(CNN)One of the jaw-dropping quotes that White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci recently gave the media was directed at press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
“The only thing I ask Sarah — Sarah, if you’re watching, I loved the hair and makeup person we had on Friday, so I’d like to continue to use the hair and makeup person,” he said in a CNN interview last weekend.
Scaramucci later tweeted that he was talking about his own makeup, not Huckabee’s. Maybe so, but we are skeptical.
That is because it wasn’t the first time that Scaramucci made this sort of bizarre comment, and has not been the last. After all, in his relatively short time on the Trump stage, the scrupulously groomed Scaramucci has already shown a strong grasp of his boss’s tactics. Key among them: power comes from packaging over policy. Indeed, he appears cut from the same cloth in many ways.
Why does this matter? In his new role, Scaramucci’s understanding of the power of appearances threatens to keep us reassured by a smoothly polished squad of front men (and a few front women) able to project competence and deflect attention from the President’s failures to move the country forward.
On Friday, Trump named as his new chief of staff Homeland Security Secretary General John Kelly, a man who fits neatly into the Trump ethos of order, control, and the appearance of power. The message here is seamlessness.
An earlier example of this showed why Scaramucci and Trump are on the same page. While being interviewed for a January story by New York Magazine writer Jessica Pressler, Scaramucci decided to ask Pressler her age. “You look good. No lines on your face,” he told her. Trump’s equally awkward recent comment about Brigitte Macron — “You’re in such good shape. She’s in such good physical shape. Beautiful.” — echoed Scaramucci’s pronouncement.
In December, The Washington Post reported that one factor President Trump was considering as he selected the members of his cabinet was whether candidates “look the part” (see Kelly appointment).
In February, someone who worked on Trump’s campaign told Axios that “Trump likes the women who work for him ‘to dress like women.'” “Even if you’re in jeans, you need to look neat and orderly,” the source said.
But according to the Axios report, the appearances of male staffers matter just as much to the President. He wants his representatives to be well-dressed, with “good physical demeanor, good stature, hair well groomed.”
Why is the President so focused on appearances? It should be clear by now that his approach to the presidency is to serve as entertainer-in-chief. For a real estate magnate with previous experience in boosting Nielsen ratings for reality TV, not running a country, the focus on keeping his staff camera ready seems to come naturally.
The country is grappling with life-or-death questions about how to structure our health care system, and North Korea is threatening a nuclear attack. But never mind. The President or one of his aides is constantly conjuring outrageous tweets and claims that attract our attention elsewhere — especially when the administration experiences an embarrassing failure.
Some of the diversions the administration creates are incredibly unusual — as impolitic as it was, Scaramucci’s vulgar interview with The New Yorker, in which he used sexual imagery and said(hyperbolically) that he wanted to kill people, may well fall into this category. But the underlying strategy is as old as politics itself.
Two thousand years ago, Roman emperors learned to keep people well fed and entertained with “bread and circuses” so they wouldn’t interfere too much in public policy.
Today, the show being put on by the Trump administration threatens to make us forget our civic duties, as well.
As citizens of a democracy, it’s important that we not let ourselves get drawn in by the show. We should react when statements like those of Scaramucci are inappropriate, but we also need to keep asking questions about and responding to the administration’s policy positions on the important issues facing the country, like health care and national security.
Scaramucci and Trump may be fixated on how the White House staff looks, but as citizens we need to keep our focus on how our country is looking.