Let me preface this discussion with my background – I’ve done corporate and sports communications work in the past but most of my political work has been strategic and campaign operations-related. I have never served as a press secretary for a sitting officeholder, though I have done the job as noted above for companies, soccer teams and out-of-office candidates who are seeking office.
Maybe it’s my romantic side, but have an idealized vision of what a press secretary should be, particularly one that is on the state or federal payroll. I never believed the Press Secretary role was one for immaturity, childishness, crass behavior or public bullying. Nor did I ever believe a Governor would ever attack The Associated Press on official letterhead, so this week has been a learning experience.
On Sunday, Dr. Rachel Pienta brilliantly outlined the “drag” effect, something I knew nothing about before Governor DeSantis’ Press Secretary, Christina Pushaw used the term on Twitter. Bullying is something I have experienced on Twitter and have on multiple occasions temporarily deactivated my account through the years.
But the bullying has generally come from anonymous bot accounts, crazy (anti-Democratic Party, Trump and Biden are EXACTLY alike types ) progressives or right-wing provocateurs. I have personally never seen an official communications person for a corporation, sports team or high office holder behave on social media as unprofessionally (in my view) as Ms. Pushaw does, though I have to concede I think she’s pretty smart and does see some of the inconsistencies in reporting I tend to point out from time to time, but again I am not the Governor’s spokesperson.
Irrespective of whether she is correct or not, Pushaw’s tone and belligerence comes across as wholly unprofessional from where I sit. But then again, as I have written repeatedly for the past several months, I believe post- Cold War America has never seen a high-office holder quite as dangerously unhinged while being incredibly focued and disciplined as Governor Ron DeSantis.
Traditionally, communications officers maintain a healthy a relationship with the media, a professional tone and take a very reserved line publicly about sensitive issues. In fact, I can speak from my own experience, my tweeting about Major League Soccer (MLS) got me into trouble when I was the Communications Director of the North American Soccer League (NASL). Sure we were in competition, but the idea was not to be aggressive online and eventually the thought was comms people on all sides of the competition in soccer should be able to talk to one another and to the media even if their bosses are locked in intense competition.
But like so many things, the world of communications changed in 2016 and these days the right isn’t looking for professionalism
Today right-wingers create all sorts of false equivalencies and assume if you criticize someone’s policies or comments you are attacking them personally. They then use those professional criticisms as justification to author the sort of below-the-belt, nasty personal attacks so many conservative talking heads engage in on a daily basis. They thrive on nastiness, dishing out personal criticism, trying to bully people, calling people names and muddying the waters as to what is factual and what isn’t.
As I have said before I had never really been subjected to real racism before COVID, but the immediate aftermath of the first lockdown I had multiple Trump supporters, one of which I had known personally for over a decade attack me on my COVID stand and tell me to “Go back to India” (I was born in the USA) or “go to a Muslim country” (I am not Muslim and this was from the person who I knew who then replied she assumed so because I am an immigrant who is constantly confused about religion pushing Catholicism, Islam and Hinduism – well I am interested in theology so talk about all three from an academic perspective and again am not an immigrant!), or “leave running America to the real Americans.” Something about this virus and the conservative denial of science and data showed us what ugly raw instincts so many right-wing people on social media can demonstrate.
COVID brought out the absolute worst in the right-wing ecosystem. For years the right had decried any sort of community goals, attacking Hillary Clinton’s “It Takes a Village” book in the 1990’s and pushing an increasingly rugged form of individualism in the 2000’s. But it wasn’t until the second month of COVID in April 2020, the spin-cycle on the right which features publications like The Federalist, The Daily Caller, Brietbart and Town Hall, countless internet trolls who gained a following during the Trump years, professional conservative communications bullies and right-wing cable news channels really hit its stride.
The right has since April 2020, created a completely alternate reality, fed by alternate scientific studies, alternate media stories and aggressive name-calling, bullying and shaming online. The result has been that almost half the country lives in a an alternate universe about COVID. The other result is that political figures on the right NEVER get held truly accountable for anything anymore because they claim aggrieved victimized status when they are called out by credible journalists and publications (like The Associated Press for instance) and turn a lynch mob of angry, well-funded advocacy publications like The Federalist loose.
It is from that world Christina Pushaw appears to reside. A former ghost writer for Mikheil Saakashvili (I wrongly assumed when she was hired by DeSantis that this tied Pushaw to the Democrats since Saakashvili, a leading anti-Putin figure who even started a war with Russia when President of Georgia has the same sort of unhealthy Russophobia many Clintonians do), she has proven to be someone so angrily combative and aggressive that she sets the tone online for the discussion about her boss. Perhaps that’s the direction media operatives are going, but if Pushaw is a trend-setter, heaven help the United States of America.
The right has turned meanness into some sort of virtue and “toughness,” into a desire to show that only the “weak” succumb to COVID. Pushaw fits right into this sort of thinking as does her boss, who is unwilling ever to be held accountable
Much like Governor DeSantis whose constant angry and victimized persona fits the new tone on the right, the role of Press Secretary may have forever changed particularly when Republicans are in office.