The strange saga of Stephanie Grisham: MAGA is a reward program for mediocre white people

Trump's press secretary has two DUI arrests and a dubious job history. But there's hope for mediocre white folks!

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published August 27, 2019 2:15PM (EDT)

Stephanie Grisham, White House Press Secretary (Getty/Alex Wong)
Stephanie Grisham, White House Press Secretary (Getty/Alex Wong)

Initially I wrestled with the notion that poor white people love Donald Trump, along with the so-called hard-working Americans of the white middle class. Strangely, they seem to see themselves in him.

How can poor people of any color relate to a guy in the top 1%, who was born into and gifted a fortune, has a private jet, and can afford to send his sons all the way to Zimbabwe just to kill cheetahs and alligators? OK, I get how the monosyllabic words he uses in his hyper-repetitious speeches — in combination with him being an I’m not a racist kind of racist who calls the Charlottesville racists “very fine people” — might seem familiar to many in his base. But give me a break: Trump is a billionaire who probably hasn’t paid taxes since O.J. Simpson had white fans. They still love him. I guess I’ve finally made sense of it.

My revelation came after the New York Times reported that Trump’s new White House press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, has two DUI arrests and lost two previous jobs amid alleged charges of plagiarism and cheating on expenses.

In December 2015 in Arizona, Ms. Grisham was arrested for driving under the influence. She pleaded guilty and was fined, and in August 2016 the court ordered her into a treatment program. It was a second offense: In 2013 she was arrested for driving under the influence, speeding and driving with an invalid license.

The 2013 charges were reduced in 2014 to reckless driving, according to court records. Ms. Grisham has told The New York Times that she complied with all sanctions and disclosed both episodes to the White House.

With her dirty driving record and dubious job history, Grisham is replacing Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who earned $179,700 last year. That to me, is what hope looks like! I’m 2008-style Barack Obama hope and change! To be caught up in scandals, get arrested twice and still land a high-profile position in the White House, representing the president of the United States to the press corps, is unimaginable to me. I say this as a black person from a neighborhood full of black people, many of whom have records that prohibit them from getting jobs that are way below their respective skill sets.

My friend Rell, who we jokingly called "40 applications-a-day Rell," because of the number of jobs he'd applied for, finally landed a gig at Xfinity. But he was still getting question about his juvenile record, which was supposed to be sealed, well into his 30s. Our friend Keon's mother’s house was raided, and the cops found his brother’s gun. His brother admitted it was his gun, yet Keon — who was never convicted of anything and has a college degree — spent five years looking for work, because employers kept asking him about the gun charge he had nothing to do with. There are plenty more depressing stories from my circle that follow that pattern. I'm pretty sure lots of poor white people used to feel the same way. Then came MAGA.

I figure a huge component of the MAGA movement is about rewarding failed and/or mediocre whiteness. Donald Trump clearly comes off as a classless racist who had no political qualifications but still achieved the highest office in the land, and he did so by rallying mediocre whiteness. He gave those folks the energy to hope — he talks like them, hates who they hate, and mastered the basic rules of their culture. Then Trump took it a step further by investing in that same type of whiteness, and hiring a string of unqualified mediocre white people to hold big positions that I don’t think they fully understand. Rick Perry runs the Department of Energy, which he once promised to abolish. Callista Gingrich became ambassador to the Vatican, even though her job history is mostly about co-authoring children’s books and being Newt Gingrich’s mistress. (OK, and then his wife.)

The latest example of this is Stephanie Grisham, who has apparently had problems with booze and plagiarism and falsified expense accounts. She is now White House press secretary, even though she has yet to host a press briefing and hasn’t granted that many interviews. She still has the opportunity to fail upward. We basically know nothing about her except that she’s a flawed and damaged white person, like the bulk of Donald Trump’s base. I guess if I was was a poor white person watching him elevate someone like her, I’d put on a MAGA hat too, and halfway believe there was hope for me too..

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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