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The Spiritless Token

There are all the president’s women. And then there’s Omarosa.

Taken years ago at a promotional event for The Apprentice, Omarosa's Twitter avatar presents her shoulder-to-shoulder with Donald Trump, the woman beaming and the man caught in a grimace. Her online biography echoes professional proximity to and equality with her employer, who fired her three times during the decade-plus she intermittently appeared on his reality television show. "Assistant to the President, White House Executive Committee Member," it claims. On New Year's Eve, Omarosa went on Fox News, boasting that her role in the Trump White House would be "huge." Sources on the presidential transition team stated that Omarosa was seeking a flashy appointment to the ambassadorship to Haiti. Her actual post, announced two weeks before the inauguration, ended up being the director of communications for the Office of Public Liaison.

Omarosa insists on a public interpretation of Trumpian parity. She insists that he calls her "his Valerie Jarrett." In his arrangement of confidantes, Omarosa argues, she sits at the president’s right hand. In actuality, Trump barely acknowledges her, and when he does, it is to argue that her support is representative of a statistically significant African-American constituency. Following Trump’s swipe at civil rights pioneer John Lewis, from which the last shadow of showy bipartisan inviolability drags forth, Omarosa brokered a savvy-enough appearance from Martin Luther King III, a family friend, at Trump Tower. PEOTUS stood in the lobby, now the regular stage for transparency farce, cushioned by King III's packaged comments on unity. Omarosa lurked in the background, sheath-dressed, in some visible distress. She'd pulled off temporary subterfuge in the race arena, picking up work in a space where Kellyanne Conway could hardly maneuver. But an Omarosa can never be a Kellyanne.

This past year, certain women have emerged as exemplars of the gendered capacities of white dominance, and also the unhinged stickiness of feminist language. These white women, carrying bland markers of coastal sophistication, may be aesthetic inversions of the "white working class" voter, the argument goes, but their political intentions align. Their primary ideology is white professionalism, which sometimes registers as adversarial feminism. This type of woman has certainly always existed, has always deftly agitated for the interests of her tribe, but the 2016 election threw her presence into higher relief, considering the assumptions about Clinton's resonance. BuzzFeed’s Anne Helen Petersen identified her as a type: The Ivanka Voter. Ivanka, herself, is the paragon; "white, wealthy, and beautiful ... these attributes often pass as moral virtues," wrote Jia Tolentino for The New Yorker. From Megyn Kelly to Kellyanne Conway, the nimble "truth-bender" who managed Trump's campaign following Manafort's exit, these women have always been and will always be blonde.

They are the president's women. And then there's Omarosa. She has inspired comparatively little ideological reckoning, because class and race exclude her from full partnership in the phenomenon. She had sold herself as mononymous. On The Apprentice, which she competed on during its first season back in 2004, she had a caustic yet eloquent tongue. Fellow contestants begrudgingly admitted that she was the canniest player, but her confidence and competence were cast as a kind of moral evil. She was young, clearly highly educated, and could boast that she had worked under Vice-President Gore, though it was later revealed that she had inflated her responsibilities in the White House. When Omarosa was first fired, she went on The View and claimed that a co-competitor had called her "the n-word." At the time, the show was massively popular. Omarosa, its resident villain, was proportionally hated. The experience was traumatizing to her, and so was, she expressed, the fallout, which she was able to parlay into a decades-long television career.

In 2013, one of Omarosa's adversaries, Bethenny Frankel, a star from the Real Housewives franchise, confronted her on her now-defunct talk show, Bethenny. Frankel, who also became famous via reality TV, had dismissed Omarosa as nothing more than a "reality show villain." Both sitting cross-legged, they quickly moved from fake banter to antagonistic stances. "It's different for you and I,” Omarosa said. “I am an African-American woman. You get to walk around and be mediocre and still get rewarded with things." That they were exchanging barbs on Bethenny's couch and not Omarosa's only dramatized her bluntness.

At the time, Omarosa had been widowed, and was attending seminary to become a pastor. The exchange quickly became a meme, troubling easy interpretations of Omarosa's image and triggering a larger conversation about the lives of professional black women. The Apprentice, as a circus simulacrum of the American workplace, repetitively cast black competitors — especially black women — as pariahs. Granted, the bar for respect on reality television isn't high. And self-identifying "bad girls" on reality television stand to risk public aversion to their stratagem. Still, it was blatantly obvious that Omarosa's penchant for intelligent antics were heavily racialized in the public, and strangely mirrored the drama that is real-world professionalism for black women. She blueprinted a way for villainous black women in reality TV. She was difficult to root for, but rooting for her meant advocating for the full range of attitudinal freedom in black women, straight to the reprehensible. Omarosa was angry, black, and a woman, but she wasn't an Angry Black Woman.

Rather, she was savvy. After first publicly endorsing Clinton in 2014, Omarosa pivoted to the amateurist Trump team, where she could feasibly have a role, in 2015. She became the campaign’s director for African-American outreach, inviting conservative black pastors to dialogue with her candidate. A middling renaissance, for her. She attempted to spin black progressivism as herd behavior — the real stereotype — framing her political alliances as radical. Some other black women have joined her, including the caricature-like sister act Diamond and Silk. "Anyone who thinks we don't need to be in those rooms is naive," she said, speaking of her involvement with a party that stridently supports gutting civil rights legislation — a jargony answer with only platitudinal belief behind it. Writing for The Root, Michael Arceneaux refuted the idea that mere black presence might equal actual power within the GOP, saying that, in fact, "Omarosa is quite adept at sounding as if actions done out of self-interest are rooted in principle." Omarosa's self-interest game has exhausted explanation. Her ability to make racial adventure out of racial alienation cannot translate to realms outside of television, certainly not to the White House. Now she can't even succeed at being a villain.

Omarosa's search for a mythology as paradoxical as those Ivanka Women’s has landed her here, with a token, laterigrade role in the administration of a man she's always admired but has only supported politically for two years. Writing in The New York Times Magazine last week, Greg Howard said that watching Ben Carson, the only higher-profile black person to join the Trump administration, stirred in him a "unique sort of sadness." But that moment of grotesque recognition could extend to any politician who is involved in the exclusionary business of American exceptionalism. With Omarosa, there is no sadness. She has not risen high enough to elicit any emotion besides pity.