Today‘s New York Times column by Maureen Dowd is titled “The Sycophant and the Sociopath.” In it Dowd discusses last week’s damning testimony by Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen in which Cohen condemned Trump as a “racist, a con man, and a cheat.” But while Dowd fairly distills the pathetic mea culpa Cohen delivered to Congress in his attempt to justify a decade spent “fixing” Trump’s legal problems, she skates around the implications of her title, which really goes to the heart of the matter.
A better analysis of Trump’s true nature can be found in the latest edition of the New York Review of Books, in which Fintan O’Toole reviews two books about Trump (Team of Vipers and Let Me Finish), authored by former sycophants Cliff Sims and Chris Christie, respectively.
Christie’s book, in particular, includes a revealing instance where Christie, who headed Trump’s transition team, had prepared a thirty-volume “transition plan” which he hoped to use to demonstrate his worth to Trump. The “transition plan” laid out in minute detail a blueprint for transforming the federal government in ways Christie believed Trump would approve, and contained drafts for executive orders, a list of pre-vetted proposed Executive appointments, and timetables for actions to be taken by Federal agencies. However, it never saw the light of day.
What followed seems, on Trump’s part, gleefully sadistic. Christie was a big figure in the Trump campaign: the first serving senior officeholder to endorse and legitimize his candidacy. His star had fallen since his stunning landslide reelection in New Jersey in 2013, but he was still, as the Republican governor of a deep blue state, a figure of real political substance. He also imagined that Trump had been a close personal friend since 2002. Yet when he arrived at Trump Tower to present his thirty binders of plans for the new administration, he was met by Steve Bannon. Bannon told Christie that he was being fired with immediate effect, “and we do not want you to be in the building anymore.” His painstaking work was literally trashed: “All thirty binders were tossed in a Trump Tower dumpster, never to be seen again.”
Trump’s refusal to entertain the views of those he considered potential rivals is described by O’Toole as characteristic of his complete confidence in his own “instincts,” specifically “[h]is belief in the primacy of instinct over intelligence.”
“In his 1987 best seller The Art of the Deal, written for him by Tony Schwartz, [Trump] insists that:
[M]ore than anything else, I think deal-making is an ability you’re born with. It’s in the genes. I don’t say that egotistically. It’s not about being brilliant. It does take a certain intelligence, but mostly it’s about instincts. You can take the smartest kid at Wharton, the one who gets straight A’s and has a 170 IQ, and if he doesn’t have the instincts, he’ll never be a successful entrepreneur.”
After his latest failed “summit” meeting with murderous North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, Donald Trump displayed what has by now become a predictable ritual of extending praise and admiration towards authoritarian despots. Asked about the North Korean government’s horrific mistreatment of the 21 year old American college student Otto Warmbier, arrested, beaten and permanently brain-damaged in that country for the capital crime of attempting to steal a propaganda poster as a souvenir, Trump shrugged it off with his usual insouciance, saying that he accepted Kim’s solemn assertion that Kim had known nothing about Warmbier’s mistreatment and ultimate fate.
The fact that anyone with even a passing knowledge of North Korea could see Kim’s transparent lie for what it was meant less ultimately than Trump’s reflexive impulse to repeat it and give it credence. Trump had previously used the Warmbier family as props when (earlier in his presidency) he took a far harsher tone with North Korea, castigating its demented leader as “Little Rocket Man” and bragging about the prowess of American nuclear weaponry. The disdain he showed to the Warmbier family this time around, however, was striking in its casual and careless inhumanity. His identification with Kim’s dictatorial powers fits perfectly with a personality built on self-regard and a total lack of empathy for the concerns of anyone else.
Trump really does believe that the genetic inheritance of extraordinary instincts is what has made so him uniquely qualified to intuit the truth about any subject on earth. In October 2018 he told the Associated Press that he understood climate change because “my uncle was a great professor at MIT for many years. Dr. John Trump. And I didn’t talk to him about this particular subject, but I have a natural instinct for science.”
That is what we have now come to expect from Trump—a dearth of human feeling that psychologists define as sociopathy.
[A] person with a psychopathic personality whose behavior is antisocial, often criminal, and who lacks a sense of moral responsibility or social conscience.
It’s taken a while for the media to admit to themselves that Trump may have traits typical of antisocial personality disorder, because to do that they would have to acknowledge their part in foisting such a miserable human specimen upon the American people. But there was never a shortage of evidence on this score. CNN worldwide President Jeffrey Zucker, who is probably responsible more than anyone else for promoting Trump and misrepresenting his true nature to line his own pockets with the enormously successful “Reality TV” series, The Apprentice, has since acknowledged he was fully aware of Trump’s abominable and inhuman nature, yet he chose not to reveal it during the 2016 campaign, perhaps assuming that Trump could not win.
