump said. In the skit, TV anchors were mildly exasperated by her ability to make the inflammatory sound merely inane.
Once in office, Trump appointed her counsellor to the President and The New York Times reported she would be the highest-ranking woman in the White House. Then things got hallucinatory, in a bad way, starting in January, 2017. Sean Spicer was obviously lying about the crowd size at the inauguration but Conway was on TV calling this lie an “alternative fact.” She repeated the term “fake news” too often. In February, 2017, she talked about “the Bowling Green massacre” on MSNBc, an event that never occurred.
By March of that year, Trump was suggesting – without evidence – that the Obama administration had wiretapped Trump Tower during the election. Conway furthered this claim by talking about "microwaves that turn into cameras.” By this time, SNL was portraying her as the scorned woman from the movie Fatal Attraction, demanding TV attention and promising terrible revenge if ignored. By the end of 2018, SNL was portraying her as Pennywise, the monster from the movie IT.
Conway is the Trump era from the election campaign to the climb-down over the wall and government shutdown, distilled into one figure. From grinning ingénue to mildly exasperating booster on TV to truth-denying fiend to outright monster. Vanities and vacuous ambitions have been revealed, like layers peeling away. And the arc of it all is the treatment of truth and reality.
Conway began as a slick apologist for Trump and then eventually became something far more sinister as the truth was denied by her, over and over, as being true. It all began to transcend parody and now the roll-your-eyes reaction to her feels like something to be ashamed of.
After airing the footage of Conway on his “Ridiculist” segment, Cooper began mocking her, saying “I never called it a wall. Why, did you call it a wall? Who is calling it a wall? You’re calling it a wall? I didn’t say it was a wall? Did I ever say a wall? I don’t think I ever said a wall.”
It was funny for a minute. Then, not so much. Cooper treated the matter as if it were a comedy of embarrassment. Yes, Conway looked like she’d lost the plot. But the plot from the start was to deny the truth and that’s been done. It’s over. We’ll miss Conway when she’s gone, a little bit, and we’ll find another cultural watermark. We always do.