“Congratulations Again, Mr. President”: Trump and the Co-opting of the G.O.P.
Donald Trump hates criticism but loves to criticize. As President, he’s done more of it than perhaps any of his predecessors. He is a cry baby, a snowflake, a wimp, as he himself might say. Many leaders are thin-skinned, but few are so publicly, transparently, unreservedly so. Along with a brazen disregard for facts and a willingness to flout norms that previous Presidents of both parties have observed, issuing a daily deluge of schoolyard taunts and petty insults may be the most distinguishing characteristic of Trump’s Administration. In other words, Twitter is his perfect medium. He remains dazzled by its power, the instant gratification it affords him, and the ability to say what he wants, when he wants, aimed at whomever he wants.
“It’s true, it’s incredible what it does,” he told a conservative social-media summit convened at the White House, on Thursday afternoon. “If I put it out on social media, it’s like an explosion.” Trump makes policy with his Twitter feed, using it to upend the best-laid plans of his Administration and to take on enemies both real and imagined. Just in the past couple days, he has reminded his millions of followers that the former Vice-President running against him is “Sleepy Joe” Biden, that Elizabeth Warren is “a very nervous and skinny Pocahontas,” and that the “Fake News Media” is doomed to be “driven out of business.” The British Prime Minister, Theresa May, on her way out of office, has been “foolish” and a “disaster” in handling Brexit, and her Ambassador “wacky,” “very stupid,” and “not liked or well thought of.”
In each case, Trump was lashing out at those who have criticized him, most notably and pointedly the British envoy to the United States, Kim Darroch, whose private diplomatic cables were leaked to the London tabloid the Mail on Sunday. The cables, once revealed, constituted the very definition of a Washington gaffe in that they were entirely accurate, filled with sharp but essentially banal observations echoing the past few years’ headlines. Darroch called Trump “insecure” and described his dysfunctional White House as “inept,” “clumsy,” and “riven by knife fights.” The essential truth of the Ambassador’s critique was confirmed by Trump’s hair-trigger response. On Monday, he announced—by tweet, of course—that he would no longer deal with the Ambassador; by Wednesday, Darroch was out, resigning because, he said, he could no longer do his job.
Yet the public spectacle of Presidential name-calling—Trump, while President, has called a former aide who turned on him a “dog” and attacked as a “Horseface” the alleged lover who said he had tried and failed to buy her silence—obscures a highly relevant political truth. Trump may love to hurl insults and quite visibly relishes nothing so much as a public Twitter spat. He is willing, though, to accept and make peace with even his harshest critics, as long as they cease and desist from their public dissent. Trump cares about the appearance of criticism more than the criticism itself. His unheralded genius is not in insulting his critics but in co-opting them—or at least in coming to mutually beneficial truces of the sort that suggests Trump’s social-media histrionics are more calculated than they seem.
After all, Trump has essentially stocked his entire government with formerly vehement critics, many of whom said far, far worse things about him than the British Ambassador did. When Trump was elected, the R.N.C. aide who is now the President’s executive assistant wept. His chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, promised to protect the Constitution from him. Some of his biggest cheerleaders on Capitol Hill today once considered themselves diehard Never Trumpers. At the height of last fall’s midterm campaign, Trump’s biggest rally of the season was in Texas, for Ted Cruz, the Republican senator who opposed him in 2016. Cruz, who enthusiastically embraced Trump in a bear hug onstage, had told a friend two years earlier that he refused ever to endorse Trump, because “history isn’t kind to the man who holds Mussolini’s jacket.” These examples are from a compellingly reported new book by the Politico journalist Tim Alberta, “American Carnage: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump.” There are many more examples.
The explanation for the utter collapse in Republican opposition to Trump is not so much brilliant politicking on Trump’s part as a mixture of traditional Washington hypocrisy and accommodation to power, combined with calculating individual ambition—like that which propelled Mulvaney into Trump’s Cabinet and his restive House Freedom Caucus colleagues into becoming the President’s most prominent Fox News shills. Undoubtedly, many have chosen to hold their tongues because they have seen the political punishment meted out by the Trump faithful to those few Republicans, such as now former senators Bob Corker and Jeff Flake, who dared to cross the President publicly. The former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, who held his nose and made what his friends called a “a devil’s bargain” with Trump, got nothing out of it beyond Trump’s scorn. (The President called him a “Boy Scout,” which, Alberta reports, is an insult in Trump-speak.) Ryan eventually decided to retire early rather than be forced out of office or endure more of the President.
