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Team of sycophants: a presidential historian on Trump’s White House

“He’s emotionally unsuited to deal with the presidency.”

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President Donald Trump arrives at the White House after traveling to Southern California to view border wall prototypes, and to St. Louis to attend a fundraising event for Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley and to meet with employees and executives at
President Donald Trump arrives at the White House after traveling to Southern California to view border wall prototypes, and to St. Louis to attend a fundraising event for Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley and meet with employees and executives at the Boeing Co., March 14, 2018, in Washington, DC.
Eric Thayer-Pool/Getty Images

Donald Trump really, really likes to be praised.

Recall that extremely weird Cabinet meeting last June in which Trump went around the table and allowed everyone to thank him for being so awesome and smart and focused. Words like “honor” and “privilege” and “blessing” were tossed about countless times. Trump appears to thrive on this kind of flattery.

Vice similarly reported last fall that Trump receives a folder each day (twice a day, actually) littered with glowing tweets, fawning articles, clips of positive cable news segments, and occasionally pictures of himself on TV looking ... presidential. If you want to last in this White House, you’ve got to lavish the president with adulation.

The result, increasingly, is a White House filled with sycophants.

How unusual is this in a White House? Not every administration has to be a Lincolnesque “team of rivals,” but is it dangerous to have a president who so strongly desires approval? I reached out to presidential historian Robert Dallek, the author of Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life, for answers to these questions.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

President Trump likes to be surrounded by people who agree with him and who are willing to shower him with flattery. Is that necessarily a bad thing for presidents?

Robert Dallek

I think it impoverishes a presidency. My best example is FDR, who surrounded himself with people who argued a lot. He wanted to have them arguing because it put him in a position to decide what needed to be done. He knew how important it was to be confronted by arguments he didn’t want to hear.

It’s deadly to a presidency to be surrounded by sycophants who are going to be emphasizing the need to stroke the president’s ego, to make him feel as if he’s always right and ingenious. There are no easy decisions to be made in the White House; everything is difficult and complex and consequential. If ever there was a need for honesty and hard truths, it’s in the White House.

Someone once said that history is argument without end, but so is politics and policymaking. But Trump is someone who is so thin-skinned and who thrives on the need for approval and adulation that it’s got to be hard to maintain an intellectually honest climate around him.

Sean Illing

That’s probably my biggest worry. If the people around the president are motivated by a desire to please him above all else, how could that not pervert the whole incentive structure?

Robert Dallek

It’s pretty clear that Trump’s judgment is flawed, but everyone’s judgment is flawed, which is why you need smart, fearless people around him. He vowed to hire the best people and to have the greatest Cabinet we’ve ever seen, and yet look at how many of them have been forced out in such a short time.

It’s unprecedented to have a man in office who never reached 50 percent approval during his first year. That hasn’t happened since we started polling in 1935. Surely some of that has to do with the fact that he’s alienating people outside his base by not reaching out in any meaningful way, and that’s exactly what you’d expect when the president is only exposing himself to people who reinforce his view of reality.

Sean Illing

To be fair, shouldn’t we expect presidents to hire people who agree with them, who share their agenda?

Robert Dallek

Presidents want to be surrounded by people they’re comfortable with, but that doesn’t mean you see eye to eye on everything. Think of John F. Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis. There was a lot of debate about what should be done, and those people weren’t cozying up to Kennedy to win his approval and affection; they were in the midst of a possibly world-changing crisis, and they were trying to figure what was best. And Kennedy wanted desperately to be challenged. That’s what you need in a president.

Sean Illing

We saw this week that Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and replaced him with Mike Pompeo, a man who seems much more willing to toe the line for Trump. This is becoming a trend with Trump and probably why the turnover rate you mentioned a second ago is so extraordinarily high.

Robert Dallek

I think you have to go all the way back to Warren G. Harding in 1921 to find a president as unqualified to hold the office as Trump is. Harding was not a very bright guy, and even though he had been lieutenant governor of Ohio and became a senator, he was terribly shallow and unimpressive. He got elected, in part, because he looked like a president and because there was a lot of discontent at the time. But he had no idea what he was doing, and yet he was convinced that he did.

Trump is a reasonable heir to someone like Harding because Trump is uninformed, doesn’t read, doesn’t seem to have much intellectual curiosity, and seems to trust his instincts more than anything else. Like Harding, he thinks he can solve everything by himself, and that’s not a good way to keep the best and smartest team around him.

It also means we’re likely to get people in high-level positions who are insufficiently qualified and who don’t have much experience, but because they make Trump happy or comfortable, they’re able to survive and thrive. That, unfortunately, is where we are today.

This article was originally published on March 15, 2018.

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