By now, anyone not vacationing on the Greenland ice sheet is familiar with the major themes of Fire and Fury, Michael Wolff’s book about Donald Trump’s presidency: the eye-rolling by Trump’s subordinates when describing their boss, the president’s man-child behavior, the administrative chaos, and the endless feuding between rival White House factions. But there is something else less remarked upon by the commentariat.
Washington is no stranger to subordinates heaping praise on their leader. And when a politician blunders, his underlings hasten to explain away the gaffe, or, if need be, to take the fall. But the current administration carries these tendencies to lengths that would make Caesar blush.
Examples just from the last few days abound. In response to a question by CNN’s Jake Tapper about Trump’s calling himself a “very stable genius,” senior adviser Stephen Miller gushed, “I saw a man who was a political genius, somebody who we would be going down, landing, in descent there would be a breaking news development. And in 20 minutes, he would dictate 10 paragraphs of new material to address that event.”
When Axios revealed that the POTUS’s work day is not exactly strenuous—it begins at 11:00 AM and is punctuated by copious “executive time” (spent watching TV or tweeting), and sometimes has hardly any real scheduled work at all—White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders reacted with this panegyric: “The President is one of the hardest workers I’ve ever seen and puts in long hours and long days nearly every day of the week all year long. It has been noted by reporters many times that they wish he would slow down because they sometimes have trouble keeping up with him.”
Consider the testimony of CIA Director Mike Pompeo, clearly at odds with accounts of a president far more interested in Fox & Friends than the president’s daily intelligence briefs: “This president is an avid consumer of the work product that our team at the CIA produces, and we do our best to convey that to him nearly every day.” Note the qualifier that was supposed to hide in plain sight: nearly every day. But Pompeo already gave the game away months before when he enthused about Trump swooning over the intelligence community’s “killer graphics,” a euphemistic way of saying the president doesn’t read.
Trump World’s acclaim for its hero suggests a personality cult in which a regime creates an over-the-top image of its leader that is plainly at odds with reality. While this leader cult has existed since the first organized state in Mesopotamia, its modern historical template is Joseph Stalin.
The cult of Stalin (hailed as the “universal genius” rather than Trump’s mere “stable genius”) went to extravagant lengths, but we hear semantic similarities—despite the stylistic differences—between the flatteries by the president’s staff and outpourings like this:
“[W]e regard ourselves as the happiest of mortals because we are the contemporaries of a man who never had an equal in world history… And when the woman I love presents me with a child the first word it shall utter will be: Stalin.”
What happens, though, when a traitorous wrecker defames the leader? Steve Bannon, who had offered some harsh appraisals of his boss to Wolff, found out the hard way: he has been crushed, relegated to insignificance. The erstwhile Svengali who made the cover of Time as “the great manipulator” is now the closest thing to a gulag zek as exists in Republican politics: an operative on the edge of losing his access to wingnut welfare, a cushy gig as a cable TV pundit.
But the story of an enemy of the people unmasked would be incomplete without an anguished expression of repentant loyalty. No sooner was Bannon excommunicated than he delivered this cringing paean to the president’s son, whom he had trashed in Wolff’s book:
“Donald Trump, Jr. is both a patriot and a good man. He has been relentless in his advocacy for his father and the agenda that has helped turn our country around. I regret that my delay in responding to the inaccurate reporting regarding Don Jr. has diverted attention from the president’s historical accomplishments in the first year of his presidency.”
As for the president, Bannon seemed intent on nominating him for the first available vacancy in the Trinity: “The president is a great man. You know I support him day in and day out.” Bannon’s statement was nearly as cringing as, but mercifully less verbose than, Nikolai Bukharin’s guilty plea in the Moscow show trials of 1938.
Let us proceed from satirical comparison to the heart of the matter. The adoration that Soviet functionaries lavished upon Stalin wasn’t optional if they wished to remain unincarcerated or even alive. The groveling confessions of the show trial defendants were coerced, and if they refused to confess under torture, they were told their families would be shot as accessories if they did not plead guilty.
Unlike the Soviet victims, Americans still have a Bill of Rights. There are plenty of jobs a person can take other than a gig requiring one to make asinine comments on behalf of a deranged man for the whole world to hear. As for Bannon, he is a millionaire—he’ll never have to scavenge food from a dumpster even if he never takes another dime from the conservative media-entertainment complex.
Yet he and his White House buddies all continue this imbecile charade to the detriment of whatever remains of their self-respect. They are well on their way to becoming bywords and laughingstocks, like Sean Spicer, just for the illusory Beltway privilege of being close to the action.