But Trump’s true nature was no mystery, long before he decided to run for President. As a disciple of the infamous Roy Cohn, Trump’s pedigree was crystal clear for anyone who bothered to research him.
Cohn’s despicable inhumanity and relentless penchant for ruining the lives of others is part of the historical record.
During the Red Scare of the 1950s, [Cohn] and Wisconsin senator Joe McCarthy, the fabulist and virulent nationalist crusader, had hauled dozens of alleged “Communist sympathizers” before a Senate panel. Earlier, the House Un-American Activities Committee had skewered artists and entertainers on similar charges, resulting in a trail of fear, prison sentences, and ruined careers for hundreds, many of whom had found common cause in fighting Fascism.
Cohn met Trump in 1973 around the time he began his career in real estate development. Cohn, having survived the disgrace of his role as chief counsel to Joe McCarthy relatively unscathed, was itching to pass on his unscrupulous tactics to a protege, and Trump, an obnoxious, rich and charismatic boor, fit the bill perfectly. The two became fast friends, and Cohn, acting as Trump’s lawyer, quickly found that he and Trump shared a common worldview:
“You knew when you were in Cohn’s presence you were in the presence of pure evil,” said lawyer Victor A. Kovner, who had known him for years.Cohn’s power derived largely from his ability to scare potential adversaries with hollow threats and spurious lawsuits. And the fee he demanded for his services? Ironclad loyalty.
Sound like anybody you know?
Trump—who would remain loyal to Cohn for many years—would be one of the last and most enduring beneficiaries of Cohn’s power. But as Trump would confide in 1980, he already seemed to be trying to distance himself from Cohn’s inevitable taint: “All I can tell you is he’s been vicious to others in his protection of me,” Trump told me, as if to wave away a stench.
Cohn died of AIDS-related complications in 1986. But his protege Donald Trump carried on his legacy of using his wealth and power to flagrantly abuse virtually everyone he came into contact with. That he was presented to the American public by the likes of Zucker and others in the media as some type of affable, entertaining and successful businessman, and that millions of Americans were duped into believing that was what he was, may turn out to be the most unforgivable hoax ever perpetrated in human history.
But here we are. And gradually, dragged kicking and screaming, we are finally witnessing the explicit recognition by the media of the terrible fact that millions of Americans in 2016 entrusted our government, our futures, and our children’s futures, to someone with a clear pathology, a mentally damaged person, one whom we would normally shun as toxic and dangerous. As O’Toole puts it, Trump’s narcissistic view of his infallibility, coupled with his lack of any moral compass, is poison to the idea of democratic governance.
The gut is a tyrant. Intuition is both inherently unpredictable and, as a basis for public policy, inherently anti-democratic. It does not have to account for itself—any more than divine inspiration can be questioned by believers. It is not open to contradiction because it is entirely personal—the insight is unique to the president. Trump declared in his acceptance speech at the Republican convention in 2016, having evoked an apocalyptic vision of a broken America, “I alone can fix it.” This “I” is all gut and no brain.
So why do we continue to tolerate this? The answer—as the 2018 midterm elections proved—is that a fair majority of us don’t. But the Cohen hearings provided us with the clearest demonstration to date that the Republican Party is irreversibly wedded to carrying water for this sociopath. None of the Republicans who questioned Cohen bothered to challenge the fundamental fact of Trump’s criminal nature, or the acts attributed to him. We may ask ourselves how a political party could become so corrupted that it would be reduced to a gaggle of sycophants, willing to overlook even the most heinous behavior. The answer, as pointed out by David Van Drehle in the Washington Post, is that all of these Republicans hale from “safe,” gerrymandered Republican Districts where total fealty to Trump is necessary to them keeping their jobs.
In safe districts, politics doesn’t work the way you were taught in grade school. Reasonable people don’t meet in the middle. Instead, the purists and activists in the dominant party choose a nominee, and that person steam-rolls to victory.
Once an incumbent occupies a safe seat, the future narrows to a single imperative: no primaries. As long as the activists are happy, and as long as they snuff out any insurrection that might be stirring back home, the job is secure. Seniority accumulates. Power grows. Life is good.
When congressional Republicans grovel their way through a day of televised hearings, they aren’t groveling to Trump. They’re groveling to the party activists in their districts who see the world entirely in terms of Us against Them. This core vote, The Base, will forgive nearly any excess in the partisan cause, but regards moderation as a mortal sin.
The problem for Republicans—as Chris Christie, Michael Cohen, Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, and Roger Stone have found out— is that when you enable a sociopath, you risk becoming one of his victims. When Michael Cohen warned his Republican interrogators last week that in protecting Donald Trump he had done “the same thing that you’re doing now,” that is exactly what he meant.