Trump and the Art of Sycophancy
(Originally published in March 2016)
Four years ago, Donald Trump’s first year-long anti-establishment charade ended when, naturally, he settled his presidential endorsement on the GOP establishment’s candidate. I say “naturally,” because flattering or carrying water for the status quo has been the most natural thing in the world for this megalomaniac, driven as he apparently is by the insecure schoolboy’s ultimate fear, namely being disliked or ignored by the popular kids.
A mere nuisance becomes a potential danger, however, when the calculating flatterer widens his aim from the elites to the general population, i.e., when sycophancy devolves into demagoguery.
Let us begin by laying out the political history of a garden variety sycophant.
Trump supported Bill Clinton when Clinton’s popularity was riding high, and even years later said he had been “a great president.” He supported George W. Bush and the Iraq war when that was the popular thing to do; but when war protests were growing (probably louder in his New York Democrat circles than elsewhere), he said the war was a mistake—though he still supported Bush’s 2004 re-election. In the later years of his second term, however, when Bush’s job approval rating collapsed, Trump echoed Code Pink protesters in calling for impeachment.
During the 2008 global economic crisis, when the bipartisan Washington establishment persuaded the world that the only solution was a massive government bailout, Trump was a faithful cheerleader, later saying that even nationalizing the banks would have been acceptable.
In early 2008, when Hillary Clinton seemed to be the inevitable successor to Bush, Trump called her his friend and said she would make “a great president.” When Hillary lost the Democrat nomination to Barack Obama, Trump endorsed (i.e., glommed on to) John McCain and said he would be “a great president.” When McCain lost the election, Trump was almost immediately praising the man who defeated him, Obama, calling him a “champion” and saying he was doing “a really good job.”
In 2011, however, when Obama’s popularity was waning, and the Tea Party was gaining momentum and electoral force, Trump, considering a presidential run, briefly teased the fringes of that movement with his “birther” crusade—even though he had just made a $50,000 donation to Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, an organization whose primary mission was the destruction of the Tea Party. Talk about hedging your bets!
Then in 2012, after the GOP establishment and its “conservative media” appendages (Drudge, Fox News, etc.) had basically vanquished all the conservative challengers to Mitt Romney (note: after the fight, not during), Trump jumped in to endorse Romney. From that point up to the moment he embarked on his own presidential campaign, Trump’s most significant political activities were his major donations to the Boehner and McConnell efforts to nullify the Tea Party, and his funding and endorsement of McConnell’s re-election bid against Tea Party challenger Matt Bevin.
Over the past quarter century, then, Donald Trump has sought to align himself with every major political movement within either party that seemed to be on the ascendency. This is true both on the macro level of general trends and on the micro level of specific policies. During the current campaign, for example, we have been reminded that Trump supported partial birth abortion when he was focused on the New York values of his political friends, whereas now, when winning the support of evangelicals is a priority, he is claiming the mantle of Christianity while awkwardly reading from “Two Corinthians.” The same “flexibility” applies to his positions on healthcare, Syrian refugees, illegal immigration, Hillary Clinton, you name it.
His own best defense of his incessant and convenient shapeshifting is to identify himself as a crony capitalist, declaring that when he supported everything you hate he was merely paying off the powerful to gain his own personal advantage. Self-damning as this may be as a justification for a lifetime of enabling progressive despotism, I think it tells only part of the story.
The most persuasive explanation for Trump’s popularity during the early stages of his campaign was the “alpha male” theory, according to which Trump supposedly has the appeal of a John Wayne-like figure, who emerges from the desert, solves the problems that are too rough-and-tumble for ordinary citizens, and then rides off into the sunset. The problem is that the arc of Trump’s public life displays no likeness to a John Wayne hero, Shane, or any other American symbol of the alpha male. On the contrary, the character he most resembles is Woody Allen’s Zelig, a man lacking “authentic personality” who uncontrollably reinvents himself to conform to every social circumstance, literally transforming into a Hasidic rabbi when among Jews and into a Nazi when with Hitler.
Trump shows a similar tendency, but in his case the extreme conformism appears to stem less from a lack of “authenticity” than from delusions of grandeur. Needing to see himself as what he manifestly is not, namely a great leader of men, he publicly aligns himself, by turns, with every popular movement, in a desperate attempt to sustain the illusion (which may seem real for him) that he represents the vanguard of each movement, when in truth he is, and always has been, a coattail rider.
Notice how frequently he declares that no one was talking about illegal immigration before he brought it up, that no one cared about Islamic radicalism before he noticed it in 2015, and that no one had dared to challenge political correctness before he semi-consciously included a few pellets of genuine political incorrectness among the buckshot spray of his casual vulgarity. (Leftist smart aleck Bill Maher is “politically incorrect” in exactly the same way—nine parts vulgar blowhard to one part useful critic of orthodoxy—except that Maher’s rare good points are more cogent than Trump’s.)
Over the past year, Trump has gradually broadened his political sycophancy for mass appeal, by learning the demagogic skill of co-opting an issue so loudly that people forget he wasn’t the first to mention it. The illusion dissolves the moment the candidates are asked to explain the details of their respective views on one of these supposed “Trump issues,” and one sees that Trump’s loud pronouncements were all crowd-baiting surface noise with no substance, whereas others have actually spent years engaging with the issue in all its complexities. This is why demagoguery only works in crowds; it is a fraud easily exposed by rational discourse. For a stark demonstration of the difference between demagoguery and statesmanship, compare Trump’s vacuous sound bites on the “worst deal ever” with Iran to Ted Cruz’ impromptu debate on the issue with Code Pink hecklers.
