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Sean Spicer, ‘Dancing With the Stars’ and America’s quest for absurdity

Spicer’s success is a reflection of those who watch him, and it also happens to be an apt reflection of the country’s political moment

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Former White House spokesman Sean Spicer dances the salsa with his partner, Lindsay Arnold, on the first week of “Dancing With the Stars.”

Eric McCandless, ABC

Watching Sean Spicer on “Dancing With the Stars” is like reliving the 2016 Republican primary. The least likely of the bunch stays in week after week, much to the chagrin of “experts” who scratch their heads and audibly express their irritation as to why the worst contender is perpetually the audience favorite.

You can tell the show’s judges have had it: “We keep throwing you out of the boat and the viewers keep throwing you a life preserver,” lamented judge Len Goodman on Monday’s episode after Spicer and his partner were deemed “safe” from elimination. “Dory in ‘Finding Nemo’ has a better sense of direction,” came another critique.

It was Spicer’s eighth week on the ABC primetime spectacle, and truly his dancing deserves the carping of the show’s magistrates. From his first week as a bright-eyed salsa dancer dressed in an absurd neon green ruffled shirt, to this week’s awkward jazz interpretation of “Come Sail Away,” Spicer’s dancing has not improved. The New York Times dance critic Gia Kourlas devoted 1,000 words this week to argue he’s “as stiff and two-dimensional as a sheet of cardboard.”

How does he do it? The mechanics aren’t too difficult to understand. Judges score each dance routine, and those points are combined with the result of a live viewer vote, which is where Spicer must be excelling. True, President Trump tweeted a plea to vote for his former White House spokesman, but it’s hard to imagine a herd of Republicans could skew the tally at the behest of the president. 

Another explanation is that most viewers simply lean right on the ideological spectrum, but if that were true then it only points to deeper issues in a schism between the liberal entertainment industry and conservative audiences.

Regardless, as Kourlas writes, “Mr. Spicer’s staying power has little to do with his performances.” A more self-evident observation could hardly be written, yet she’s on to something — something broader than dance and more vague than can neatly fit in an analyst’s pocket.

Those who dismiss finding deeper meaning in pop culture should take another look. Underneath the fleshy, flashy, manufactured soil of mass-produced popularity is a kernel of truth that reveals something of a people’s appetite. 

In this case, it’s an audience who prizes something from the outside, something fresh, something bordering on buffoonery. People are ready to take risks on an unknown. Spicer’s success is a reflection of those who watch him, and it also happens to be an apt reflection of the country’s political moment.

Three years ago, the institutional vanguard stood flummoxed as seasoned Republicans bowed to Donald Trump’s staying power. Governors and senators with decades of party loyalty between them caved to a one-time Democrat businessman and TV personality. It surprised everyone — everyone, that is, but those who supported the uncouth character, the number of which was more than the “experts” had assumed.

Even three years later, pinning down the reason for that shift is difficult; most can do little more than rely on Raymond Williams’ “structure of feeling,” a nebulous inference gleaned from reading between the lines of people’s lives. Somewhere in those spaces is a thirst for something from the outside, something with a gratifying dash of absurdity.

It surprised everyone — everyone, that is, but those who supported the uncouth character, the number of which was more than the “experts” had assumed.

And it’s unclear whether either party has learned how to harness the transformation. Certainly not the close Democratic front-runner Elizabeth Warren, who checks off nearly all the progressive big government and condescending elitism stereotypes. And not the Republican party of yore — the social conservatives, constitutional congregants and deficit hawks, who haven’t regained their footing on the mountain of Trump’s ascendancy.

Neither party seems to have noticed poverty creeping out of the cities and staking a claim in the suburbs, or that its newest victims are largely whites and Hispanics. Neither party has realized the extent to which their hardline rhetoric on social issues cements the opposition in a battle-ready stance.

So maybe those who stand nonplussed at the state of America should tune in to watch some dancing this Monday. Surely, for the sake of art and grace, the contestants must hope Spicer gets the boot, but don’t be surprised if he holds on to dance another day. It would be nothing more than a sign of the times.