reading the signs

Dancing With Reality

Sean Spicer and his castmates. Photo: Lou Rocco/Walt Disney Television via Getty

I really, really do not want to watch Sean Spicer dance on television, and in this I am not alone. Last week, ABC announced that Spicer, Donald Trump’s former press secretary and comrade-at-lies, would be joining its upcoming season of Dancing With the Stars, prompting a tsunami of outrage. Even the show’s host, Tom Bergeron, seemed to disapprove. But none of the many critics of this casting decision have gotten to the heart of what makes it so upsetting.

Some object to what Mother Jones has dubbed “the revolving door between reality television and the White House” (another example of which was Omarosa’s star turn on Say Yes to the Dress while she was still working for the president). This seems too obvious to cause distress. We’ve long known of the porous boundary between this White House and a soundstage. After all, Trump rode to power on his Apprentice fame.

Others are incensed because they see Spicer’s role on DWTS as unearned rehabilitation, a kind of moral bubble bath that all too easily and frothily washes off the taint of Trump. “Spicer should be on a permanent public blacklist, not in a televised waltz,” writes The Independent. “Sean Spicer doesn’t get to be a folk hero,” declared The Daily Beast. And the New York Times cautioned, “Don’t let Sean Spicer tap-dance out of infamy.”

But DWTS is a dance competition, not a magical portal to redemption. You can believe DWTS is mindless, lowbrow entertainment to be strictly cordoned off from presidential politics. Or you can believe a spot on DWTS represents so great an honor, such cultural acclaim, that the ignoble Spicer does not deserve it. But you cannot believe both of these contradictory arguments simultaneously.

What’s unsettling about all this actually lies elsewhere: in the way Spicer on DWTS offers a chillingly clear allegory of how we wound up in this Trumpian dystopia in the first place. My own dread of seeing Spicer on the show began simply with an intuition about his dancing skills, which was proven all too accurate on Friday when Spicer — invited to show off his moves — trudged through the boxiest of box steps with Ainsley Earhardt on Fox & Friends.

But then I realized that Spicer’s gracelessness (which he acknowledges himself) rankles for more than aesthetic reasons. That this man is deemed a suitable contestant for a dance show reminds us all of a deeper, more systemic problem: our country’s utter devaluing of talent, training, education, and expertise in favor of spectacle.

Most reality TV showcases “regular” people — amateurs pressed into service as television performers, risking humiliation for a chance at fame. Some prove amazingly adept at making us care about and, often, envy them (the Kardashians). Some depend more on eliciting a combination of prurience and pity (remember Honey Boo Boo?). Some shows do all of these things at once (the Real Housewives franchise). And a few actually feature genuinely talented unknown people and help advance their careers (Project Runway, American Idol).

Dancing With the Stars, though, is unique in that it pairs genuinely accomplished, professional performers (the dancers) with various celebrities (a term used very loosely) who usually have minimal knowledge of dance, no training, and little ability (the “stars”). The first group then exhausts itself to make the second group look plausibly competent.

The term stars on Dancing With the Stars never applies to the brilliant dancers, who rightly deserve the appellation. Instead, in this inverted, upside-down world, the stars are the people with no background or ability, who are propped up and allowed to pretend they are dancers. True, some are pretty good, but the real fascination of the show is with the people who are so obviously NOT dancers — people like former representative Tom DeLay, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, and former teen mom and abstinence activist Bristol Palin, all of whom have been contestants. Much of the entertainment value of DWTS derives from the unlikeliness of these folks on a ballroom floor: their ungainliness, the constant threat of their humiliation, the precariousness of it all.

This reveals precisely how Trumpville works. People with no training, expertise, or particular ability came into power and for a long time were propped up by the vast team of professionals who serve in government. Alas, those people are being steadily fired or are leaving en masse. (Among hundreds, we could cite the resignations of Jim Mattis and John Kelly, or the recent decimation of the USDA’s entire staff of scientists.) In their wake, we are left increasingly praying that rank amateurs (judges who’ve never tried a case, clueless Cabinet secretaries, etc.) can keep the ship of state afloat. As desperate as this situation is, could it be that we also find it — gulp — entertaining? Does it tap into the same impulse that makes DWTS a success?

I think the answer is yes. A show like DWTS not only confirms but encourages our tendency to find recreation in watching amateurism promoted above talent, ability, and training. It reinforces, wittingly or not, the part of America’s psyche that disdains “experts,” which conflates the admiration of merit and training with snobbery or elitism. But it is not “egalitarian” or “democratic” to lose the ability to discern and admire excellence and talent, just as it is not helpful to give every student an A or every child a prize regardless of performance. It is in fact dangerous to stop admitting the existence of skill and competence.

Trump’s being president at all is proof of this. As is the fact that the government has slowly been stripped of most of its experts. And the fact that we keep discussing the “likability” of presidential candidates instead of assessing their credentials. Perhaps, too, as with Dancing With the Stars, we are perversely fascinated by the ever-present possibility of total disaster — the crash and burn. But this is a catastrophic impulse we must resist, for indulging it in matters of high-level politics, such as selecting a president, could cause casualties far more dire than a botched tango or pulled muscle.

It’s fun to watch Dancing With the Stars, but you wouldn’t fire the entire New York City Ballet company and replace it with the cast of World Wide Wrestling. Yet, in a sense, that is what we have done with our democracy. The American citizenry is now watching our country’s reputation disintegrate and its moral compass collapse, while our nondancer president tries vainly to convince us he is Fred Astaire. Watching the hapless Spicer cha-cha will be far too close a reminder of this other terrible scenario unfolding in our government. Spicer’s dance gig, that is, creates a microcosm of a far graver casting error happening on a far vaster scale. No wonder we’re all so upset.

Dancing With Reality