Illustration: Elena Scotti (Photos: Getty Images)
There are many lowlights from the Trump regime, but there’s one in particular that will haunt me: Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the first mother to serve as White House Press Secretary, standing at her podium and announcing: “I’m not aware of the Attorney General’s comments or what he would be referencing; I can say that it is very Biblical to enforce the law.” She was responding to a question about Jeff Sessions’ defense of the Trump administration’s family separation law.
Along with Kayleigh McEnany, Sanders was one of two high-profile women who served as the Press Secretary under Trump, charged with advancing his narrative day in, day out. As opposed to the bumbling Sean Spicer, they did their jobs very successfully. (Stephanie Grisham gave briefings so rarely she never achieved the same name recognition as her fellows.) Sanders and McEnany were two sides of the same coin—one somewhat sullen, the other almost chipper as she painted the press corps as enemies of the people—women who both distinguished themselves as not just willing, but enthusiastic champions of Trump. Goodbye for now to the cheerleaders from hell.
As a 2018 profile in the New Yorker explained, Sanders was brought aboard the Trump campaign as a way to strengthen his appeal to women and evangelicals. Already experienced as a conservative campaign operative, she became a TV surrogate for him, delivering his pitch to white suburban women just like herself, and her aggressive posture on Trump’s behalf got her a gig in the White House communications department under Sean Spicer, replacing him when he left. It wasn’t just simply that she was willing to fight; as a 2018 Politico profile pointed out, her technique was as much about extinguishing fires by sucking the air out of White House briefing room: “The moment Sanders unleashes her trademark monotone, the energy drains.”
McEnany—also a familiar face on Fox News—followed the playbook left by Sanders, a very evangelical brand of combative, self-righteous femininity deployed to defend her boss’s every move and advance his agenda through the coronavirus and the generation election and will finish out Trump’s term.
While their personal presentation was vastly different, Sanders and McEnany are both the absolute embodiment of the white women who do their utmost to uphold white supremacy and patriarchy, who cheerfully do it in a brightly colored sheath dress, while flashing pictures of their kids and talking about how their most important job title is “mom.” When called out, they positioned themselves as innocent victims, virtuous women under attack by the mob; think of Sanders getting politely asked to leave a restaurant and both complaining on Twitter and devoting time to the incident from her podium. They were Trump’s cleanup crew, the ones who followed behind his Twitter tempests to bolster whatever claims their boss had made. “It is very Biblical to enforce the law,” said Sanders when asked about family separation.
And, too, Sanders and McEnany—as much as any other individuals in the administration—were his public-facing storytellers. Day in, day out, with discipline and the power of the White House briefing room podium, they advanced Trump’s narrative about how lying leftist media was the enemy of people. Even if Joe Biden could roll back every single policy ever adopted by the Trump administration on his first day in office, that legacy will live on, in a nation whose citizens no longer seem to agree on basic facts of reality.
Of course, they won’t suffer much for their role in all this—will anybody? They still have innumerable fans, and there’s always a job waiting at Fox News and the weird universe of the conservative conference scene. But the most fitting punishment for their work would be a lifetime of waking up from nightmares about being separated from their own children—to know, even for a moment, the absolute shrieking desperation of being unable to find them and to plead with a series of looming, stone-faced officials who just don’t care.