I had to do a lot of googling to remember more than a few vague details about Sean Spicer, the first of many White House press secretaries who served under the Trump administration. I could barely recall that Spicer had once claimed that Hitler “didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons,” or that he had amplified Trump’s baseless allegations that Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower during the 2016 presidential election. I did, however, remember Spicer’s original sin: lying about the size of the crowd that gathered at Trump’s inauguration at his very first press briefing. “Yesterday, at a time when our nation and the world was watching the peaceful transition of power, some members of the media were engaged in deliberately false reporting,” Spicer said (almost four years ago to the day!). “Photographs of the inaugural proceedings were intentionally framed in a way, in one particular tweet, to minimize the enormous support that gathered on the National Mall.”
With this easily disprovable—and somewhat tedious—lie, Spicer set the tone for the Trump years. He established that the administration would create its own narratives and bend reality to conform to them, insisting that what we had seen with our own eyes was false. Spicer made it evident that he would lie continuously, at every opportunity, and attack the press for reporting the truth. Spicer was also the first Trump administration official who made me realize that I would be required to know them all, that they would each have a turn as—in popular internet parlance—“main characters” in the drama that would unfold over the next four years. For all that remains hazy in my memory of Spicer’s six months as press secretary, it has only become more clear to me that he foreshadowed the Ur-fascism of the administration, the logical endpoint of which is an event like the storming of the Capitol.
Predictably, the press secretaries who succeeded Spicer took his approach to new extremes, and executed it more competently. (Except for Anthony Scaramucci; we don’t count him.) Unlike Spicer, Sarah Huckabee Sanders was unflappable, spewing blatant lies in the same even tone as someone placing their order at a restaurant. Eventually she stopped hosting press briefings altogether. Stephanie Grisham became the first press secretary in U.S. history to hold none whatsoever during her brief tenure. And Kayleigh McEnany, in many ways, has outdone all of her predecessors by perpetuating Trump’s false allegations of voter fraud and contestations of the 2020 election results. Her ability to dissolve the president’s blatant lies and absurd inventions into a single consistent narrative has resulted in some of the most violent material consequences of the administration to date.
This was always to be the Trump administration’s program, whether or not Spicer was the first to champion it. But Spicer is notable for introducing what would be another major theme of the administration: while evil and morally bankrupt, the Trump players would also be bumbling and pathetic. In the cultural imagination, this is likely how Spicer will be best remembered: As the one-time White House Easter bunny; the man who wore his American flag pin upside down, and got fat-shamed by Steve Bannon; the former Trump official to appear on on Dancing with the Stars in this ruffled radioactive green costume; and the sole press secretary—to my knowledge—known for sustaining a five-year-long feud with Dippin’ Dots. Perhaps most pitifully, Spicer closed out the Trump administration by filing an application to join the White House press corps.
It’s hard to conceive of a punishment for Spicer that he could not manifest himself, by his own ineptitude and doltishness. But I consign him to this one: Working at that much-loathed ice cream chain of the future, Dippin’ Dots, at a kiosk in a suburban mall. Don’t get me wrong—this is certainly a job that can be done with dignity and self-respect. But not if you’re Sean Spicer, who fundamentally lacks these qualities.
Four years later, Spicer’s brief tenure is an important reminder that evil can be embodied in those who appear clownish and blundering without diminishing its potency. It may even be that the ideal vehicle for diabolical ends are those who appear as such.