White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci contacted Ryan Lizza, a reporter from the New Yorker, and went on a profanity-filled tirade
against other denizens of the White House, including Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon. Almost immediately, talks shows were abuzz with delight, puzzlement or anger. Are there deep divisions in the White House? Was Scaramucci drunk? Why put on such an “embarrassing sideshow,” an “uncensored rant,” a “furious, foul-mouthed attack” against members of his own administration? Even friends of the administration found it an unwelcome distraction from the president’s agenda and the real business of governing.
Maybe all that’s correct. Maybe there are deep divisions in the White House, and we’re witnessing a battle for the soul of the administration. Maybe the president is as incapable of leadership as some of his harshest critics claim. Maybe Scaramucci is profoundly unfit for the job. Maybe.
But consider Scaramucci’s tweet in response to the firestorm he created: “I made a mistake in trusting a reporter. It won’t happen again.” Are we really to believe that the White House Director of Communications didn’t know that reporters aren’t to be trusted? That, if you feel the need to let off a little steam, you don’t call a reporter from a publication consistently hostile to your agenda to do it? Either Scaramucci is the most ill-qualified person ever to be appointed to a high post in government, and his tenure will indeed be “freakish, embarrassing, and all too short,” as Matt Taibbi thinks — “An alien crashed on earth and given a two-minute tutorial on dealing with reporters would have done a better job” — or something else is going on.
Here’s what I think. This wasn’t accidental. Scaramucci intended to send a message. Calling a reporter from a hostile publication and using profanity ensured that the message would get the attention he wanted it to get.
So, what was the message? It wasn’t just one. There were different messages for different audiences.
For Preibus and Bannon: I serve the president. I report to him. My job is to represent his interests. If I think you aren’t serving his interests, I’ll say so. And if I think you’re leaking information detrimental to the administration and its agenda, I’ll do my best to get you out of this administration.
For other administration insiders: You’re on notice. Leaks have been getting in the way of the president’s agenda. They have to stop. I’m on your trail, and I’m ready to see that you’re fired. I’m willing to be the turnaround artist, the guy whose job it is to get rid of you. I don’t care if that makes my position short-lived. It’s designed to be.
For Robert Mueller and his team: You’re on notice too. You are part of a Special Counsel investigation, not an Independent Counsel investigation. You’re part of this administration, and everything said above applies to you. You are not above the law. My job is to see that if you break the law, you are fired and sent to jail, and if that costs me my job, so be it.
For the Democratic Party, the media and the political junkies who watch TV news and talk shows: This White House is divided and in complete disarray. We don’t know what we’re doing. We hate one another. The president can’t lead.
Why would a White House Communications Director want to send such a message? I thought of Sun Tzu:
All warfare is based on deception.... Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him... Thus one who is skillful at keeping the enemy on the move maintains deceitful appearances, according to which the enemy will act. He sacrifices something, that the enemy may snatch at it.
There are reasons to feign disorder, to encourage the enemy to overreach. The Democrats’ chief political weakness is their tendency to overreach, to go far beyond public attitudes. Think of transgender issues — bathrooms, locker rooms, pronouns, military service, etc. — where the Democrats’ position, whatever merit it may have or lack, enjoys the support of a small minority of voters.
Finally, for those who follow political news only casually: Washington is a mess.
There’s a reason to send that message, independently of its tendency to increase voters’ distrust of government. The Trump administration is tackling some hard issues. Obamacare is a disaster, but reforming it is entitlement reform. That’s about as high as it gets on the political degree-of-difficulty scale. And the one who moves first suffers most. When most news programs are running with Russia — Russia — pushing granny off a cliff — Russia, what better than to get them talking about a feud between people the average voter has never heard of?
Maybe Scaramucci isn’t so clownish after all.
Daniel Bonevac is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin. Author of five books, most recently, "Ideas of the Twentieth Century," and editor or co-editor of four others, he has published over sixty articles in professional journals. He has also written for The Washington Post, The Critique, and The American Spectator. His massively open online course, "Ideas of the Twentieth Century," has enrolled over 50,000 students. He is co-founder of BriefLogic, a marketing communication firm. He is also a contemporary Christian musician and songwriter; you can hear his music on his daughter’s debut album, "Transfiguration." To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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