For the first several months of the current administration, every day was an adventure in outrage. There were people being turned away from the United States under a travel ban that hadn’t existed when they boarded their flights. The administration threatened to strip grant money from Sanctuary Cities. Environmental and banking regulations were attacked. The Cabinet has been filled with some of the most unqualified people to ever hold their respective positions, people with the cruelest ideologies. Donald Trump did not select these people because he believed that they would be competent leaders and advisors; he picked them because they have the only thing that Donald Trump respects: money. In Trump’s view of the world, there is only one marker of success or competence, regardless of whether a fortune was earned stolen or inherited — net worth, his only true measure of personal importance. Jeet Heer wrote a column for the New Republic last week outlining Trump’s ethos and that of his almost-but-not-quite Communication Director Anthony Scaramucci, who was fired in record time on Monday, just two weeks before his official start date. Heer calls this ethos “the New York Douchebag,” typically defined as a loud, brash, excessively confident man, with an exceptionally fragile ego. Texans of generations past used to call this type of man a “hot dog,” a personality more often signaled by expensive cowboy boots and an instinctive reluctance to tip. Money is indistinguishable from personal and moral worth for these men, and loyalty is something owed to them but never from them. The resulting application of this caustic ethos in the West Wing has been a revolving door of advisors with no real ideological lodestar (excepting Steven Bannon and his acolytes) other than to profit personally from the position they hold. And the only way to profit is to stay in Trump’s infamously fickle good graces.
Twitter has been incessantly mocking Scaramucci with memes of Futurama’s infamous “’80s Guy,” a cryogenically frozen venture capitalist from 1980s New York City who wakes up in the future and tries to take over the first company that offers him employment, but this character has just as much in common with Trump. A National Review article on the state of Trump’s inner-circle succinctly explains: “Trump doesn’t want stability, he wants motion. He isn’t interested in details or arguments, he’s energized by accomplishments, achievements, placards on the wall. He doesn’t have a cabinet, he has employees. And the primary job of those employees is to protect their boss.” Or, as The ’80s Guy would put it, “Sharks are winners and they don’t look back ‘cause they don’t have necks. Necks are for sheep.”
Unfortunately for Trump and his Cabinet, they’ve come to remind me more of a different kind of shark. I recently listened to a science podcast that described the reproductive process of certain tiger sharks: multiple eggs are fertilized by multiple males and grow at different rates. The fitter and stronger baby sharks hatch first and devour their siblings in utero to grow even stronger. This seems an apt metaphor for the Trump White House. Trump thrives on chaos, competition and attention. He wants to watch his inner circle fight among themselves to dictate who gets to kiss the ring and who doesn’t — so long as they don’t get more attention than he does in the national press.
This was likely Scaramucci’s fatal mistake after seeming to gain significant influence in the West Wing so swiftly. After a very public feud with Scaramucci, Reince Priebus was unceremoniously replaced by former Homeland Security John F. Kelly and was left stranded by Trump’s motorcade on an airport tarmac. Kelly himself decided to fire Scaramucci after his crude comments to New Yorker writer Ryan Lizza made headlines all over the country. Communications professionals seems especially difficult for the Administration to hold on to. Sean Spicer, whose tenure at the White House was marked by near constant humiliation, resigned over the decision to hire Scaramucci. Jason Miller, who served as Senior Communications Officer during the campaign, was supposed to step into the role of Communications Director, but left the administration before inauguration to spend more time with his family (everyone’s favorite euphemism). Miller was then replaced by Michael Dubke after a few weeks of Spicer trying to juggle both the role of Communications Director and White House Press Secretary. Dubke, whose hiring was considered a sign that the Trump administration was at least paying lip service to the Republican establishment, lasted only a few months, and he was supposed to be replaced by Scaramucci. With Priebus, Spicer, and Dubke all out of the administration, rumors are swirling that both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and national security advisor H.R. McMaster are so frustrated with the capriciousness and chaos of the administration that they too are considering resigning from their respective posts. The Republican establishment has been all but totally pushed out of the administration. On top of all this, there are Trump’s public attacks on Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who Trump feels should not have recused himself from the investigation into the administration’s ties with Russia and potential 2023 Presidential Election interference. Odd as it feels to refer to a man deemed too racist to be a Federal Judge in the ’80s as an “establishment Republican” in 2023, that is where we are now.
