Some of us have been wondering exactly what victory in the Culture War would look like. Well, now we know what Trump country thinks victory means. God help us, it looks like this.
That’s Sean Spicer, former White House press secretary, clomping his way through a routine on Dancing with the Stars, where he remains in the competition week after week, as much better dancers are booted off, thanks to call-in votes from a legion of Trump fans.
I supposed they imagine they are striking back at the elites and “owning the libs,” but the only people to whom they are causing pain and distress is fans of ballroom dancing. And people with taste, generally.
This is a microcosm of everything that’s wrong with the Trump era.
I’m not dunking on Sean Spicer for being a bad dancer.
I mean, he is, and nobody really disputes this fact. But there have been plenty of bad dancers on Dancing with the Stars. Part of the charm of the show is that it draws celebrities from a wide variety of contexts and gives them all a chance to show what they can (or can’t) do. Sometimes the audience keeps them on for a while just because we like them.
For instance, Steve Wozniak was objectively a worse dancer than Spicer, but who doesn’t like The Woz? So he stuck around through Week 4. But we’re now into, what, Week 8? This is the point at which the other contestants are starting to get really good, and we’re eager for them to stay on and show us what they can do next week. Pity votes typically aren’t enough at this stage to keep an underperforming contestant on the show.
So why is Sean Spicer still on DWTS?
Because Trump supporters decided that voting for Spicer was their way to teach Hollywood a lesson.
About what? I don’t think they know, really. At least not one a conscious level. Maybe it’s a lesson about the fact that Trump supporters feel persecuted and believe that Hollywood hates them, so they’re going to hate it right back. These people don’t seem to know, or care, whether Spicer is a bad dancer. They’re just voting out of spite.
Honest-to-goodness straight reports at Fox News describe the show’s professional judges as being “triggered”—a favorite term among the posturing anti-PC right—by Spicer’s continued presence on the show. The New York Post‘s Andrea Peyser describes all of it as just another skirmish in the Trump Wars:
Votes for Spicer are, in many ways, a metaphor for what middle America thinks of Donald Trump.
Week after week, Dancing with the Stars judges say Spicer, 48, should go home. They, like Nancy Pelosi, know better. And week after week, viewers at home text in large numbers to save the president’s ex-aide—out of genuine affection, because it upsets the judges, or perhaps just because they’re sick of being told what to do.
Judging from the my Twitter feed, I’d say that Peyser’s reading is pretty accurate.
What set off Trump voters? Their excuse, as usual, is that the other guy started it. Hollywood was mean to Trump supporters by declaring that Spicer shouldn’t be allowed on the show, so they’re just fighting back. But Spicer has been on long enough to make that particular point. And these days he doesn’t even look like he’s enjoying it anymore. Each week, when the announcement comes that he’s still in, you can see the hollow, haunted look in his eyes. He knows he shouldn’t still be there, and I think he privately dreads the prospect of another week of public humiliation.
But consider the basis for the anger against Hollywood. The original offense seem to be a statement by DWTS host Tom Bergeron on why he didn’t want Spicer on the show. It wasn’t a criticism of Donald Trump. It was a plea to stop the politicization of everything. He said that he had hoped that the show “would be a joyful respite from our exhausting political climate and free of inevitably divisive booking from ANY political affiliations.”
For me, as a host, I always gaze into the camera’s lens and imagine you on the other side, looking for a two hour escape from whatever life hassles you’ve been wrestling with. That’s a connection, and a responsibility, which I take very seriously, even if I occasionally season it with dad jokes.
Bergeron’s warning was absolutely correct. Politics has now reached out and grabbed hold of our two-hour escape. As usual, Trump’s supporters complain this is all the fault of the left. And then—under the guise of fighting back—they do exactly the same thing, only worse.
The eventual cost of this episode might be the very existence of Dancing with the Stars.
The stars who appear on the show have always competed on a mixture of dancing skill and popularity, and the show depends on keeping those two elements in balance. The producers pick mid-level celebrities from such a wide variety of fields—sports, television, music, business, comedy—that usually no one contestant’s fan base is big enough to overwhelm everybody else’s, or to carry them through a series of cringe-inducing performances.
That delicate balance was already breaking down before Spicer. Last year, country music radio show host Bobby Bones won the competition despite the fact that he was less skilled than the other top competitors. Bones himself admitted that the reason for his victory wasn’t his dancing but “my people”—his large and energized radio audience.
This is partly a consequence of the show’s declining audience, from a height of 20 million to a current level of about 7 million. That’s still a lot of people, but not enough to keep one big voting bloc from tipping the scales.
In response to last year’s controversy, the show tinkered with its rules to give more weight to the judges’ scores over the audience’s votes—but this hasn’t been enough to overcome the even larger and more energized group of political obsessives who are backing Spicer.
This raises the very real prospect of a death spiral for the show: As the audience declines, it becomes easier for one determined bloc of voters to hijack the show for their favorite, regardless of skill—which in turn drives away more viewers, which then makes the competition even more susceptible to a hostile takeover.
And so a beloved show—and a remaining refuge from our toxic politics—may eventually be destroyed.
That’s what makes the Spicer-DWTS episode a perfect microcosm of the Trump era.
There is the contemptuous dismissal of elites and experts, even experts on dancing. There is the sneering dismissal of anyone who upholds any kind of standards, moral or esthetic, as “clutching their pearls.”
There is the chest-thumping self-image as fighters in a battle against imaginary enemies. (In this case, it’s the preposterous belief that a ballroom dance show with an over-60 demographic is somehow a secret bastion of the cultural left.) People voting for Spicer really think they’re “owning the libs” when they are just annoying the heck out of elderly ballroom fans.
There’s the way a mob of political obsessives comes stomping off of Twitter and recklessly does damage to an institution they know nothing about. And finally there is the supreme indifference to actual results—in reality—which must be subordinated to the illusion of scoring points in symbolic online fights.
I will give Spicer’s voters credit, though, for accurately capturing the spirit of the moment. A guy who can’t dance winning a dancing competition is the perfect analogy for the idea that a man who can’t govern might win re-election to the presidency.