PRINT December 2018


Omarosa Manigault boarding Air Force One, Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport, Vienna, Ohio, July 25, 2017. Photo: AP/Shutterstock.

WE CANNOT LIKE HER—her greed, her pomp, her fraudulence; her repulsive servility and inflated pride. There she is on The Apprentice in 2004, playing the villain. There she is on Frontline in September 2016, going for a kind of luxurious sadism. Her words are rich and theatrical as they come rolling out of her mouth: “Every critic, every detractor,” she says with relish, “will have to bow down to President Trump.” Frontline cuts to close-up as she breaks into a smile: “It’s everyone who’s ever doubted Donald, whoever disagreed, whoever challenged him. It is the ultimate revenge to become the most powerful man in the universe.” Months after this broadcast, she’ll have a title, a salary, and an office in the White House; she’ll strut beside the president and feed him hollow lines. She will be a token, a lackey, a busybody, a buffoon. Locked out of the palace intrigue, she’ll roam the vast pastures of her delusion, applying herself to minor controversies as the State goes shrieking along. We were appalled by her cynicism and perplexed by her politics—and pleased, at last, by her humiliating demise. We cannot possibly like her, and ultimately, I don’t.

But the fact remains that Omarosa Manigault Newman has been, by a fantastic margin, the least harmful (by which I mean least effective) member of any iteration of Trump’s cabal. She did not plan this, exactly, but her final irrelevance to his rapacious enterprise may be the very thing that saves her soul. She offered nothing and achieved nothing. She was unconvincing and appealed to no one. She approached questions of policy with a glassy, officious ignorance, and was content to drink in the publicity until she was booted from the stage. After her firing by John Kelly in December of last year, no one in the White House could say what her job had actually been. Even her title—assistant to the president and director of communications for the Office of Public Liaison—seemed to summon a whole splendid, dry-cleaned world of vaporous, meaningless speech.

But this year brought us Omarosa’s third book, Unhinged: An Insider’s Account of the Trump White House (Gallery Books, 2018). It styles her as stern, shrewd, central: the heroine at the screaming center of Beltway drama. Now, of course, she’s reformed, and a renegade. Last August, Omarosa swooped in nobly to inform us—more than a year into a presidency stuffed with fascist rhetoric, compulsive bigotry, and the intensification of the homicidal policies that mark the empire’s flailing final hours—that yes, Donald Trump is a racist, and that she has tapes of him saying “the N-word.” She didn’t quite grasp this before. After all, “there is a difference between being a racist, racial, and someone who racializes.” She reports this with the exuberant authority of a toddler explaining how babies are delivered by stork.

Omarosa was and is a pointless person—but I find myself hunting for the point of that pointlessness.

Yes, she was and is a pointless person—but I find myself hunting for the point of that pointlessness. Omarosa was never a Sarah Huckabee Sanders (the boorish stooge), or a Stephen Miller (the Rasputin of Santa Monica), or even a Hope Hicks (a smear of fancy lipstick on the porcine regime). She’s not an ideologue, like Steve Bannon, and she lacks Kellyanne Conway’s talent for mutilating language and confecting “alternative facts.” At least Ben Carson—drowsy, drifting, avuncular—supplies the administration with a professional hauteur that makes him an effective token: He’s all upright Black solidity while he throttles HUD.

This presidency thrashes at the blurred boundary between televised spectacle and the force of the state—but Omarosa never seemed to care for the latter. That she has no appetite for politics is made clear by this inane memoir, with its lumpy mixture of calculation and naïveté. But I’m moved—perversely—by her narrative, which she jacks up to righteous myth: her working-class youth in Youngstown, Ohio; her bland, unflagging Christianity; the genuine sense of psyche-stabbing loss as the men in her life die or are killed. The writer Doreen St. Félix is right to call Unhinged a “formality,” intended to “whisk its maker to her preferred platform, talk television, where she can dole out the beefier takeaways in real time.” But this formality has a form—its own dilapidated architecture. Unhinged is a shambling bildungsroman for an era of malfunction, an era that cackles at the promises of liberal democracy and capitalist multiculturalism.

So we’re left to trudge through the slush of melting ideologies as we’re made privy to Omarosa’s notions—her vexed, ongoing monologue—about her race, her sex, her achievements, her story. She knows that as a Black woman, she is vulnerable and exploitable—a fact that she feels compelled to exploit. It may or may not interest Omarosa that the stereotype of Black women that currently dominates the culture is not her brand of devious parvenu, but something more like Oprah Winfrey: the ample embrace of the maternal conscience. Omarosa is Winfrey’s opposite—the id, licking its lips. Omarosa seems, in her way, to register this, as she openly pines for the better cliché. “I was going for strong black woman, not angry black woman. There is a big difference.” Emphasis hers.

It’s tempting to see the president, with his bloated, self-loving cruelty, as the nation’s brutal thumbprint pressed on the world. But consider Omarosa—both complicit and expendable, immoral and incompetent, defined in the end by extravagant treachery and extravagant failure. She propelled herself to the vibrating nucleus of tyrannical authority—then proved useless and was asked to leave. Reduced to an ejected dribble of symbolic surplus, she now peddles her memories, her pain, and her bright, self-justifying incoherence. When I look back on 2018—this year in horror—I remember that it started, for me, with a visit to my parents. Omarosa had just been fired. We talked about what we knew of her: her painful beginnings; her murdered Nigerian father; the psychosis of her careerism; her silliness and fecklessness and powerlessness; the mind-swallowing melancholy of her shredded, striving life. My mother sighed and said, “There has never been a more American person.”

Tobi Haslett has written about art, film, and literature for n+1, the New Yorker, and other publications.