In a New York Times Op-Ed last week, Frank Bruni, a beautiful, sharp writer with a solid and nuanced political bent, tried to describe the Kellyanne Conway effect. The piece was called “The Dark Magic of Kellyanne Conway,” and it’s a perfect example of how frighteningly unequipped the vast majority of Americans are to deal with what is playing out at the highest levels of government power. Bruni’s column is, in many ways, a fairly standard example of what makes him fun to read: it’s incisive and compelling and a little chic and a little titillating. In our brave new world, that’s a grave problem.
Bruni wrote, “I know dozens of people who despise her politics but are mesmerized by her performances.” History is no stranger to the aesthetic seductions of fascists. The oldest joke around is that, whatever you say about the Nazis, those Hugo Boss dusters were to die for. It’s a seduction that should be resisted. There is no glamour, no sexiness to what Conway does. “Dark magic” suggests two things: a kind of glittering, covetable power; and something unpredictable, enigmatic, beyond our understanding. The Kellyanne Conway playbook is not dark magic– it’s the predictable black sludge of authoritarianism. To an American audience, it reads like magic, because its sheer audacity– the incredible lie, doubled-down on and then magnified until the sheer force of its presence begins to imbue it with the sheen of plausibility– is not compatible with our collective political consciousness. We’re used to our politicians lying and trying not to get caught; when they do get caught, we are used to either Oprah-ready apologies, or neutral, family-and-God-blessing denials. We are not not used to them ennobling the lie by straight-facedly coining a Newspeak monstrosity like “alternative facts.” It sure feels like something dark and supernatural is going on– because it is completely unfamiliar.
To any audience that has lived under or studied authoritarianism, this is not magic. It’s business as usual. It does not suggest that Conway has access to some esoteric knowledge none of us possess. It merely means that she is willing and unscrupulous enough to play by rules any observer of the Putin years would recognize as simply the way things are done. The bad news is that it’s horrible and devastatingly effective. Because it is so far outside the bounds of good faith, decency, or transparency, it leaves people reeling, as if they had been struck by a magical force.The good news is there’s nothing mysterious or magical about it. It’s just a different playbook.
As Masha Gessen wrote, “It’s not just that both Putin and Trump lie, it is that they lie in the same way and for the same purpose: blatantly, to assert power over truth itself.” This is not about magic: it’s about brute force and dominance (again, not the sexy kind). Authoritarians are not about facts or reality or governance: they are about leveraging popular emotion, inventing reality, and dismantling legitimate governance. They are, fundamentally about power; in that zero-sum game, truth is not a value, but a tool to be wielded. It’s not magic. It’s strategy.
It’s the farthest thing from sexy, from the dark magic of glamour. It is a cold and boring and repetitive strategy (sometimes, behind the ghoulish, amped-up-suburban-mom TV makeup, you can glimpse the strain, not of moral contortion but of sheer, boring, brute repetition). It is the control, quantification, and leveraging of base emotions like fear and doubt into an alternate reality that is calculated to undermine everything else until all that is left is Kellyanne Conway and Donald Trump’s version of facts– a world in which she determines reality and he holds the nukes. That’s not dark magic. It’s the black sludge of rising fascism.
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