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Before I start talking about Kellyanne Conway, I will state the obvious: She is a terrible engine of a terrible machine. She’s awful. I get it.
And yet, she is both fascinating and incredibly important. If our media and political machines don’t figure out what to do with her, we will be in that much more trouble.
Conway is laser-focused on her purpose, which is to promote the president, and she will let nothing and nobody stand in her way.
We’ll probably never stop arguing about why Trump won the election, but he would have been in no position to capitalize on, among other things, Hillary Clinton's failure to campaign in the Rust Belt and FBI Director James Comey's infamous October surprise — his letter to Congress about Clinton's emails — if Conway hadn’t already righted his ship in July and August. She was a brilliant manager of the candidate, the message and the campaign.
And now she is a brilliant communicator on the president’s behalf. Hold on, don’t start waxing indignant. Remember: She’s not talking to you. Did you see that outfit? With the feline buttons? This is a woman who does. not. care. what. you. think. Conway is laser-focused on her purpose, which is to promote the president, and she will let nothing and nobody stand in her way.
Consider the infamous “alternative facts” interview: Whatever Conway meant by the phrase, she does not back down, so she went with it — and so has the rest of the country.
But then, she made her signature move, the pivot, this time to her facts: “Do you think it’s a fact that millions of women, 16.1 million women…are in poverty along with their kids? Do you think it’s a fact that millions don’t have health care?” Chuck Todd continued to hammer on press secretary Sean Spicer’s lies, while Conway once again laid out Trump’s (counterfactual) vision of a disastrous America that needs to be fixed. She accomplished her goal.
Conway won that interview. She left Todd sputtering. And she will continue to do so. She is going to keep pivoting. She’s going to keep lying. She’s going to keep her cool. If the Todd interview is any indication, telling Conway she's wrong has no effect. So the press must up its game and demonstrate how wrong she is.
People hate Conway, for all the reasons I’ve described. I can’t hate her, though, because I am in awe of her. In awe of her audacity, her bravado, her canards, her denials — I could write an alphabet of Conway awe. But here’s the thing about awe: One can be in awe of something terrible. In fact, that awe is at the heart of the sublime as described by Enlightenment philosopher Edmund Burke, the father of true (non-Trumpian) conservative political philosophy. And the sublime is key to thinking about Kellyanne.
What we need to do is take Kellyanne Conway very seriously and figure out how to battle her on her own shapeshifting terms, on the terrain of the sublime.
Just as Burke described the sublime in "On the Sublime and Beautiful," so we can describe Conway:
"Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime."
Elsewhere in his text, Burke writes:
"For sublime objects are vast in their dimensions, beautiful ones comparatively small: beauty should be smooth and polished; the great, rugged and negligent; beauty should shun the right line, yet deviate from it insensibly; the great in many cases loves the right line, and when it deviates it often makes a strong deviation: beauty should not be obscure; the great ought to be dark and gloomy: beauty should be light and delicate; the great ought to be solid, and even massive."
Conway is not just sublime; she confounds all our categories, and that is why she is so very dangerous. Hate her all you want, but if we keep acting on the premise of hatred, we’ll get nowhere. What we need to do is take Kellyanne Conway very seriously and figure out how to battle her on her own shapeshifting terms, on the terrain of the sublime.
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