by Chez Pazienza
I write for a living. It's my job to conjure out of thin air or cull together words that form impressive -- or at the very least adequate -- descriptions of events and the people at the center of them. I'm paid to do this and it's therefore my responsibility to approach it with a sense of duty. And yet, despite all of this, over and over this election season I've had to admit that I can't come up with a way to even begin to describe the unbridled lunacy, the damn near-hallucinatory surreality of what we're witnessing. I've mentioned this kind of existential writerly crisis on more than one occasion, but even in doing that I felt like I was leaving something out. I wondered aloud during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland last month how, say, an H.P. Lovecraft or a Cormac McCarthy would describe the gruesome spectacle we were witnessing -- and I came up with nothing. Because even those mad geniuses, I think, would be at a loss for words with this thing. And every day I feel like it gets more and more ridiculous.
With that in mind, maybe I've been going about it all wrong. Maybe the only way to do this relentless absurdity any justice isn't with words -- it's with the completely absence of them. I've always believed that silence and white space and the areas in between what's stated out loud is what can often truly speak volumes. Maybe this is why a 26-second video clip that began making the internet rounds yesterday -- a clip that's mostly one long, agonizingly uncomfortable silence -- seems to sum up the totality of this election season better than anything any of us in the political press has said over the past year. Surely by now you've seen this thing -- more than once, in fact, given that it's so damn funny it practically cries out for repeat viewings. It breaks down like this: in the clip, we witness a bizarre confrontation between Trump campaign counsel and one of many comically inept Trump media surrogates, Michael Cohen, and CNN anchor and correspondent Brianna Keilar. It takes place at the very beginning of Keilar's interview segment with Cohen and the speed with which it goes completely off the rails is genuinely a sight to behold.
The clip starts, right off the bat, with a condescending, exasperated laugh from Cohen, letting you know that Keilar couldn't even get out of the intro to him before he objected to the way he and the campaign he was speaking for were being portrayed. Keilar begins talking about the recent shake-up within the Trump campaign, with Breitbart chairman and raging lunatic Stephen Bannon pushing aside Vladimir Putin's favorite fuck-toy, Paul Manafort, at the top of the Trump totem pole. "You say it's not a shake-up," she says, "but you guys are down." Her accent on the word "down" and accompanying authoritative hand gesture are meant to suggest that there's no wiggle room on this -- that she's stating a hard truth and it's bad news for Donald Trump. Given the facts of the race, this seems an incontrovertible thing to state. Apparently not, though, for Michael Cohen.
Cohen's response is as swift as it is thoroughly divorced from reality. "Says who?" he retorts, sharply and sternly. Keilar pauses for a minute, seemingly stunned by the question, then fires back with a bemused, "Polls... Most of them," then, with a quizzical lilt in her voice, "All of them?" And that's when it happens. Dead silence. Cohen says nothing. Keilar says nothing. Two people, side by side in separate graphic boxes on national television, just sitting there. It's as awkward as it is laugh-out-loud hilarious. It feels like it goes on forever. You can do your taxes and wax your car in this yawning gap in time and space. Finally, it's Cohen who breaks the tension, saying, yet again, directly and defiantly, "Says who?" Keilar's single-word response lands like a thud: "Polls." Then, incredulously, "I just told you; I answered your question." "Okay," he responds, "Which polls?" And that's when Brianna Keilar just destroys him. She nods her head for emphasis and raises an eyebrow and hits him with, "All of them."
It's comedy gold. Perfect television. But more than that, it drives home succinctly and powerfully what the ascendence of Donald Trump has meant to the nation and its discourse. With the age of absolute environmental curation now a fact of life, with social media allowing each and every one of us to only see or hear what we want to see or hear, it's possible to tune out reality entirely and exist solely within a bubble of perfect certitude, the product of confirmation bias. There's no need to comport oneself according to the strictures of so-called reality because it's entirely possible to make one's own reality, tailored specifically to a single individual. Michael Cohen's response to the empirical reality of polling data wasn't positive spin or even bullshit mathematical semantics, it was outright denial. It was a delusional disregard that such facts even exist in the first place.
What Cohen was doing and what others within the conservative epistemic bubble are likewise engaging in -- clowns like Fox News's Eric Bolling and Steve Doocy -- is a willful denunciation of hard evidence. This isn't a case of a few outliers taking facts they don't like and crafting their own lunkheaded opinions out of them, spinning straw into gold, as it were. This is objectively batshit, a denial that those inconvenient facts are a factor at all. If these people weren't highly paid news anchors and political operatives and were instead wearing straightjackets and remained confined to padded rooms and doped up on thorazine and lorazepam we'd see them better for what they are -- and no one would argue with it. We're talking about mental patients here -- or cynical hucksters preying on those who refuse to believe the world has moved on and left them behind and who see Trump as the last chance to get back what was lost. Either way, it's an unnerving proposition.
By the way -- it won't surprise anyone to learn that Michael Cohen thinks he handily won that showdown with Brianna Keilar. He doesn't see that he was humiliated and has spent 24 hours being a national laughingstock. He sees victory. "I think I unraveled her,” he tells Yahoo news, saying that he "controlled the interview."
Sure, why not. If you believe one delusion, may as well go all in.