Reading recent headlines, one could easily mistake political conservatism for a kind of scarlet letter, the wearers of which are assailed from all sides by despotic leftists who use false accusations of racism to ostracize them from polite society. Pundits inveigh regularly against the injustice of this alleged mistreatment, reckoning only sporadically with the notion that racism accusations might be warranted for a political movement that’s survived the last 50 years by attracting racists, or that conservatives control most of America’s most powerful institutions — the White House, the U.S. Senate, the majority of governorships and state legislatures, and the most watched cable network on television, Fox News.
It’s especially hard to square this perception with the reality of this week: Three stalwarts of the Trump administration or presidential campaign — Sean Spicer, Kirstjen Nielsen, and Corey Lewandowski — have all made dramatic returns to public prominence on media platforms of national renown, as if they weren’t crucial abettors to the most flagrantly racist and dishonest president in recent memory — and in Nielsen’s case, culpable in the deaths of multiple children. If being publicly conservative in the Trump era does indeed presage pariahood, as many have claimed, then someone must have forgotten to tell the executives at ABC, Atlantic Media, and CNN.
On Monday, Spicer, President Trump’s first White House press secretary, debuted on ABC’s Dancing With the Stars, where he salsa’ed to the Spice Girls’ “Spice Up Your Life” wearing a neon-green tunic. Spicer’s relentless dishonesty with reporters during his seven-month White House tenure — he famously insisted that Trump’s inauguration crowd was the biggest in history, that nearly one-sixth of voters in 2008 were noncitizens, and that Trump’s since-imprisoned campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, played a “very limited role” in his campaign — was the public’s first brush with an administration that would defy precedent with the frequency of its lies. Spicer’s reputation as one of the most vocal defenders of Trump’s Muslim travel ban, among other policies, underwent a laundering within mere months of his White House departure, when he appeared on the Emmy Awards to joke about — what else? — the fact that he tells lots of lies. None of which has deterred ABC from paying him a minimum of $125,000 to appear on its airwaves in the coming months.
Tuesday, meanwhile, saw the Atlantic announce an updated lineup for its upcoming festival in Washington, D.C., billed as a showcase for “some of the most fascinating people in the world,” including “[the] biggest names in politics.” Among them will be Nielsen, Trump’s former secretary of Homeland Security, who before resigning in April oversaw the implementation of his migrant-family-separation policy, which systematized the removal of undocumented, mostly Central American children from their parents as a deterrent to future immigrants. These children were imprisoned indefinitely at detention camps, the conditions in which ranged from austere to filthy to lethal. One facility, in Clint, Texas, held 300 children despite having the capacity for 100 and drew nationwide outrage because its administrators were denying them toothpaste and soap. At least seven migrant children have died since being detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents under this policy. In the face of these atrocities, Nielsen, who will be interviewed onstage at the Atlantic Festival, has repeatedly lied about the Trump administration’s having a policy of family separation at all.
Lewandowski, who served as Trump’s campaign manager from early 2015 to June 2016, was called before the House Judiciary Committee the same day for questioning about whether Trump obstructed justice during the Mueller investigation. In addition to clearly relishing the opportunity to frustrate Democrats, Lewandowski is considering a U.S. Senate run in New Hampshire as a Republican, and he used the appearance to showcase his talents as a statesman. These amounted most notably to glib boasts about his personal dishonesty, as when he told his interviewers, “I have no obligation to be honest with the media,” in response to questions about whether he misled MSNBC reporters in February by claiming not to remember whether Trump asked him to push then–Attorney General Jeff Sessions to slow the Russia inquiry. Lewandowski was booked for an appearance on CNN soon after appearing before the committee. The network had hired him as a commentator shortly after his departure from the Trump campaign in 2016, but to have him on immediately after he bragged about having no obligation to tell them the truth seemed especially ill advised — not to mention that he used the opportunity to lie yet again, as could’ve been predicted.
All three appearances follow a pattern whereby media and educational institutions help former government figures transition from lives of administrative neglect, dishonesty, and violence to careers as TV fixtures or peddlers of expert insight on matters of national importance. This is not an exclusively partisan phenomenon — former Michigan governor Rick Snyder, the Republican who presided over the Flint water crisis, was offered a Harvard fellowship mere months after former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, the Democrat who helped hide information about Laquan McDonald’s shooting death by police from the public, got a job as a contributor at — where else? — the Atlantic. Nor is it inherently irresponsible to question such people in a journalistic setting; on the contrary, to do so can be a vehicle for accountability. But there’s limited utility in doing so with the impotence that’s defined many past media efforts to do so, and with individuals whose defining feature is shameless dishonesty in the service of racist, state-sanctioned brutality. That such a range of outlets are willing to grant them a platform anyway highlights the absurdity of the notion that being Trump-supporting reprobates costs conservatives much of anything.