Anthony Scaramucci being interviewed by Emily Maitlis. Credit: twitter.
When Emily Maitlis of BBC Newsnight landed her first (and possibly as it transpired, her last) interview with the then-incoming Head of Communications for the White House, Anthony “the Mooch” Scaramucci, she could have had little idea beyond her briefing notes what to expect. What viewers actually saw and heard wasn’t just a bad omen of things to come, but an exercise in that peculiar blend of undisguised contempt and ferocious masculine-driven competition that has become a decisive marker of the violent underpinnings of Donald Trump and his administration. Women beware.
Scaramucci rose to the occasion of having a well-trained and well-mannered BBC female journalist in front of him by attempting to cut her down to size. He repeatedly pointed and stabbed his finger at Maitlis. He seemed to want to pat her on the arm, perhaps intending to infantilise her as ‘just a girl.’ Eventually he did touch her on the hand, thereby breaking all the normal etiquette and disarming her for a moment. Successful working women like Maitlis might have gotten to the top, but she still needed to be reminded of the ‘natural’ pecking order.
There are at least three political issues entangled with one another in this kind of media spectacle. The first is the fact that a right-wing faction in government is having to contend with the presence of professional women on its home turf. This is something that neo-liberalism has already found a way to manage through recourse to ideas of ‘leaning in,’ thereby—at least to some extent—adjusting to this phenomenon. Not so the harder right which forms a key element of Trump’s support.
Secondly, these kinds of gladiatorial televisual knockabouts form a deliberate part of Trump’s approach to political communication. In similar fashion, a few days after Scaramucci’s interview with Maitlis, presidential adviser Stephen Miller went head to head with CNN’s Jim Acosta who asked him a question from the floor about Trump’s proposed new legislation on immigration. Miller accused Costa of “cosmopolitan bias” and was hailed by Breitbart News for his “evisceration” of the journalist. These performances are deliberate—gauged for their entertainment value in a presidency that’s increasingly defined by those standards, but sophisticated as a form of propaganda.
The third issue is Trump’s flagrant debunking of the law and the surrounding institutions of the state, and his disdain for the scaffolding of liberal democracy. In this environment, gender equality is a scornful thing.
Each of these factors played out in the Maitlis interview and thereafter. Indeed Scaramucci showed himself to be supremely talented in this respect, delivering his jabs with smiles and nods to the camera while displaying a prowess well beyond anything he learned at Harvard Law School or on Wall Street. And therein lies the danger: by converting news to entertainment, the actors involved may, at least to some extent, be exculpated from the gravity of their deeds. This weakens our capacity for the depth of critique that’s required in the present moment. It adds levity in a context where democracy is in peril.
Sticking close to Trump’s Presidential campaign script, Scaramucci accused Maitlis of elitism, and referred to the political classes in Washington DC in the same way, aiming to elevate Trump and himself as champions of the ordinary working-class man or woman. His straight-talking style and claims to authenticity on the basis of growing up on New York’s Long Island are part of a repertoire of reaching out to Trump’s political base over the heads of the professional class. While Trump’s constituency may not watch Newsnight, they surely would have appreciated Scaramucci’s ability and willingness to throw a metaphorical punch in clips that were widely circulated on social media.
These claims to authenticity are part of the ‘we the ordinary people’ ‘Born in the USA’ rhetoric of many Trump voters. Such self-mythologizing is buried so deep in the white masculine working-class psyche of modern America that it resonates even when the carrier of the message is a man in a Wall Street suit. The Mooch was happy to explain to Maitlis that—while most of his counterparts in Washington DC were backstabbers—at least he and Trump were more honest: ‘we do it in the front.’ Five days later, and under the direction of the President’s new Chief of Staff John Kelly, he was forced to step down.
But the question remains: what was Maitlis to do under these circumstances? Who was guiding her through her earphone? She was on duty, so presumably her professionalism stopped her from asking Scaramucci to desist from making so many stabbing gestures with his hands. The question of what to do when etiquette is broken like this in a blatantly macho way is one that must surely reverberate for many women journalists working in and around the White House under the current administration.
Where rules are flaunted on such a regular basis, new and insidious forms of sexism must be high on the agenda. Just a few weeks previously and while awaiting a call from the newly elected Irish Prime Minister, Trump called a young woman forward from the Irish contingent of the Washington DC press corps and congratulated her on her smile. She could have refused his invitation on the grounds that this was not a beauty pageant, thereby showing how inappropriate a comment this was to someone taking part in her professional duties. Would she have lost her job? Surely not. Again it was a way of reducing a woman down to size.
All of this is redolent of the showmanship underpinned by menace that’s practiced by other right-wing leaders like ex-Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi who, like Trump, also recognized and utilized the power of TV entertainment in politics. Berlusconi felt no need to restrain himself when demeaning women. Their very presence warranted a comment in public that all could hear, whether one of approval or otherwise.
In these many small but significant actions, we see a disavowing of all the measures taken to ensure gender equality in and across public life, in media institutions, and in departments of the state. Coming from heads of government or their appointees, these actions and their signals are all the more important, seeking as they do to give legitimacy to what is happening, though Scaramucci’s performance in his interview with Maitlis pales in comparison to his expletive-driven comments to New Yorker journalist Ryan Lizza which led to him being fired. Reportedly Trump himself did not object to Scaramucci’s foul-mouthed tirade—“I loved it” according to the New York Post. Perhaps his daughter and his wife were not impressed, but it was Kelly who insisted that he be sacked.
Trump’s particular brand of authoritarianism relies on the popularity of various media genres to give it legitimacy, even in adversity, and even when the White House is struggling to meet any of its policy objectives. No one will ever be able to watch The Apprentice again and see it as harmless fun. Perhaps more complicated is our psychic attachment to genres like The Godfather, The Sopranos, or Martin Scorsese’s cinematic masterpieces of New York’s gangster-land like Mean Streets, Goodfellas and Raging Bull.
These were the same kind of guys, the same ‘goodfellas’ who talked in the exact same way about women, and who were only truly at home in the strip club. Cut women down to size with a few violent expletives. Refer to each other in the language of the locker room where the real guys hang out.
Maybe they endeared themselves to us because they seemed to belong safely in the past. Sadly, it’s time to think again.