WASHINGTON — White House staffers have two general objectives: to serve the president and to please the president. The two do not always coincide.
I can recall, as a policy adviser to President George W. Bush, sending him articles and columns (including some by Nicholas Kristof) savaging the administration’s reaction to the unfolding Darfur genocide. Predictably, Bush called me into the Oval Office to vent against the unfairness of the criticism. Just as typically, he ended the meeting by telling me a series of steps he was taking to review and toughen our policy.
Or take the example of Bush’s chief of staff Joshua Bolten. In 2006, Bolten sent clip after clip to the president demonstrating how American strategy in Iraq was failing. A more successful approach — “the surge” — was built on this foundation of presidential disillusionment.
It is clear that President Trump does not reward this type of service. The way to reach Trump is to flatter him in the extreme. This does not mean that everyone in the administration is always obsequious. But it does mean that all the incentives run toward obsequiousness. It is Trump’s form of natural selection: the survival of the servile.
White House senior adviser Stephen Miller has risen by climbing this greasy pole. His appearance last Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union” — in which he hailed his boss as a “political genius” — was a master class in toadying. Miller’s purpose was not to make public arguments but, as Jake Tapper appropriately put it, to please “one viewer.” And that viewer immediately provided a reward: “Jake Tapper of Fake News CNN just got destroyed in his interview with Stephen Miller,” tweeted the president. A crass and obvious feedback loop was immediately at work.
Miller is not alone. Members of the Cabinet have been trained to burst out in praise of the Great Leader on a moment’s notice. Members of Congress — even past critics — have figured out the power of subservience in the Trump era. Media figures such as Sean Hannity get the deal. So do the Chinese and Saudi governments, which have made stroking the president’s ego into an effective tool of diplomacy.
But what I know best is the White House. And here the triumph of suck-uppery presents special problems.
First, an atmosphere of flattery can exaggerate a president’s worst traits. During Richard Nixon’s presidency, the cooler heads at the White House tried to ignore his obsession with enemies and schemes of retribution. The yes men, such as (by his own later admission) Chuck Colson, ran with Nixon’s instincts — turning his manias into plans — to help consolidate their influence. Miller has done much the same on immigration — feeding Trump’s anti-immigrant bias and undermining the prospect of a legislative deal.
Second, sycophancy in the White House makes it more difficult to correct errors. Governing is not a science. It is necessary to make policy adjustments all the time, large and small. If a president does not understand and acknowledge mistakes, he can’t learn from them and correct them. The flatterer is thus an impediment to effective governing.
Third, obsequiousness creates an anti-empirical culture. Aides are tempted to select and pass along the most positive, pleasing information. They distort reality to stay in favor rather than presenting reality in order to help confront it. This appears to be happening right now with members of Trump’s legal team. They seem to be assuring him that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is nearing an end, and that Trump’s legal exposure is limited. They should be preparing him for the onslaught of a skilled prosecutor, armed with highly damaging information on collusion, obstruction of justice and (if Steve Bannon is to be believed) money laundering.
Fourth, an atmosphere of flattery is often an atmosphere of fear. When staffers set out to win the favor of an egotistical and mercurial boss, they are generally pitted against each other. The ethos is acidic. Trump’s main management goal seems to be to keep his employees off balance — unsure of his regard — in order to motivate conspicuous acts of loyalty. This is a way to gain adulation, but also to sow enmity. Trump’s style of leadership motivated the competition and contempt that characterized the initial failures of the Trump White House — particularly the self-serving leaks. And there is little evidence this dynamic has changed.
It won’t change, of course, until the president really wants it to. This would require only one simple, impossible thing: for Trump to part with the narrative of his own infallibility.
Michael Gerson’s email address is email@example.com.