This week, Donald Trump furthered his assault on the free press when he revoked CNN’s Chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta’s press credentials. Acosta had committed the crime of asking a question that displeased the President (it was about the Russia investigation). Trump repeatedly interrupted Acosta as he tried to speak, intoning “That’s enough,” like a menacing father disciplining an unruly child.
When Acosta disobeyed, the White House brought out the big guns: a young, female intern in a pretty shift dress, decorative necklace, and shoulder-length blowout, who bore more than a passing resemblance to Hope Hicks. It fell to this hapless intern to serve as the “muscle,” to physically wrest the mic away from the reporter.
Acosta put the intern off gently with a “Pardon me, ma’am” (the incongruous use of ‘ma’am’ to address a twenty-something only underscored Acosta’s respectful politeness). Briefly deterred, but clearly feeling duty-bound to hover, the intern then resorted to the ignominious posture of squatting down between Acosta and the presidential podium, waiting to spring again. From the floor, she looked up nervously at Trump a few times, at a loss for how to handle this task that had likely not been in her job description.
Let’s take a moment to contemplate that scene and its implications: A young woman now found herself reduced to squatting before two men, waiting for the right moment to rise at the behest of one and deprive the other of a microphone — that (yes, phallic) symbol of political voice, of critique, of an informed public, of the power of the fourth estate. What better tableau to illustrate this president’s degrading, silencing, instrumental view of women?
I cannot help remembering a now-infamous remark Trump made in an episode of the Apprentice, when one contestant, actress Brande Roderick, admitted having begged on bended knee for some privilege on the show, he responded, “You dropped to your knees? Must be a pretty picture, you dropping to your knees.” (It’s worth watching the video to see Ms. Roderick’s barely contained revulsion.)
Eventually, Acosta was effectively stripped of his journalistic voice, relinquishing his symbolic instrument of power — the microphone — to the symbolic instrument of power preferred by Trump: a lovely, young, silent woman literally crouching before him. (At least Hope Hicks was permitted the privilege of a chair when Trump had her steam his pants while he was still in them.)
And now, using their trademark technique of reverse-projection (accusing others of precisely your own wrongdoing), the White House has contorted this dense little scene of female exploitation, aggression, and just plain vulgar rudeness into a disingenuous, faux “Me Too” moment and occasion for manufactured feminist outrage.
Having apparently doctored video footage to make it look as though Jim Acosta had physically resisted the intern (which he did not), they then accused him of inappropriate touching. Sarah Huckabee Sanders has claimed Acosta “placed his hands on a young woman” and Kellyanne Conway, in equally high dudgeon, agreed that Acosta had “swiped at” the intern. Both seemed gleeful for the chance to reverse the usual scenario and hurl accusations of sexual harassment at the media — instead of being on the receiving end of such accusations. (It’s hard to ignore that this intern, by visually recalling Hope Hicks, also recalls two Trump officials — both dated by Hicks — who have been credibly accused of violence against women: Corey Lewandowski and Rob Porter.)
The fake, non-existent crimes attributed to Acosta have been dreamed up, perhaps, to justify the administration’s very real misdeed of revoking his White House credentials for failing to kneel (metaphorically) before the Dear Leader.
Why now? Why would Trump and company choose this moment not only to silence a reporter so unjustly, but also to turn it all into a staged spectacle of feminist outrage on behalf of a young female intern who was herself being exploited and humiliated — not by Mr. Acosta, but by the White House?
The answer comes quickly: The GOP has not only just lost control of the House, it lost it to over one hundred new female voices of power. A new army of women is threatening to check Trump’s heretofore unchecked power, women who are not silent, not squatting before this president, and not just moving microphones from one man to another. On the contrary, they will be speaking into microphones themselves, and just maybe, silencing Trump (a little). How unsettling this must feel to him.
In response, Trump mounted that Orwellian, even surrealist press conference, affirming that failure equaled success and declaring himself “a great moral leader.” And while the story of Jim Acosta, the intern, and the lost press credentials is indeed troubling, even horrifying, let’s keep our eye on the prize: A legion of women is moving into the House, the balance of power is changing, and all this Trumpian stagecraft of silent, bowed women deployed in service of authoritarianism looks increasingly pathetic and fragile.