In an age where our children are supposedly being made soft by too many participation trophies and too much praise, no one is thirstier for tributes than the president of the United States. Give him the chance and he'll tell you how amazing he is with all the self-awareness of a 3-year-old; as we recently learned, in explaining the political importance of his anti-immigration stance to Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, Trump said, "I am the world's greatest person that does not want to let people into the country." And if you work for Trump or depend on him for your position, you know that you have to praise him, too. You need to convince him he has your love and your loyalty, and the best way to do that is to extol his fabulousness to all who will listen, especially on TV.
If you're looking for a model, you might take Corey Lewandowski, who was Trump's campaign manager and now runs a lobbying firm established to profit off that connection to the administration in the most shameless way possible. Lewandowski recently said on Fox News that Trump is "the greatest politician our country has ever seen." Marvel at that for a moment. Lincoln? FDR? JFK, LBJ, Reagan, Clinton, Obama? Losers, all of them.
But for epic lickspittlery, few can match Vice President Mike Pence, who spent a good deal of the 2016 campaign talking about the awe-inspiring majesty of Trump's shoulder-width. ("To be around Donald Trump is to be around a man with broad shoulders. ... He's a man with broad shoulders, he's got a clear vision, he's strong. ... They are responding to Donald Trump's broad-shouldered, plainspoken leadership. ... I think it shows the kind of broad-shouldered leader he is.") On Sunday, The New York Times published an article about Republican politicians taking some preparatory steps toward potential 2020 presidential bids, including Pence. "Multiple advisers to Mr. Pence have already intimated to party donors that he would plan to run if Mr. Trump did not," they reported, noting that Pence has established his own PAC which will make donations to candidates, has hired a seasoned campaign operative as his chief of staff (as opposed to someone with government experience), and is aggressively courting donors and connected political figures in key states.
Given the fact that it's always possible that President Trump will decide not to run for re-election, all that seems like little more than prudence from a politician who plainly wants to be president one day. But no doubt anticipating his boss's displeasure at the story, Pence responded with an almost comical overreaction:
Today's article in the New York Times is disgraceful and offensive to me, my family, and our entire team. The allegations in this article are categorically false and represent just the latest attempt by the media to divide this Administration. …
Whatever fake news may come our way, my entire team will continue to focus all our efforts to advance the President's agenda and see him re-elected in 2020. Any suggestion otherwise is both laughable and absurd.
You'll notice that while saying everything in the article was false, Pence couldn't actually point to anything in the article that was false. But the true audience for his statement was one person, the desperately insecure man in the Oval Office, for whom it amounted to, "C'mon baby, you know you're the only one for me."
And the president needs that reassurance more than ever. He has shown that he has a deep desire for loyalty (you'll recall that he demanded it of James Comey, whose answer wasn't satisfying), but he's not getting nearly enough. In fact, Trump's own aides could be described as less loyal than any White House staff in history. All that leaking—much of which serves to portray the president as a buffoon—comes from a White House where everyone's looking out for themselves rather than doing what Trump would hope, i.e. contributing to the greater aggrandizement of Donald Trump.
Once you get past his own family and a few aides he brought with him from the Trump Organization, the number of true believers who would do anything for this president is tiny. On a recent podcast, Slate's Isaac Chotiner asked Olivia Nuzzi, a White House reporter for New York magazine, "Do you get a sense that there are people in the White House who genuinely think Trump is a great leader and have great respect for him, and see this as deep down as something other than a shit show?" She responded simply, "No." After a brief pause, she went on, saying "Most people are here for very self-serving reasons. ... I never get the impression that anyone thinks that he's some kind of genius." Not that there are self-serving staff in every White House, but nearly every president also has many people around him who genuinely respect and admire him.
It's hard to know whether Trump understands what his own underlings think of him, but by being so abusive to people who work for him, sometimes even taking pains to humiliate them publicly, he creates an atmosphere in which resentment and fear must surely be rampant. That's one reason there are so many leaks, and it also leaves those who want to retain their position knowing that they have to go the extra mile to assure the president they're still behind him. It won't be enough to tout the administration's accomplishments—you have be effusive about Trump himself, telling him that he is a giant among Lilliputians, a man whose wisdom, skill, and accomplishments are so spectacular that we should all fall to our knees and thank our gods that we were privileged enough to inhabit the same historical period as such a person.
The worse things get for Trump—approval ratings in the 30s, the widening Russia investigation, legislative failures—the more he needs this validation. But curiously enough, the person who laid on the praise more thickly than almost anyone else—Anthony Scaramucci—found it wasn't enough to save himself. After a tumultuous ten days as communication director, Scaramucci was shown the door by the new chief of staff, John Kelly, who was brought in to impose some order on the mess in the West Wing.
Perhaps Trump assented to the firing because he was getting jealous of all the attention Scaramucci was getting, or perhaps Kelly made it a non-negotiable condition of accepting the rescue mission. Either way, it shows that going on TV to tell everyone how much you love Donald Trump won't guarantee that you'll remain in his favor. But when the president is watching—and he always is—it's the least he expects.