Not too long ago, there was another governmental entity that seemed to live in its own realm of truth denial and dizzying success: the Soviet Union. From calling its bloody and famine-inducing destruction of its farm economy an effort “dizzy with success” to 2+2=5, the communist collective dished out “alternative facts” before it was cool.
So what is one to do when they have to be a spokesman for such a chaotic regime? For years, the solution was to tell the press what to write and supress any reporting otherwise. But such a solution was ineffective in East Berlin in 1989. German Democratic Republic officials were talking to western reporters like Tom Brokaw and answers, not fictitious realities, had to be given.
Fresh new leader Günter Schabowski was thrust into the spokesman role in 1989, two years after American President Ronald Regan’s “tear down this wall!” speech. Most Americans would credit Regan with bringing the Berlin Wall down, but the real credit belongs, accidentally, to Schabowski. Not long after taking his new role, Schabowski was handed a memo by Party officials. In it were new regulations that allowed the East Germans the ability to apply for permission travel abroad in ways they never could before. As he put it at a fateful press conference, the new bill, which was planned to be passed the next day, “[allowed] every citizen to travel out of East Germany by way of the border crossing points.” Glossed over were very important details like the bill’s timeline or the red tape that one would have to navigate to obtain permission. When asked about the former, Schabowski famously improvised and gave an incorrect answer, “As far as I’m aware, immediately; straight away.”
The gaffe was earth-shattering. Immediately, East Berliners crowded Checkpoint Charlie in an effort to cross through to West Berlin. The border cops, not briefed on what the new situation was, let the citizens through without proper passports. The Wall had ceased to exist, East Berlin had ceased to exist and, not long after, the Soviet Union would cease to exist, all because a flustered man fresh off his vacation was thrown into the ring and made to speak for a chaotic and passive-aggressive state.
Part of me pities Sean Spicer for the same reason. As the White House Press Secretary for Donald Trump, he has to answer for a man who famously dodges questions on a regular basis or concocts a lie on the spot to address them. But Spicer, too, has a pattern of Trumpish behavior when talking to the press, either on his own or by order of his boss. Without his “Pants on Fire” claim that Trump’s inauguration was “the largest audience to witness an inauguration, period,” we wouldn’t have Kellyanne Conway’s laughable “alternative facts” phrase.
It’s bad enough we have a president that contradicts himself, makes up facts and rambles on when trying to speak to anyone, but the damage is further compounded when he has a spokesman who so recklessly shoots from the hip that he might one day steal the fact-checking spotlight from Trump. Spicer said that Trump’s first travel ban wasn’t about religion even though the bill favored religious minorities and Trump’s campaign team, including Trump himself, assured the public it was a Muslim ban.
Spicer, clearly not briefed on any solid information, said the White House may investigate the false claim that millions voted illegally in last year’s election. It won’t. “There is no investigation,” he later said. “I said it was possible. Anything is possible.”
Yikes. Not a reassuring statement coming from a chaotic and unpopular administration. It’s the same kind of inconsistency that Schabowski had in his short time as the GDR’s unofficial spokesman. We’ve seen how disastrous such a spokesman can be, so I ask: would Sean Spicer have also opened the Berlin Wall? How many more press conferences until he actually starts making unofficial policy? He came dangerously close recently when he suggested that the use of barrel bombs, would spark another missile strike. He was later forced to walk back on that claim, not only because he was arguably issuing a policy change as a press secretary, but also because the Syrian military has been using barrel bombs on its citizens for years.
My effort in making this comparison between Spicer and Schabowski is not to suggest that Spicer should be fired, nor is it to introduce a solution. Rather, I’m hoping the comparison emphasizes how dangerous Spicer’s style has been and how urgent change is needed. I’ve previously written about how Trump’s contradictory foreign policy apparatus can be equally effective as it is dangerous. Expert officials like Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley can contradict Trump on policy not only because they’re more rational and authoritative voices, but also because they’re the ones making and implementing policy. Spicer, on the other hand, is a press secretary. His job is merely to communicate clearly to the press what the administration says and is doing. Schabowski failed to do that and it cost him his job and his country’s existence. Thankfully, the United States is a powerful nation that doesn’t hinge on the existence of a wall, at least until Trump builds his. But with impulsive foreign actors like Syria, Russia, North Korea and Iran, it’d be best that our erratic president is the only one making provocative statements. We’ve managed, so far, to keep them from doing any serious damage.