Well, hello again, Kellyanne Conway! Jeeze-Louise, we missed you.
Tuesday night, White House counsellor Kellyanne Conway turned up on CNN for an interview with Anderson Cooper, and it was mind-bogglingly bizarre. Just like old times. Conway, absent from TV for months and missed as much as she was mocked for her Pravda-like propagandizing for Donald Trump, kept insisting that President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey on the sound advice of Deputy Attorney-General Rod Rosenstein. That's all.
Anderson Cooper rolled his eyes. Conway has that effect on Cooper and a lot of other TV journalists. The vaguely interested viewer, which is most people, really, had probably never heard of Rod Rosenstein. But they knew Kellyanne Conway. Conway is a star of formidable magnitude. And the conversation with Cooper was formidably heated, with Conway coolly insisting that Trump is not under investigation for any collusion with Russia and that this firing was about restoring confidence in the FBI. Meanwhile, Cooper got increasingly agitated.
Such nights bring out the best and worst of U.S. all-news cable TV. From the get-go, on both Fox News and CNN, voices were raised in alarm and balking umbrage, and there was a palpable sense of hysteria being barely suppressed.
It is fabulous television drama. It is gripping, vigorous and utterly without restraint.
What is beneath the surface is deeply disturbing, but the passionate interplay of propagandist assertions, with the truth being trammelled willy-nilly, is intoxicating stuff. On CNN there was care being taken about suppressing outlandish assertions. Nobody declared that Trump's firing of James Comey amounted to a coup. David Frum used the word "coup" on Twitter, but social media takes a back seat to live TV on nights such as this.
An FBI director fired. The President distributing a letter of witless, pitiless egotistical contortionism to justify the firing. Freeze the TV screen to read the letter and, intuitively, one heard every comedian who has mimicked Trump's strangely nasal, whining and boastful voice.
For a little while on Fox News, anchor Martha MacCallum was trying to keep things in perspective. MacCallum kept reminding the posse of pundits on her panel that some people might, you know, take a dim view of the President firing the FBI director. All that attempted equanimity disappeared when Tucker Carlson came on at 8 p.m. and informed his viewers that American democracy had been threatened by "unelected bureaucrats" like Comey and that the President had done the right thing. Carlson was almost going full crypto-fascist without apology. That's what makes Fox News what it is – bracing, bluntly partisan pro-Trump to the end.
The news about Comey's firing broke just as the late-night shows were being taped, which added a frisson that ended up being perplexing but revealing. Stephen Colbert began his monologue telling the studio audience the news. The response was bafflement; a mixture of cheers from people who, presumably, thought Comey had sunk Hillary Clinton's campaign, and booing from people who understood how disturbing it was. Colbert's show had been packaged in advance and featured the former gods of The Daily Show, including Jon Stewart, Samantha Bee and John Oliver.
After a pretaped, unfunny sketch about the old days, the gaggle of top political comics settled into reminiscing rather than tackling the news of the day. Lacking preparation and a team of writers, they were much less interesting than what was happening live on cable news.
Jimmy Kimmel turned up in his ABC show and started with, "Thank you for coming on yet another crazy day in the United States of America. Donald Trump – who, maybe you haven't heard is President – a few hours ago fired James Comey, the director of the FBI. He fired the guy who is investigating potential collusion between his campaign and Russia. Which is kind of like O.J. firing Judge Ito halfway through the trial. He fired the director of the FBI, while that director was investigating his people. This is unbelievable. This is the kind of thing dictators do. This is the kind of thing reality-TV hosts do."
And there, for a moment, was a comment saying something about what is beneath the surface and deeply disturbing – the alpha-male grotesquery of reality TV rhythms playing out at the highest levels of politics and power. Weirder still was the realization that, yeah, Kellyanne Conway is a lot of fun to watch.