And as the establishment wing of the administration collapses, who remains to whisper in Trump’s ear? On one side, Trump’s daughter Ivanka, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, and their ally, National Economic Council Director and former Goldman Sachs President Gary Cohn. On the other side are the ideologues: Steve Bannon and his protégé Stephen Miller. Bannon, former head of the ultra-right-wing publication Breitbart News, has infamously butted heads with Kushner, whom he sees as working against his nationalist “movement” within the White House.
Which of these remaining gestating baby sharks will eat their kin first? Earlier this year, rumors spread throughout the Beltway and the media that Bannon was almost forced out. Portrayals of Bannon as the “true power” behind the Presidency on Saturday Night Live, coupled with a Time Magazine cover featuring Bannon with the headline “The Great Manipulator” reportedly infuriated Trump. Ever the reality TV personality, Trump is loath to share the spotlight, and he especially dislikes the notion that he could be a puppet of someone else’s ideology. Kushner, who was rumored to have encouraged the Time Magazine cover story, urged Trump to remove Bannon from his position in the National Security Council (a position that a political strategist with no military leadership experience should never have held in the first place), but Bannon managed to hang on to his role in the West Wing nonetheless. Shortly after this skirmish, it was revealed that Kushner had failed to disclose meetings with Russian officials during the 2023 campaign and is currently under investigation by Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller. It’s anyone’s guess which of the two men will be first on the chopping block — but considering Trump’s lack of ideological beliefs and commitment to increasing his family member’s bank accounts, my money is on Kushner’s survival.
As entertaining as the Trump show can be to hate-watch for the spectacular chaos and bitter infighting between corrupt and dishonorable figures, what does this mean for the rest of us? While Trump has spent nearly all of America’s soft power and international respect (which will require significant time and effort to rebuild once he and his cronies have finally vacated the Office), a West Wing in chaos is largely ineffective. After a series of legislative failures, Congressional Republicans are worried that these histrionics will prevent the administration from accomplishing anything meaningful throughout the remainder of Trump’s term. For all of our sakes, we can only hope they are right. During the campaign, Trump released a list of goals for his first 100 days in office — yet, six months into his tenure, he has accomplished almost nothing on that list. Republican efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act have failed despite shady tactics, secret bills, and despite the Republican majority in both houses of Congress. The most recent bill would have caused 22 million Americans to lose their health insurance and is deeply unpopular across the nation, including with many of Trump’s own supporters. The more time and energy the West Wing spends consuming itself in infighting, back stabbing, and chaos, the better off the rest of America will be. The less of Steve Bannon’s ethno-nationalist ideology can be put into practice, the safer and more secure we all are.
Trump as the quintessential “New York Douchebag,” amassing an administration of wealthy sycophants instead of competent ideologues, is one of the better outcomes we could have hoped for in these dark days after Election Day 2023. As of last month, 384 of 564 White House positions requiring Senate confirmation had no nominee. While some high level Trump supporters believe that John Kelly could bring some semblance of order to the administration, it is highly unlikely that even a retired general could survive in the toxic environment of Trump’s West Wing. One false move, criticizing Trump or whoever his favorite advisor happens to be that day, too much media coverage, or attracting the ire of other courtiers could be his last. That is assuming Kelly will have any true authority in the White House, which is doubtful. Knowing what we know about Trump, that seems nearly impossible. Any other supposition assumes that Kelly has true authority and control in the White House, which is highly doubtful to say the least. Knowing what we know about Trump and his administration after the events of the last 6 months, allowing anyone else to brandish authority in the West Wing seems nearly impossible.