ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN
The sycophancy surrounding Donald Trump is of the same order as that enjoyed by Cold War-era despots
OK, I’ve finally made up my mind. When I grow up I want to be president. I don’t want to be a president of a large corporation, like the Americans have. No, those kinds of presidents like to have people in the room who actually think for themselves. Well, sometimes they do. I don’t want that. It’s political office I’m headed for.
I also don’t want to be just any old president, such as Nelson Mandela or Barack Obama or John F Kennedy or anyone like that. When I grow up I want to be a president like Donald Trump. The man is just, well, unbelievable. He runs his cabinet as if he is a medieval lord or some bloodthirsty monarch.
I grew up in the 1980s reading about Cold War-era despots lining up their cabinet ministers and getting them to pledge loyalty, and I never thought I would live to see such stuff in real life.
I once read an extraordinary story about how then Italian prime minister Benito Mussolini called a cabinet meeting — it was on December 30 1924 — at which he demanded a show of support from all ministers present. He had set up two heavies in the meeting — a general who represented the army and a minister who controlled the police — to support him.
Those in the room were not about to walk out after going against the two heavies. The loyalty pledge passed very nicely and swiftly, thanks very much.
In the 1970s Uganda’s Idi Amin staged a publicity stunt for the world media in which he forced white residents of the capital, Kampala, to carry him on a throne and then kneel before him and recite an oath of loyalty. Mmm. Don’t let my friends in the EFF see this column. They might get ideas.
I now find that, in the 21st century, this sort of thing still happens.
Last week Trump called a cabinet meeting that he opened with a 95minute monologue described by the New York Times as “freewheeling and fact-free”.
Then the extraordinary happened. Trump asked the cabinet members for their contributions on border security.
“One by one, they responded by praising their boss,” the paper reported. “Kirstjen Nielsen, the homeland security secretary, applauded his leadership on border security. She was followed by the acting attorney general, Matthew G Whitaker, who saluted the president for giving up his Christmas and New Year’s holidays ‘while some members of Congress went on vacation’ … Not to be outdone, Vice-president Mike Pence … piled on the compliments: ‘I want to thank you for the strong stand you have taken on border security.’”
That wasn’t the first time, either. In 2017, at Trump’s first cabinet meeting, pretty much the same thing happened. Pence jumped in first: “The greatest privilege of my life is to serve as vicepresident to a president who’s keeping his word to the American people.”
That meeting concluded with then chief of staff Reince Priebus: “On behalf of the entire senior staff around you, Mr President, we thank you for the opportunity and the blessing that you’ve given us to serve your agenda and the American people.”
You would have thought some kind of deity was in the meeting. A few months later, Trump fired Priebus.
Trump’s extraordinarily offensive behaviour has become normalised in the US. It is similar to the way South Africans just gave in to the torture during the dark years of Jacob Zuma.
You may know that the US federal government is in partial shutdown because Democrats will not vote to give Trump billions to build a wall on the border with Mexico. Trump had repeatedly promised, on the campaign trail in 2015/2016, that Mexico would pay for the wall.
Now he wants the US to foot the bill. He doesn’t seem to see, or care about, his own about-face.
That’s the way it is in Washington. Every day there is a new insult, a new outrage, a new monologue of “not factual” utterances by the president (counted by the press with glee). Expect a turbulent year ahead in foreign affairs. That’s what happens when you have leaders like these.
Donald Trump runs his cabinet as if he is a medieval lord or some bloodthirsty monarch