Hollywood auteur siblings Joel and Ethan Coen have a long and varied filmography distinguished by a few constants — one being stupidity. Some of their finest movies — Fargo, Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski — are smartly made features that plumb the messes very dumb people make for themselves. Ten years ago, they applied this formula to the political underworld of Washington, D.C., in Burn After Reading, an offbeat number in which the game of espionage and blackmail is a farce enacted by misinformed dolts. The Hollywood Reporter accurately called it “an anti-spy thriller in which nothing is at stake, no one acts with intelligence and everything ends badly.”
Burn After Reading might have remained a minor entry in the Coen brothers’ careers. But then Trump happened.
Last year, Jeet Heer of the New Republic argued the directors had effectively foreseen this age of dysfunction in the capital, “where the line between blundering idiocy and malevolent conspiracy is increasingly blurred.” This week’s news cycles drew further comparisons to the 2008 film, especially as concerns a group of far-right shitheads who have tried to make a name for themselves amid the chaos of this presidency. Two of these would be Jack Burkman, a lobbyist who routinely promises the media “bombshell” revelations that fail to materialize, and Jacob Wohl, a 20-year-old who fancies himself a financial wizard but has been accused of defrauding investors and received a lifetime ban from futures trading when he was still a teenager.
These geniuses had a master plan to bring down special counsel (and former FBI director) Robert Mueller — presumably to protect Trump — with a rape accusation. Operating under the Brett Kavanaugh–bolstered conservative axiom that most such claims are false and opportunistic, they allegedly offered to pay women to assist in the smear.
Reporters unraveled the hoax before it began, in part because it was premised on information from “a private intel agency” called Surefire Intelligence, which turned out to be a phony entity cooked up by Wohl, complete with “employee” headshots including actor Christoph Waltz, plus a phone number that redirected to his mother’s voicemail.
Mueller referred the entire matter to the FBI for investigation. Undaunted, the boys gave an absurd press conference, during which Wohl complained about Twitter memes making fun of him, Burkman’s fly was open and their witness never appeared.
Like the Coen brothers’ thickest characters, Wohl and Burkman had only made a bad situation worse with inexplicable confidence — and perhaps increased their odds of going to prison. Not even Gateway Pundit, a fringe-right propaganda site that initially ran with the story, was willing to stand by them; founder Jim Hoft announced that it had “suspended” its relationship with Wohl, an occasional contributor.
What’s really strange about the whole clusterfuck is that it didn’t need to happen. Both of these dopes could have cashed in and built notoriety as unofficial pro-Trump spokesmen without trying to frame a former FBI director for a crime that supposedly occurred on a day he was serving jury duty with a full security detail in tow.
Indeed, I interviewed Wohl in 2017, when he’d just embarked on his odyssey as Trump’s most loyal Twitter reply-guy, and it sounded like he wanted to be a mouthpiece, not a cloak-and-dagger operator.
Why play his hand like he did? What are we actually watching here? Fittingly, another ex–Gateway Pundit correspondent, Lucian Wintrich, has given us the watchword of the #MAGA coalition, one that characterizes a great deal of their missteps: “Over-grifted.”
Wintrich was commenting on another new point of strife for extremely online Trump fans: Kanye West apparently ditching the cause. In the course of becoming the biggest celebrity to embrace the president, the hip-hop icon connected with Candace Owens and Charlie Kirk of the conservative, not-so-good advocacy group Turning Point USA. Both were a bit too eager to exploit such an alliance, harping on it whenever they could. That instinct backfired when Owens said the unsightly logo and aesthetic of her “Blexit” campaign, aimed at persuading black voters to leave the Democratic party, were the handiwork of Kanye himself. West, who has a fashion brand to protect, wasn’t pleased.
While Kanye’s detachment from the MAGAsphere may turn out to be less than complete, fallout in the community was swift and punishing. Owens and Kirk took much of the blame for what was seen as a major loss; Turning Point is facing legal action from a preexisting Minnesota nonprofit called Blexit; figures like the Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro, who had warned of Kanye’s unpredictability, got to say “I told you so”; and Fox News contributor Tomi Lahren subtweeted Owens, reigniting what Owens described as a long-simmering beef. All of it made their shared messaging system look broken.
Could this infighting between the GOP’s youngest, grift-iest media personalities — the ones who realized that an aging conservative bloc would gladly pay and listen to a few token millennials willing to agree with them — have an impact ahead of next week’s midterm elections? Even afterward, it would be hard to prove. But you get the sense that these unforced errors are becoming more common among the cast of odious 20-to-30-something Trump minions fighting for the president’s approval and lucrative propaganda jobs.
In fact, it’s as if they believe they can get away with fraud and malfeasance on the level Trump has to date, lie when they feel like it, torch anyone on Twitter and shape the news instead of spinning it. Up to a point, they’re correct.
Because Americans, of course, are happy to tolerate an amount of open greed and corruption. It’s part of healthy competition. Everybody cuts corners, and it’s not cheating if you don’t get caught. Which is what makes it so revolting to us when someone doesn’t have the chops to pull off their craven schemes. In the Oval Office, Trump enjoys protection as he and his cabinet enrich themselves, and taking him down is a slow, tortuous process. His lackeys outside the West Wing don’t have that advantage, but they act untouchable all the same, and that will cost them dearly. As a negative review of Burn After Reading published in People magazine put it: The characters’ “unrelenting dumbness and dim-witted behavior is at first amusing and enjoyable but eventually grows wearing.” These pawns wore out their welcome almost before they got one.