To be or not to be a stool pigeon? That is the “existential” question facing Hope Hicks, a former communications director at the Trump White House, according to the lede of a May 24 New York Times story:
One of the best-known but least visible former members of President Trump’s White House staff is facing an existential question: whether to comply with a congressional subpoena in the coming weeks.
Print edition: Hicks at night, flanked by reporters and overshadowed by the White House, whose employ she voluntarily left on March 29, 2018, a month after giving nine hours of closed-door testimony to the House Intelligence Committee.
Online edition: Hicks in a brightly lit room, pondering the eternal verities while looking glamorous despite an ill-fitting turtleneck.
As many critics pointed out, on Twitter and elsewhere, the question Hicks must answer is not a philosophical conundrum but rather a matter of law. Hicks appears on more than two dozen pages of the Mueller Report, and the House Judiciary Committee has been subpoenaed to turn over documents by June 4 and to testify on June 19. Subpoena comes from Latin roots meaning “under a penalty”; the poena part is related to the English words penal, punishment, and pain. If Hicks existentially declines to comply, she faces a fine and jail time.
Perhaps because of her youth (she turned 30 last October), her beauty (she was a teenage model), her alliterative, evocative name (Hope springs eternal), or her tactiturnity (paradoxical in a communications professional), Hicks has been a dazzling enigma ever since she first joined the Trump White House shortly after the inauguration. The Times story, written by Maggie Haberman, uses the words “enduring mystique” and “dilemma” to describe Hicks and her predicament, as though she were choosing between vacation resorts rather than stiffening her spine to do her ethical and patriotic duty.
NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik was more cynical.
This is existential only in the sense that identifying yourself with Trumpworld has defined your life. She’s newly part of Murdochs’ world too. https://t.co/ppCSqYnq9b— David Folkenflik (@davidfolkenflik) May 26, 2019
As was Esquire editor-at-large Maximillian Potter.
Hicks may have faced "existential questions" when she decided to work for Trump and every time she decided to enable him, but this a matter of law. https://t.co/aVJ0AIF4Y8— Maximillian Potter (@maxapotter) May 26, 2019
Existential has meant “relating to existence” since it entered English in the mid-17th century. But it’s most closely related to the 19th-century philosophers Søren Kierkegaard (whose last name means “churchyard”) and Friedrich Nietzsche, and even more so to Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), who wrote that “existence precedes essence” (and, of course, “Hell is other people”). Existentialism, the name for a philosophy that takes being as its starting point, is first recorded in English in 1933 as a translation of German Existentialismus. According to an entry in All About Philosophy, existentialism relies on the ideas that humans have free will, “human nature is chosen through life choices,” “personal responsibility and discipline is crucial,” “worldly desire is futile,” and “a person is best when struggling against their individual nature, fighting for life.”
Maybe there is, after all, something of the “existential” in Hope Hicks’s predicament (in addition to the particular “Hell is other people” of her erstwhile colleagues). Elizabeth Bruenig, an opinion columnist for the Washington Post, put it this way:
i think the idea of 'existential' is not that if she complies she will cease to exist but that if she complies she will cease to be hope hicks https://t.co/XTLMna8Tip— elizabeth bruenig (@ebruenig) May 26, 2019
For a serious analysis of the Times story and Hicks’s role in White House cover-ups, see this Twitter thread by @emptywheel (Marcy Wheeler, an independent journalist who covers national security).