Conway’s Game of Life

Here is one profile of Kellyanne Conway. Here is another. What did these pieces tell us that we didn’t already know? What is their purpose, other than to fill column inches? They recycle the same basic uninteresting facts about Conway and her rise, facts which anyone paying moderate attention to politics is already surely aware of. Nuzzi’s piece is mostly fluff, Ball’s is a little more serious, but they both fail to engage with the true subject at hand on anything more than a superficial level.

The political profile, complete with origin story, is one of the most worn-out cliches in the history of journalism. It exists because we would like to pretend that a present-day personality can be reverse-engineered by examining certain formative events in its subject’s history (“tough childhood,” “absent father,” etc.) This is journalism’s version of the “Great Man (or Woman) Theory of History,” a formalism in which personality is forged entirely in reference to the atomized subject and retains its primacy as the driver of events. Sometimes this works, but for the maneuver to pay off, the subject has to be someone actually interesting, a genuinely complex individual. This, Conway is not; to appropriate a Russian expression I’m fond of, she is as simple as a garden rake†. Since it is impossible to give three dimensions to something that has only two, both profiles founder on the inability of their subject to uphold their own conceit.

The truth about Conway that neither Nuzzi nor Ball explicitly acknowledge (though Ball hints at it obliquely) is that she is a shameless grifter, an unprincipled operator who rose on the strength of her consistent willingness to defend the indefensible. She is about as banal as a political operative could possibly be, utterly devoid of anything resembling ideas and lacking any capacity for meaningful self-reflection (c.f her cynical invocation of feminism when she is criticized, while doing everything to destroy actual feminism). If Donald Trump is the distilled id of conservative politics, representing its substantive essence, Conway, in all her bullshitting vacuity, is the perfect instantiation of its form. Insofar as she has any ideology, it’s the reflexive cruelty of the Republican lizard brain; her chief asset is her willingness to lie baldly and maximally and without any sense of shame about everything and anything.

In a political landscape prepared by Fox News and right-wing talk radio to accept without proof any claims that damn the correct liberal targets, Conway makes perfect sense. Why bother with explanations or arguments when those have never convinced anyone anyway (and which in any case Conway herself is utterly incapable of making even if they were available, which they aren’t)? In another era, she’d be the perfect Politburo member, cheerfully condemning excessive formalism as a counterrevolutionary tendency or singling out people with glasses-marks on their nose for extermination in the prison camps. An utterly conscience-free human being, she’s the consummate avatar of conservative ressentiment.

So, in herself, Conway is an empty signifier. She is as personally uninteresting as anyone could possible be. What she points to instead is the purposeful and thorough stupefaction of our society to the point where the ability to make the basic dinstinction between fact and fiction, truth and lie, has nearly vanished from the public sphere. Conway is the seed that blooms in the ground tilled for decades (mostly by the right, cynically employing the tools of the left) to reject the foundational premise, necessary for any type of progress, that such things as facts even exist.

This is the uncomfortable reality that Nuzzi and Ball would have done better to explore, but it would have required a level of analysis and examination of self-complicity that I’m not sure either New York or The Atlantic could sustain. Maybe if Ball were still writing for the now-defunct Grantland, there would have been a venue for that kind of work, but there doesn’t seem to be anymore. And that’s a shame, because the question of how we got to the point where a human-shaped void like Conway occupies a central position in our political discourse is far more interesting than examining said void for signs of intellectual coherence.

[†]: “простая и незатейливая как грабли” -старая Одесская пословица