Sycophant: a servile self-seeking flatterer.
Niccolo Machiavelli is often associated with a style of politics called Machiavellianism which Merriam-Webster defines as “the view that politics is amoral and that any means however unscrupulous can justifiably be used in achieving political power”. People often refer to Richard Nixon’s actions as “Machiavellian”, for example. Politicians are often accused of “Machiavellian” behavior when they do or say anything necessary to be elected. I’ll address this type of politics in a later post, but today I actually want to use Machiavelli to discuss President Trump’s cabinet.
As an aside, when people refer to “Machiavellian behavior” they only refer to ideas expressed in one of the author’s books, The Prince, and ignore his other works that address republics rather than tyranny. Machiavelli wrote to his audience and The Prince was an attempt to gain favor with a monarch from whom Niccolo wanted a job. In other places he actually argued in favor of republics.
OK. Sorry. That history lesson was probably unnecessary but it is one if my many pet peeves.
I’m sure you are wondering what Machiavelli has to do with this post.
Since Donald Trump appeared on the political scene several years ago I’ve read both conservative and liberal sources that refer to his brand of politics as “Machiavellian”. It is true that many of President Trump’s decisions and actions take on the autocratic flavor promoted in The Prince, but it is pretty apparent that the President is not at all familiar with other of Machiavelli’s prescriptions for political success.
Here’s what I mean.
Chapter 23 of The Prince (Wooton’s translation) is entitled “How Sycophants are to be Avoided”. Machiavelli wrote:
“My subject is sycophants, who pullulate* at court. For men are so easily flattered and are easily taken in by praise, that is it difficult for them to defend themselves against this plague, and in defending themselves they run the risk of making themselves despicable. For there is no way of protecting oneself against flattery other than making it clear you do not mind being told the truth…. So a wise ruler ought to find an alternative to flattery…” *Pullulate means to breed or produce freely (I Googled it for you).
Machiavelli thus warned political leaders, even tyrants, not to surround themselves with sycophants or flatterers who offer only praise when honesty is needed. If you have paid attention to the news in recent days you know where I’m headed with this.
As far back as 1992 Donald Trump stated that he requires absolute loyalty and that he “gets even” with anyone who is disloyal. I’m pretty certain this is a fairly outdated approach to management in the private sector because most modern management models favor more democratic and inclusive decision-making. And in the public sector I am absolutely certain that a president (or any other governing official) surrounding him or herself with sycophants or flatterers is an indescribably bad idea. Yet it appears that is precisely what the current resident of the White House has done.
You can choose whether to believe President Trump or James Comey regarding Comey’s claim that President Trump asked him to pledge loyalty, but if true such a demand or request was way out of order because the head of the FBI must be totally independent and absolutely should not pledge loyalty to anyone.
The Comey claims aside, however, we now have videotaped evidence that President Trump surrounds himself only with sycophants. During his first Cabinet meeting on June 12 every single one of his cabinet members pledged unwavering support and allegiance to the President. This after the President opened by stating that “Never has there been a president….with few exceptions…who’s passed more legislation, who’s done more things than I have.” Any advisers not playing the roll of sycophant would have corrected this blatantly false statement. Not a single piece of important legislation has been passed since President Trump took office; almost everything passing Congress up to this point is minor and has no significant impact. Healthcare reform, tax reform, immigration reform, and all other legislation promised during the presidential campaign have made it nowhere although the entire national government is controlled by the President’s party. Rather than correcting President Trump’s false statement, however, each member of the Cabinet obsequiously heaped praise on the him.
Before you begin attacking me for disrespecting the President, remember that I am non-partisan and am independent and have not been a real fan of any American president in a long time. In my opinion, however, the mess that is the current White House is frighteningly dangerous to our republic and our future.
If President Trump surrounds himself with advisers and administrators who are afraid to offer views contrary to his own, the President lives in a protective bubble and believes all his ideas are good. The most successful presidents of recent decades such as Reagan and Clinton (just because they were successful doesn’t mean you must agree with their policies, decisions, or outcomes) surrounded themselves with intelligent advisers who felt comfortable giving their boss truthful information. It is painfully obvious that President Trump takes a different approach and is, consequently, separated from the truth on numerous issues.
To be honest, the behavior of President Trump’s cabinet members would be more understandable in Russian President Putin’s cabinet or maybe in the leadership circle for North Korea’s supreme leader. We would expect it there. But we should be terribly worried about such syncophantic fawning by public servants whose first responsibility is to the American public. Pledging allegiance to the President and an unwillingness (or inability) to offer ideas contradictory to his means his ideas will always win, and at this point I don’t think most of his ideas are well considered or researched. And if anyone with access to the President does miraculously grow a spine I sincerely hope his or her first bit of advice will be to delete his Twitter account because that one thing explains a great deal of his current 36% approval rating and his inability to get things done.
President Trump certainly makes a big deal out of loyalty, moreso than any president I can recall, even in distant history, but how rare is that in practical terms? Other than a few notable presidents who made a point to staff their cabinets with strong wills, have other presidents, on average, demanded less loyalty?
Trump excels in vulgar displays. He rode a golden escalator to the podium when he announced his candidacy. His attempts at diplomacy are as gaudy as his escalator (or his building or his plane). So, I’m not surprised that when he demands loyalty, he literally says “I demand loyalty.” But have previous presidents been very different practically?
President’s do expect loyalty, but that Cabinet meeting was embarrassing. Presidents have the authority to dismiss cabinet members at will, and some have done so, but in general the secretaries must be allowed to run their departments with at least some sense of autonomy, and most presidents have allowed that autonomy. That isn’t possible when a secretary is expected to bow down and kiss the President’s ring in public. When I watched the video of that meeting it honestly reminded me of the Soviet Politburo and secretariat.
I appreciate your comment, Aaron. I’m glad to know you are still reading my blog!!
This is a scary thing to have a leader who doesn’t want anybody to disagree with him. And thank you for the note about his Twitter account. I wholeheartedly agree!