For the rest, Trump has been more than willing to accept their flip-flops and public protestations of fealty without worrying about whether they are genuine converts to his right-wing nationalist ideology. He appeared delighted to recognize several members of Congress in the audience at his social-media summit on Thursday, including the House Minority Leader, Kevin McCarthy, who openly joked in 2016 about Trump being a Russian agent but has more recently been noted for devotion so complete that he gave the President a jar of Starburst candies, with only Trump’s preferred reds and pinks included. The more a prostrating Republican has previously opposed Trump, the more it seems the President relishes the humiliation. (See the pictures from that Cruz rally or any Presidential golf match with Lindsey Graham, who evidently no longer considers Trump a “complete idiot,” a “kook,” or a “con man,” as he did three years ago.)
There is a practical dimension as well: If Trump had rebuffed all of his humbled former critics, there would be no way for him to staff his government or command such intense loyalty from a Republican Party that once was united against him. Around ninety per cent of Republicans currently approve of his performance in office, according to Gallup, which is a remarkable political feat when you consider that some sixty-five per cent of registered voters surveyed in the latest Washington Post/ABC poll said they consider Trump’s conduct in office “unpresidential” (a category of behavior that must surely include Twitter-shaming fellow world leaders).
Still, sycophancy is an effective path to favor with any President, especially this one. Trump retains a Manichean view of the world, bracing in its Trump-centric simplicity. This informs foreign policy, domestic policy, and key decisions about hiring and firing—basically, everything he does. On his mystifying affinity for Vladimir Putin, for example, the Mueller report’s inconclusive findings suggest that there may be no more accurate explanation than one that Trump himself gave, in public, in 2016: “He says very nice things about me.” It’s a line Trump often uses in the accounts that have emerged of his private conversations in the White House, and his subordinates have clearly received the message. Consider Attorney General William Barr’s performance in the Rose Garden on Thursday afternoon, when he and Trump were announcing that the Administration would back off on Trump’s plan to add a citizenship question to the upcoming census. Bowing to the Supreme Court’s recent ruling against it, Barr claimed that the choice to forgo putting the question on the census was essentially a “logistical” obstacle, about timing. He applauded Trump for courageously agreeing to abide by the Court’s decision, declaring, “Congratulations again, Mr. President.”
The President’s essential love of sycophancy predates his ascension to the White House, of course, even as it continues to shape his decisions there. Trump, one hopes, must be aware of what many of those surrounding him actually think. He knows that the British Ambassador was reflecting widely held views in Washington, not personal pique, in his cables home. When external adulation isn’t enough, the President reminded us again this week, he is willing to step in and provide self-care for the fragile Trumpian ego. Before his social-media bonding session with handpicked right-wing tweeters, radio hosts, and other message amplifiers on Thursday, Trump took time out for an interlude of positivity. The object of his sunniness was . . . himself. Your President, he assured his Twitter audience, is “so great looking and smart, a true Stable Genius.” It is not enough for others to flatter Trump. He has to flatter himself.
Washington in the Trump era can often feel like a sort of bumper-car ride of competing news cycles, devolving into a pileup of rival controversies, scandals, and social-media contretemps. Some are memorable enough to outlast a Twitter frenzy or two; others disappear before the weekend. On Wednesday, Darroch, the Ambassador from Great Britain, lost his job for telling the truth about Trump (and Alexander Acosta, the Cabinet secretary who agreed to a secret plea deal for a wealthy sex offender, kept his). By next week, the details of this latest scandal are likely to be hazy, if not forgotten. The slow-motion collapse of the pre-2016 G.O.P., and its complete takeover by Donald Trump, is a reminder that big trends in history are often just a collection of such small, telling moments.