In sum, Trump only plays “alpha male” on TV. (Not very well, I might add: a real “Quiet Man,” to the extent that one may be found in our flaccid civilization, would not continually tell you how great he is, how loved he is, how smart he is, how big his gun is. Reputation would be the least, not the greatest, of his concerns.)
His one consistent campaign pledge is his promise to become whatever seems advantageous to him at the time. Hence his two-faced policy proposals, e.g., touchback amnesty deceptively framed during the primaries as a tough stand on illegal immigration. Hence his complete about-face on foreign worker visas after having made it a major selling point of his campaign, right up to the moment Jeff Sessions endorsed him. Hence his insistence that the military will follow his orders, even if illegal, followed the next day by a meek retraction when his bloviating failed to garner the expected applause.
He is “flexible,” a euphemism for unprincipled. And in this case “unprincipled” itself is almost a euphemism—for weak. Pragmatists on matters of principle are inherently weak men, because their modus operandi is to cut and run, to avoid ever having to stand alone or take up arms with an outnumbered party against a powerful opponent.
His followers—who are, unbeknownst to both Trump and themselves, actually his leaders—ought to be paying close attention to this pragmatism. Throughout Trump’s ill-conceived “Everyone hates Ted” gambit—inadvertently promoting Cruz as an enemy of the Washington elite—one implication of his attack was largely overlooked. Consider what is revealed when a man whose campaign strategy consists of personal attacks chooses to focus his main assault on his claim that a rival is “hated by everyone” and “has no friends.” Like his crude jokes about women’s faces and bodily functions, his mocking of another man’s height, or the bizarre sensitivity that compels him to publicly defend his male endowment, this attack on Cruz’s unpopularity is reminiscent of nothing so much as the insecure braggadocio of a poorly-raised thirteen year old. More importantly, if we turn this childish attack around on its purveyor, we get a perfect mirror of the soul of a delusional sycophant.
A man for whom the worst thing to say about someone is “no one likes him” is plainly a man for whom being liked or accepted outweighs all other concerns. John Wayne my foot!
What will such a man do to remain liked, at least as he understands it? More importantly, what will he not do? What principle or promise will he not betray? What friend or supporter will he not abandon in favor of more, or more powerful, friends or supporters?
Yes, Trump will abandon his supporters; but if he has his way, they will not abandon him. He has recently taken to prodding his large rally crowds into raising their right hands and swearing an oath to vote for him. That almost all of them do it is a spectacular commentary on the depth of moral submission to which a once proud people have been shepherded by progressive education. The problem is not merely, as Cruz has pointed out, that candidates ought to be pledging loyalty to their supporters, not the other way around. More significantly, swearing to vote for a candidate in advance of an election—swearing away your freedom to change your mind depending on changing circumstances—is surrendering your conscience.
“Oh, lighten up!” Trump’s devotees will object. “Those oath-takers were just playing.” Were they? Given the context—a political campaign rally—and the gravity of the stakes, that seems far-fetched, as does the belief that this “play” will have no psychological pull on its participants. Even children in the playground know that swearing to do something sort of obliges you to do it in the name of moral integrity. That’s why they cross their fingers when they give false promises—they hope to override the feeling of obligation that attaches to swearing even the most inconsequential oath.
It is interesting, however, that a man who just a few weeks ago boasted that his supporters would stick with him even if he shot a man on Fifth Avenue is now seeking public reassurance that they will not turn their backs on him at this critical moment. For although he hasn’t shot anyone—a protester sucker-punched or a reporter man-handled by his thugs here or there, to be sure, but no gunfire—he has begun laying waste to the promises and hard lines he fed his audience in order to attract their support. Will they stay with him as he asks them to swerve onto contradictory paths over the coming weeks?
His new loyalty oath routine is clearly a nervous man’s reflexive attempt to solidify support that he fears (with good reason) may be slipping. And, however intrinsically minor it may seem, this oath shtick has ugly overtones when viewed within the broader pattern of Trump’s thinking.
Too often, Trump suggests he would not hesitate to circumvent or short-circuit others’ freedoms and self-determination in order to achieve his aims: suing an old lady to take her property for his own profit; unequivocally supporting NSA collection of all electronic communications; insisting that the military would follow his orders even if illegal; threatening all members of the press who write “negative” articles about him; rousing angry crowds to violent feelings by telling them he’d like to punch protesters in the face; and exploiting the moral intimidation of large groups to coax people into swearing to vote for him regardless of what happens between now and voting day. Taken collectively, these are not the inclinations of an honorable man. They reveal the mind of a morally incontinent teenager so afraid of being challenged or resisted that he seeks to eliminate all threats before they arise.
History is pockmarked with the effects of such weak men. In isolation, these figures are merely ridiculous. But thanks to the irrational tendencies of crowds, such individuals, if they are clever enough, and happen upon circumstances that promote their sycophancy into demagoguery, can cause great harm.