But what comes through most clearly to me is the incredible amount of contempt flying in all directions. The Trump presidency is a war of all against all.
- After having to explain to Trump that the American military presence in South Korea was helping to prevent World War III, Secretary of Defense James Mattis “was particularly exasperated and alarmed, telling close associates that the president acted like — and had the understanding of — ‘a fifth- or sixth-grader.’ ”
- In one meeting, Chief of Staff John F. Kelly said about the president, “He’s an idiot. It’s pointless to try to convince him of anything. He’s gone off the rails. We’re in Crazytown. I don’t even know why any of us are here. This is the worst job I’ve ever had.”
- Trump told then-staff secretary Rob Porter to ignore then-Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, who was Porter’s boss, saying that Priebus was “like a little rat. He just scurries around.”
- Trump mocked former national security adviser H.R. McMaster behind his back, doing some sort of impression of him and insulting his suits.
- Trump said to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, “I don’t trust you. I don’t want you doing any more negotiations. … You’re past your prime.”
- Economic adviser Gary Cohn would steal papers off Trump’s desk to stop him from doing something Cohn thought was stupid, such as withdrawing from a trade agreement with South Korea. Trump apparently never noticed.
- Cohn came to regard the president as a “professional liar” and tried to resign after Trump complimented the white supremacists in Charlottesville. Trump said, “This is treason,” and Cohn backed down. Later, Kelly told Cohn, “I would have taken that resignation letter and shoved it up his ass six different times.”
- Trump’s then-lawyer, John Dowd, conducted a practice session with him for a potential interview with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, and later told Mueller why the results meant Trump could not be interviewed. “I’m not going to sit there and let him look like an idiot,” Dowd said. “And you publish that transcript, because everything leaks in Washington, and the guys overseas are going to say, ‘I told you he was an idiot. I told you he was a goddamn dumbbell. What are we dealing with this idiot for?’ “
- Dowd also referred to Trump as “a f—ing liar,” which may remind you of the time Rex Tillerson, his first secretary of state, reportedly called Trump a “f—ing moron.”
- Trump said of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, “This guy is mentally retarded. He’s this dumb Southerner. … He couldn’t even be a one-person country lawyer down in Alabama.”
So what we have here is a White House where many of Trump’s senior aides think he’s erratic, unhinged, dangerous and, above all, an idiot. In turn, he regards them with similar disdain, insulting and mocking them behind their backs or to their faces. It’s safe to say that this is not how things have worked in the past — other presidents may have had a problem with a staff person or two, and some staffers became disgruntled, but we don’t know of a White House characterized by this kind of mutual contempt.
But it doesn’t stop at the walls of the West Wing, which is why I want to focus in on what Trump said about Sessions. A report in Politico reinforces this account, noting that Trump has been “griping to aides and lawmakers that the attorney general doesn’t have the Ivy League pedigree the president prefers, that he can’t stand his Southern accent and that Sessions isn’t a capable defender of the president on television.”
For a different politician, calling someone a “dumb Southerner” could be a career killer. But the truth is that even Sessions’s most committed political opponents acknowledge that, however repellent his views, he’s a smart guy. Still, it’s a common stereotype that someone with a thick Southern drawl can’t be smart — a stereotype deeply resented by Southerners.
In fact, guys with a Southern drawl are the base of Trump’s base. And for years, the Republican Party has been telling them that they’re being held down by an “elite” of northern Democrats and Hollywood liberals, people who have nothing but disdain for their values and traditions — in fact, the kind of people who might scorn them for their accents. Trump, however, doesn’t quite grasp how that argument is supposed to go. Here’s something he said at a rally in West Virginia not long ago:
I always hate when they say, well the elite decided not to go to something I’m doing, right, the elite. I said, well, I have a lot more money than they do. I have a much better education than they have. I’m smarter than they are. I have many much more beautiful homes than they do. I have a better apartment at the top of Fifth Avenue. Why the hell are they the elite? Tell me.
Trump’s loyal West Virginia voters, I’ll venture to say, are unlikely to have a better education and more beautiful homes than the elite they despise. They just want to hate the elite, but Trump is desperate for the elite’s acceptance, the kid from Queens who yearns for the swells in Manhattan to finally tell him he’s one of them.
There’s an irony here, in that Trump seems to think his voters are a bunch of rubes, while those voters worship him with an intensity few politicians ever earn. As he memorably said, he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and they wouldn’t abandon him. And yet he looks at them and sees nothing but a bunch of marks, people who were dumb enough to buy what he sold them, just like the enrollees at Trump University.
So here’s what we’re left with. Trump plainly hates the people who work for him (at least some of them), and they hate him right back. He looks on his own base with nothing but scorn. The only people who don’t realize what’s happening are his voters.