Talk about nailing the timing of your new book. When Mark Parker and Deborah Parker started working on theirs four years ago, it was still more or less inconceivable that Donald Trump would ever make it to the presidency. But now that he has, they’re right on target.
Their book is called “Sucking Up: A Brief Consideration of Sycophancy.” It’s a pithy, tongue-in-cheek exploration of the history of flattery. It raises an important question: Are we living through a golden age of brown-nosing?
Exhibit A, of course, is the president himself. Trump loves to be praised — even when the compliments are coming from himself. He recently described his own administration’s response to the hurricanes as “amazing,” “tremendous,” “incredible” and “really good.”
It was, like so much else that the president does, over-the-top in an unseemly way. But no one really seems to be able to sum up the energy to be scandalized. We’re so used to all of this now.
Remember that Cabinet meeting when Trump went around the table, urging the members of his administration to tell him how great he was? Trump’s supporters simply wrote it off as one of his lovable quirks. Those who aren’t so keen on him were revolted. Even so, the new norm quickly took hold. When sycophant in chief Kellyanne Conway praised Trump for his “humility” a few weeks ago — a claim that even many of his fans wouldn’t take at face value — barely anyone noticed.
Brown-nosing is the new norm. The Parkers, both professors, speak of an “ecstasy of bootlicking” across the land. But their book isn’t just about the White House.
They told me that they first got the idea while watching the Machiavellian maneuverings at the places where they work. (She teaches Italian at the University of Virginia; he is a literature professor at James Madison University.) Universities have a lot more administration than they used to, says Deborah Parker, “and that creates a lot more opportunities for sucking up.” Mark Parker adds: “Sycophancy fills a pressing need for people who are trying to make their way up the scale when there’s no product you can point to that’s yours.”
Needless to say, that’s especially true of a society such as ours: ruthlessly pragmatic, super-competitive and largely geared to the production of intangible services. The Parkers note that today’s business-school programs include course material on “impression management”– which includes tips on the fine art of bootlicking. “Some teachers wonder if they’re teaching their students to be good enough ingratiators,” says Mark Parker. “And this ‘liking culture’ [of social media] feeds into it.”
As the authors point out, though, it’s easy to lose sight of how destructive such behavior can be. Flattery invariably involves bending the truth. If we all begin to think that our primary task in life is to defend our bosses even when they lie, it won’t be long until we lose sight of reality altogether. Just imagine how hard it is to escape the bubble when you’re one of those celebrities who boast their own “fan armies,” numbering in the millions.
Nor is this a problem confined to the Sean Spicers and Stephen Millers of the world. Some of those emails purloined from Hillary Clinton loyalists show that they could toady with the best. (Just take former State Department official Wendy Sherman: “Madame Secretary – A first rate job on Meet the Press. Your experience, your skill, your competency and humor all on strong display.”) Would we have been able to count on people like this to confront a President Hillary Clinton with unpleasant truths? Can we count on Trump’s?
The Parkers note that Dante assigned flatterers to the eighth circle of his fictional hell — below even murderers. “Today many people think of killing someone as the worst thing you can do,” says Deborah Parker. “But that’s not how Dante thinks of it. As a kind of fraud, sycophancy is a sin against entire community.” That’s because he links it with all other kinds of fraudulent activity, including lying and hypocrisy. “They are sins against the community,” she notes. And those who indulge in it can’t help but be corrupted along the way.
Our society could do with a lot more civility and mutual respect. What we don’t need is more fawning. The whole point of the American Revolution was to create a culture that treated officials, and those who aspired to become them, with a healthy skepticism. The last thing the Founders wanted to see was a nation of lickspittles. “Authoritarian courts are the big breeding grounds of flattery,” notes Mark Parker. Trump’s obsession with kiss-the-ring-style personal loyalty is more Tony Soprano than Thomas Jefferson.
The message has been received. Now everyone from the Japanese prime minister to the governor of Puerto Rico has figured out that sucking up is the key to getting Trump on your side. The corrosive effects of this epidemic of kowtowing are less obvious than some of the president’s other shortcomings (such as his conflicts of interest and his contempt for the judiciary). But that doesn’t mean they’re any less insidious.