How many watched the Michael Cohen hearings and thought it was simply faithful civil servants trying to do what was best for their country? Yeah, me neither.
How many thought it was just self-aggrandizing political figures putting on a show?
In the lead role, of course, was Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s former lawyer and longtime confidant who has now ‘turned heel’ against his former boss. ‘The last time I appeared before Congress, I came to protect Mr Trump. Today I am here to tell the truth about Mr Trump,’ Cohen declared.
What was that truth? ‘He is a racist. He is a conman. He is a cheat,’ Cohen said of the president, presenting his case for each.
All of these things may or may not be true. But that’s not what really matters to Cohen. ‘Cohen is seeking nothing more and nothing less than to rescue his reputation and his place in history,’ observes the Brookings Institution’s Elaine Karmack, comparing the disgraced lawyer’s public confession to John Dean’s Watergate testimony in 1973. Dean ended up serving a reduced sentence and has enjoyed a decent career since.
Why wouldn’t Cohen roll the same dice? He has willing accomplices in Democrats who don’t mind putting a convicted criminal and known liar — something he reminded everyone of again on Wednesday — on the stand to further their attempts to undermine the president. All involved were more concerned with landing blows than revealing truths.
Of course, every protagonist or hero needs an antagonist or villain (who plays which role will depend on readers’ own partisan leanings), and Republicans relished being cast as such.
‘Certainly it’s the first time a convicted perjurer has been brought back to be a star witness,’ said House Freedom Caucus co-founder Jim Jordan. ‘You’re a pathological liar! You don’t know truth from falsehood,’ blazed Arizona Republican Paul Gosar.
‘Sir, I’m sorry, are you referring to me or the president?’ Cohen interrupted, with a huge smirk. Gosar shot back, ‘Hey! This is my time! When I ask you a question, I’ll ask for an answer,’ meaning Cohen needed to shut his mouth.
This type of back-and-forth went on throughout the day, where members of the political class sounded more like professional wrestlers cutting promos on each other — ‘Well let me tell you something, brother!’ — than elected officials genuinely seeking better or more honest government.
These people sounded like pro wrestlers because they essentially are.
In professional wrestling, the term ‘kayfabe,’ refers to when the performers know they must act a different way in front of the public to protect their character’s image and to advance fictional storylines. This is not to say that Hulk Hogan isn’t unlike the man you see on camera, or that ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin didn’t ever have legit friction with his evil boss ‘Mr’ Vince McMahon in the WWE in the late 1990s. Often wrestlers really are playing themselves, only with the volume turned way up.
But both good guy and bad, ‘babyface’ and ‘heel,’ recognize that their first priority is to give audiences what they want. Truth becomes secondary, if it’s even considered at all. On Wednesday, Florida Republican congressman Matt Gaetz, always eager to entertain his conservative base, even did a ‘run-in’ during the hearings to see if he could get his licks in on Cohen (in pro wrestling, a ‘run-in’ is when an unscheduled wrestler literally runs into the ring unannounced and starts beating people up).
Politics is no different. Cohen tried to put on the best performance he could in an attempt to satisfy his anti-Trump audience, as did many of the House Democrats who interviewed him Wednesday. So did Republicans, more eager to serve up red meat than considering whether there was any validity to Cohen’s claims (of which there was little substance, or at least not much we haven’t heard before).
The late Lee Atwater, the controversial strategist for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, was a huge fan of professional wrestling, believing it was the most honest sport there was precisely because it was so obviously dishonest.
How much honesty was actually presented during the Michael Cohen hearing remains to be seen. But it was primarily a show.