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In Praise of Sean Duffy

No, really.
October 30, 2019
In Praise of Sean Duffy

Seriously. Let us (for just a moment) praise Sean Duffy.

The former reality television star, turned congressman, turned CNN contributor has inadvertently and quite unintentionally performed a public service: He has exposed (at least for now) the limits of Trumpian indecency.

As David Frum noted yesterday, Trump World is “divided between those for whom Trump is a means to a goal vs those for whom Trump is the goal itself . . . That’s the fault line down which Trump world will split.”

Duffy exposed that fault line by attacking a decorated military veteran who was testifying before Congress. Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman was awarded a Purple Heart after being wounded during a combat deployment to Iraq. The New York Times described him as “a scholar, diplomat, decorated lieutenant colonel in the United States Army and Harvard-educated Ukraine expert on the White House National Security Council.”

None of that mattered to Trump World: Vindman was nothing except a threat. And so he had to be discredited. Vindman’s sin was his sworn testimony to Congress. “I did not think it was proper to demand that a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen,” he told legislators, “and I was worried about the implications for the U.S. government’s support of Ukraine.”

And so, because Trump required defending, Duffy reflexively smeared Vindman.

Undoubtedly, Duffy also thought he was doing his master’s bidding, following a trail already marked by Fox News the night before. Trump himself had sent out the signal, tweeting that Vindman was a “Never Trumper,” which would make him, by the president’s own stated definition, “human scum.”

Duffy may not be the hottest blowdryer in the green room, but even he could pick up what Trump was laying down.

Even before he resigned from Congress to assume his duties as a private sector Trumpian mouthpiece, Duffy had burrowed deep into a political culture primed to denounce the smallest signs of anything perceived as disloyalty to the dear leader. Military service, medals, decades of patriotic duty—none of these things count for anything unless you are down the Trump program, all of it, full-stop, for life.

The Vindman attacks are just the latest in a long line: Trump and his supporters have attacked Gold Star parents, POWs such John McCain, veterans such as Robert Mueller and William Taylor, even generals such as his former chief of Staff John Kelly and secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. And, with vanishingly few exceptions, the GOP has gone along with it.

So when the CNN camera went live, Duffy was in his comfort zone and rather than refuting Vindman’s testimony, Duffy focused on the man’s ethnic heritage, and suggested that the Jewish immigrant might have had dual loyalties:

It seems very clear that he is incredibly concerned about Ukrainian defense. I don’t know that he’s concerned about American policy. . . . We all have an affinity to our homeland where we came from . . . he has an affinity for the Ukraine.

But then—amazingly—something snapped. The attack on Vindman seemed to cross some sort of invisible line and he blowback was quick, intense, and brutal.

Duffy’s CNN colleagues were the first to throw him under the bus. Anchor Brianna Keillor denounced what she called Duffy’s “anti-immigrant bigotry,” and noted pointedly that “it’s an odd questioning of patriotism coming from Sean Duffy, the guy who spent part of his 20s on MTV’s The Real World . . . while Alexander Vindman spent his on foreign deployments.”

By the middle of the day, Duffy found himself deserted by Republicans, too, who rushed to defend Vindman’s patriotism. The harshest pushback came from Wyoming’s Liz Cheney, who called attacks on Vindman’s patriotism, “shameful.”

Other Republicans echoed Cheney:

“That guy’s a Purple Heart. I think it would be a mistake to attack his credibility,” said South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the No. 2 Senate Republican, in an interview. “You can obviously take issue with the substance and there are different interpretations about all that stuff. But I wouldn’t go after him personally. He’s a patriot.”

“This is the career military officer with a Purple Heart? I’m sure he’s doing his best to serve his country,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the No. 4 GOP leader. “Somebody can have a wrong sense of where they think the path goes but that doesn’t mean that they’re wrongly motivated . . . Criticizing this guy? No. I wouldn’t be on board.”

By the end of the day, thanks in part to Duffy, much of the GOP had publicly vouched for the veracity of a witness who may deliver some of the most damaging testimony against Trump at his impeachment trial.

And funnily enough it is still unclear whether Duffy understands that his eager attempt to fluff for the president has turned him into the latest specimen of Trumpian roadkill. As the man says: Everything Trump touches dies.

At this point, I should note that I’ve known Duffy and his wife Rachel Campos-Duffy for years. Early in his career he was a not-terribly-bright protégé of fellow Wisconsinite Paul Ryan and there was idle chatter about a future Senate run. His wife was always the more impressive half of the pair, but Duffy could have made a career for himself as a mediocre backbencher; he could have held his congressional seat in northern Wisconsin for life and he would have moved quickly up the ranks of seniority as GOP retirements piled up.

Instead, he chose to go Full Tump, which probably seemed like a natural transition for the former reality TV star. His embrace of Trump got him national exposure and a contract on CNN, where he quickly went to work showing Matt Gaetz-level loyalty. For instance, in his first week on CNN’s payroll he floated the absurd and long-debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine was somehow behind the hack of the DNC.

This is what Duffy saw as as his value-add: He was there to advance the Trump line, however stupid, at whatever the cost. So for Duffy, attacking someone of Vindman’s stature was just another Tuesday morning.

And why wouldn’t he? After all, this what Trump expects and what he gets from his non-state actors at Fox News, such as Laura Ingraham, who also openly questioned Vindman’s patriotism.

“Here we have a U.S. national-security official who is advising Ukraine while working inside the White House apparently against the president’s interest,” said an incredulous Ingraham on her nightly show. “Isn’t that kind of an interesting angle on this story?” former Bush-administration lawyer John Yoo replied. “Some people might call that espionage.”

But Ingraham and Duffy exposed the limits of the Trumpian smear reflex. As Greg Sargent points out, the “revealing tell” of her attack on Vindman was that he was undermining Trump’s personal interests. “Placing country before Trump is the real betrayal for which Vindman must be destroyed.”

Thanks to Duffy, though, Vindman may become Trump’s worst nightmare.

Charlie Sykes

Charlie Sykes is a founder and editor-at-large of The Bulwark and the author of How the Right Lost Its Mind. He is also the host of The Bulwark Podcast and an MSNBC contributor.