Sarah Huckabee Sanders in 2018 and Joseph McCarthy in 1954.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders in 2018 and Joseph McCarthy in 1954.

It's clear that we're well beyond the point at which a single rhetorical question can make all, or really any difference in establishing the villainy of people who routinely abuse their power in public. Still, seeing Sarah Huckabee Sanders first cast aspersions on reporter Brian Karem for asking a question about whether the reality of children being stripped away from their resourceless parents awakens any human feeling whatsoever in her as a parent ("Settle down... I know you want to get some more TV time"), then simply refuse to acknowledge that a question has been asked—well, it shouldn't be shocking anymore, but goddamn, that face of hers! Look at what it costs her to wear that mask, and to speak as though anyone is capable of believing a word she says.

Today wasn't the first time someone had prevailed on her to act like a human being might act (if a person were in fact a person), but it was far more revealing—partly because unlike when the kid asked her about making schools safe, she didn't even bother to do the feelings burlesque this time, and partly because whoever's in charge of making casting decisions in the Trump organization saw what happened today and started eyeing the trap door button.

The question of whether Karem's question was a performance (or, as people insist on saying these days, was "performative") is an interesting one. First of all: of course it was. Sanders's cynical posturing aside, they were on television, and he was/is a reporter asking a public question of a White House Press Secretary that he knows full well she won't answer with any sincerity, because her job is to stand at the helm of a sincerity vacuum and continue to speak as if sincerity could possibly exist in it. She is the worst kind of performer: committed but defensive, a piece of Plexiglas impersonating a bulletproof windshield but unable to acknowledge its own transparency.

Her refusal to answer was almost certainly a sign that there is still an atom or two of Anakin Skywalker left under that nightmare helmet, not that anyone will be around to remove it by the time the flames have begun to consume this administration.

So, yes, duh, Karem's question was a performance, and in that sense a variant of fiction. But it was a good performance, motivated by something meaningful, and therefore a useful fiction, one that does the necessary trick, to paraphrase Chekhov (because who doesn't love a Russian in 2018 Washington?), not of solving the problem, but of doing what an entire internet full of pundits, commentators, and politicians expends infinite energy refusing to do: stating the problem correctly.

Welch, McCarthy, and Cohn, June 9, 1954.
Welch, McCarthy, and Cohn, June 9, 1954.

That's exactly what attorney Joseph Welch did 64 years and five days ago, on June 9, 1954, when he faced Senator Joseph McCarthy (and his henchman/chief counsel, future Trump mentor Roy Cohn) on live television from the Senate caucus room.

In response to McCarthy's baseless claim that one of Welch's colleagues had ties to a Communist organization, Welch uttered his immortal lines: "Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness," then shouted down McCarthy's attempted interruptions. "Let us not assassinate this lad further, senator," Welch continued. "You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"

At long last, history tells us, these were the words that put a stop to McCarthy and Cohn's reign of terror.

How great would it be if such a thing were possible today? Very great, indeed. If you were being extra generous, you might reason that the strong yearning for such a moment of rhetorical justice—in which words could be uttered that were so infallibly true they might make the scales fall from the eyes of Trump's lying-ass supporters—is why people persist in broadcasting their every anguished thought on social media.

But such a thing is not possible today, as we know.

If the internet has proven anything, it's that even when you're as right as it's possible to be, you can never make someone admit they're as wrong as it's possible to be, because that is the glitch of freedom.

Nevertheless, it's nice when someone says something that cuts a little deeper than standard issue political wrangling and frames a small moment of moral certainty for the rest of us. If we're going to be forced to continue to endure all this dreadful theater, we could at least benefit from a few more compelling performers on the stage.

Mike Nichols in an outtake from Arthur Miller: Director.
Mike Nichols in an outtake from Arthur Miller: Director.

Interesting side note: In the bonus features that accompany Arthur Miller: Writer, Rebecca Miller's HBO documentary about her father, the late playwright, the (also) late director Mike Nichols shares an aside about Welch's famous confrontation with McCarthy. It seems that Nichols had a friend whose father had been in the Senate building two days earlier and overheard Welch in a stall in the men's room rehearsing what would become his famous outburst.

"What I realized when I heard that," Nichols told Rebecca Miller, "was that nothing like that is ever spontaneous. It's always ready and waiting for the right moment."

Which is another way of saying: Let's have more performances as good as Brian Karem's.