Among the many services George Washington did his country, we can be grateful he chose to be called “President of the United States,” because if then-Vice President John Adams had had his way, we might have to address Donald Trump as “His Elective Majesty.” Sycophancy is part of the job description of a vice president, of course, but Adams surely had nothing on Mike Pence, who at a celebratory Cabinet meeting last month delivered a three-minute homage to His Elective Majesty that, by the Washington Post’s count, paid tribute to Trump’s leadership, abilities and accomplishments, on average, every 12 seconds.
Modesty isn’t a trait often ascribed to presidents, or to Trump personally, but watching him lap up this Niagara of praise, I couldn’t help wonder, Doesn’t he see through this BS?
It was with that question in mind that I picked up Michael Wolff’s account of the early months of the Trump presidency, “Fire and Fury,” and having read it I can say with confidence that no, he doesn’t see through it at all.
Questions have been raised about some of Wolff’s reporting, but the big picture merely confirms what we’ve always suspected about Trump (who, come to think of it, might actually prefer another from the list of Adams’s suggested honorifics, “His Mightiness”). “It was obvious to everyone that if he had a North Star, it was just to be liked,” Wolff writes. During the campaign, Trump himself explained his obvious affection for Russian President Vladimir Putin in the simplest and most personal terms: “He said, ‘Trump is a genius,’ OK?” Actually, it appears that the word Putin used (яркий, pronounced “yarkii”) more accurately translates to “bright,” in the metaphoric sense of “eye-catching” or “colorful” — not “smart” and certainly not “genius.” But one hears what one chooses, and since “genius” happens to coincide with Trump’s own self-assessment, it’s easy to see why it appealed to him.
And, indeed, Trump’s susceptibility to flattery is one of the running themes of Wolff’s book, along with his ignorance, laziness and emotional volatility. The people around Trump quickly learned that praising him was both a requirement of their positions and a much preferable way to push a point of view than logic or facts. Wolff describes an existential struggle among three competing power centers: chief strategist Steve Bannon with his agenda of overthrowing the Republican establishment in favor of his tea party revolutionaries; chief of staff Reince Priebus, channeling the priorities of House Speaker Paul Ryan and the congressional leadership; and the Jared Kushner-Ivanka Trump nexus, representing relatively centrist Wall Street interests and values. This hugely consequential competition was essentially settled, according to Wolff, quoting an unnamed senior White House aide, at a meeting between Trump and Ryan in which the House speaker rose “to a movie-version level of flattery and sucking up painful to witness.” Wolff writes: “In an example of the odd and unpredictable effects of personal chemistry on Trump — of how easy it can be to sell the salesman — Trump would now eagerly back Ryan’s agenda instead of the other way around.”
This predilection of Trump’s even explains one of the most perplexing questions about his presidency, how he chose as communications director Anthony Scaramucci, a volatile and profane money manager whose idea of burnishing the president’s image was to call up a New Yorker reporter to accuse his White House rival Bannon of performing fellatio on himself. When Scaramucci was being pushed for the job, reportedly by Ivanka Trump, Wolff writes, “it was the president who was won over by the Mooch’s cringeworthy Wall Street hortatory flattery. ‘I can only hope to realize a small part of your genius as a communicator, but you are my example and model,’ was one report of the gist of the Scaramucci supplication.”
And flattery in the Trump administration didn’t just flow up to the president — it imbued the entire operation, enveloping the entire staff in a soothing, or occasionally unnerving, bath of praise, functioning as a unifying concept, like “family connections” in the White House of John F. Kennedy or “paranoia” in Richard Nixon’s. Economic adviser Gary Cohn, “once [Bannon’s] killer enemy, was now desperate to be named Fed chairman and currying favor with Bannon—‘licking my balls,’ Bannon said with quite a cackle.” For Trump and the people around him, flattery was transactional: “That was the nature of Trump’s particular salesmanship. His strategic belief was that there was no reason not to heap excessive puffery on a prospect. But if the prospect was ruled out as a buyer, there was no reason not to heap scorn and lawsuits on him or her.” It worked on retired general Michael Flynn: “Intoxicated by Trump’s flattery during the campaign … Flynn had become quite the maniacal partisan,” Wolff writes, adding that Trump, with his reciprocal weakness for adulation, had even flirted with the idea of making Flynn — who has subsequently pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI — his running mate. At the time, Flynn called it an “unbelievable honor” to be in the mix to be Trump’s No. 2.
I realize that, as a layman whose personal acquaintance with Trump is limited to one meeting 35 years ago, I am in no way qualified to opine on his psychology. But still. Maybe I flatter myself, but I like to think that I, or any normal person, would have seen through the Mooch — Scaramucci’s nickname for himself — for the BS artist he was. Of course, Trump himself is both the Michelangelo and the Cosimo de Medici of BS.
But then I was reminded of an aphorism by the columnist Michael Kinsley, sometimes called “Kinsley’s law”: “Insincere flattery is even more flattering than sincere flattery.” The content of flattery, or its accuracy, is mostly irrelevant to the person on the receiving end; “what really flatters a man,” said George Bernard Shaw, “is that you think him worth flattering.” Scaramucci might have gotten just as far by praising Trump for his golf game, or his command of French.
In Trump’s defense, he is a product of his life experiences, as we all are. He spent much of the last decade as a star in an industry, show business, where exaggerated fawning is regarded as a normal employee perk, like free coffee in newsrooms. Many people have wondered why Trump, who claims to hate the “failing New York Times,” nevertheless seems so eager to speak to its reporters. My own theory is that he never quite got over the first time he was profiled in the paper, as a young up-and-comer in the real estate industry, in an article that began “He is tall, lean and blond, with dazzling white teeth, and he looks ever so much like Robert Redford.” The same story also appears to be the source of the long-standing misapprehension that he graduated at the top of his class from the University of Pennsylvania’s business school. (The article reports his putative academic record without attribution. Reading between the lines you can almost hear Trump dropping that tidbit into the interview, but modestly asking not to be quoted on it.) Who wouldn’t want to pick up the paper and read that about himself?
Nor is Trump unique for his love of flattery. Powerful figures all through history, from God to Billy Crystal, have sought and used flattery to achieve their purposes and feel good about themselves, as Richard Stengel, an editor and former undersecretary of state, wrote in “You’re Too Kind: A Brief History of Flattery.”
Since we began this essay by comparing Trump unfavorably to George Washington, it seems only fair to crib from Stengel’s book Washington’s Mooch-worthy letter to his commander in chief when he was seeking a promotion from his rank of colonel in the Virginia militia: “Do not think, My Lord, that I am going to flatter; notwithstanding I have exalted sentiments of your Lordship’s character and respect your rank, it is not my intention to adulate.”
Stengel — who by the way is one of the world’s greatest journalists, incredibly good-looking and an amazing gourmet cook, or at least he was when he was managing editor of Time and I was a writer at Newsweek — adds that Washington got the promotion.
And one more footnote: as of Sunday, Bannon, who was quoted extensively, and devastatingly, in Wolff’s book, was in full apology mode, a process that actually began on Wednesday as excerpts of the book began circulating. “The president of the United States is a great man,” Bannon said. By Thursday morning, Trump was advertising his readiness to be stroked by the man who had all but accused Trump’s own son and namesake of treason. “He called me a great man last night,” Trump told reporters. “So, you know, he obviously changed his tune pretty quick.”
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