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Under Trump, toadyism has been normalized

Richard Cohen on

Whatever happened to pride?

I ask because reports regularly surface about Donald Trump berating or insulting someone, often an aide, who just takes it. A recent example comes from Michael Wolff's new book "Siege," in which Paul Manafort, once Trump's campaign chairman but now domiciled in stir, was vulgarly upbraided by the president: "You're terrible, you can't defend me." Trump allegedly called him a "lazy f---" and asked "Am I a f---ing baby?" in a train wreck of a verbal assault.

Trump also berated Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate majority leader, but he, as it happens, shouted back. Not so Jeff Sessions, the former attorney general, who was soaked by a drizzle of demeaning tweets in addition to an Oval Office tirade he later characterized as the most humiliating experience of his public life. He offered to resign, but he stayed on anyway and never asked the president to step outside and put up his dukes.

Bob Woodward recounts similar episodes in his own book, appropriately and ominously titled "Fear: Trump in the White House." The list of administration aides that Trump belittles is long and, with some omissions, distinguished. It includes Gary Cohn, once of Goldman Sachs; Gen. H.R. McMaster, once of the U.S. Army; Rex Tillerson, once of Exxon Mobil; Gen. John F. Kelly, once of the Marine Corps; and, of course, the incessantly insulted Reince Priebus, who, in the manner of abused men of old, has sort of run away to sea. (He recently enlisted in the Navy.)

What's largely missing from these accounts are reports of pushback -- of people telling Trump to his face that he's a bully and he can, in the hallowed words of David Allan Coe's classic song, "take this job and shove it." With the possible exception of "e pluribus unum," it is the most American of phrases, evoking an exemplary "don't tread on me" ethos -- yet another wonderful bit of Americana. This is who we are. At any rate, this is who we used to be.

Now, though, an icky toadyism has been normalized. The White House staff members have the spine of nightcrawlers, oozing their way from meeting to meeting, trying to circumvent some idiotic presidential order or simply concealing matters from him. This is what's happening now with attempts to plant malware in Russia's energy grid, in response to Russia's intrusion into America's energy grid. The New York Times recently reported that some aspects of this clandestine program were withheld from Trump lest he object. But the secret probably remains safe from Trump since the story ran on Sunday, golf day.

The normalization of the abnormal is now, yes, normal. This should not be surprising. Francoise Gilot, one of Picasso's longtime lovers, recounted in her memoir how she and Picasso first struck up a romance at a Parisian restaurant in 1943. The war was on, the Gestapo and the compliant French police were making arrests, Jews were being rounded up for transport to Auschwitz -- and yet life went on as before.

 

Such is human nature, and I hesitate in cushy 21st-century America to make judgments about how Picasso managed to paint through the slaughter. But that was then and now is now, and I can't help but have maximum scorn for those people who have inhaled the dope of Washington power and confuse it with some sort of noble calling. They are patriots in their own cause, lying to themselves and others in the service of the greatest liar of them all.

Outgoing press secretary Sarah Sanders leaves the White House having served Trump but not the truth -- just recall her statement that she had heard from "countless ... individuals who work at the FBI who said they were very happy" with Trump's decision to fire FBI Director James Comey. She succeeded the precedent-setting Sean Spicer who, at the birth of the new administration and in the deadpan manner of a North Korean tour guide, insisted Trump's inaugural crowd was the "largest" ever.

In Wolff's new book, an anonymous White House source says of the president, "I have never met anyone crazier than Donald Trump." So, it is understandable that a White House aide would simply avoid a confrontation with the president. But the mystery to me is not Trump -- he is a brat in a bespoke suit -- but the people who put up with him. Their pride has been taken from them. The morning's mirror is their first lie of the day. It cannot show how hollow they are.

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Richard Cohen's email address is cohenr@washpost.com.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

 

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