We’ve been learning lately that people close to President Trump flatter him publicly, while apparently bad-mouthing him behind his back.
The flattery can seem over the top. On CNN on Sunday, White House aide Stephen Miller called Trump a “political genius.” In a December Cabinet meeting, Vice President Pence praised Trump so effusively that it prompted widespread mockery and comparisons to authoritarian cults of personality. And those weren’t the first. In June, national observers were similarly startled after members of the Cabinet took turns praising him in barely believable terms.
Meanwhile, private opinions seem quite different, according to many reports — most recently Michael Wolff’s book, “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” — which suggest that many White House staff actually look down on Trump’s capacities.
We can see similar dynamics in some authoritarian regimes, where elite subordinates excessively praise the leader. What can this tell us about flattery outbreaks in the Trump administration?
When do elites flatter authoritarian rulers?
Elite flattery of the ruler is most common and excessive in what political scientists call “personalistic” authoritarian regimes. In Romania, public figures called dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu “the giant of the Carpathians,” “the source of our light,” “the treasure of wisdom and charisma,” “the great architect,” “the celestial body” and “the new morning star.” In Zaire in 1975, Mobutu Sese Seko was hailed as a new “prophet” and “messiah,” and the interior minister proposed putting his image in place of crucifixes. Spanish dictator Francisco Franco’s sycophants compared him to Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, Napoleon, El Cid, Charles the Fifth and most of the kings of Spain’s “golden age”; he was routinely praised as a “military genius” and said to be “providentially ordained” as savior of Spain, a veritable “messiah of civic redemption.”
In personalistic regimes, personal relationships between leaders and subordinates are more important than formal, institutionalized lines of authority. Because career advancement or policy influence are not highly correlated with institutional position or measurable achievement, elites compete for the leader’s favor and attention with displays of loyalty, including flattery. Even in relatively open regimes where there’s little media censorship, such flattery can erupt if elite politics becomes highly personalized, as in the waning years of the Hugo Chávez presidency in Venezuela.
While the Trump White House is not a personalistic regime, its chaotic environment displays some similarities to the “courts” of personal rulers; decisions appear to be made outside formal lines of authority and the president puts great emphasis on personal loyalty. In such circumstances, staff may find flattery useful to gain Trump’s favor and get things done. Given Trump’s sensitivity to slights and desires for praise, those who don’t overpraise may risk being marginalized.
Excess flattery toward power often — but not always — signals insincerity
Overblown flattery is typically not credible as a signal of loyalty, a point regularly stressed by political moralists and advisers to princes. As Mao wrote to Ho Chi Minh in 1966, “the more they praise you, the less you can trust them. This is a very natural rule.” Indeed, so far as we can tell from historical examples, most “excessive” praise by elites close to a ruler is likely insincere, as seems to be the case in the Trump administration.
In some circumstances, however, adulatory praise can be a credible signal of loyalty. When there is a general norm against flattery, people who violate the norm show that they are willing to run at least some costs to credibly associate themselves with a leader. In contemporary China, for example, a strong norm against “personality cults” developed after Mao’s death. Yet cadres willing to run the social cost of being known as outrageous sycophants can still help their careers by engaging in “nauseating displays of loyalty.” These displays show that they are reliable supporters of particular leaders.
Arguably, the United States has had a norm against excessive and ungrounded flattery, which is why we’ve seen so much mockery of Trump’s high-level flatterers. When his elite supporters flagrantly violate this norm, Trump may believe them more than if they only provided conventionally phrased encomiums.
Flattery can be a way to woo patronage or steer decisions
Flattery can also be used to get a leader’s attention and support. For example, evidence suggests that in the 1930s, Soviet municipalities flattered leaders (including, but not only, Joseph Stalin) — through, say, asking to rename themselves for the leader or sending symbolic gifts — to win patronage or protection. Flattery was one way these localities could recruit patrons with their small symbolic resources. The flattery didn’t always work, but sometimes it did — making it worth a shot.
Generally, if a leader is susceptible to flattery, others will strategically use praise to direct his attention to their concerns or gain other benefits. Reuters reports that National Security Council officials routinely include Trump’s name in documents “to increase the chance he reads them.” Foreign countries, including China, Saudi Arabia and Japan, appear to have strategically used lavish receptions, gifts, and over-the-top ceremonies to influence Trump.
Sometimes even hyperbole can be sincere
Some hyperbolic praise of personalistic leaders can be sincere. When such leaders have charismatic authority, they tend to attract supporters who genuinely believe in their special “gifts” to solve the problems of the nation — and will tend to push away those who believe the leader is a fraud. Many senior Bolsheviks genuinely believed in Vladimir Lenin’s and Stalin’s charismatic qualities, and some top Nazis were known for their blind faith in Adolf Hitler until the very end of the war.
Today a substantial group of Americans believe in Trump’s charismatic gifts to disrupt the establishment and push it in what they see as a better direction. Cartoonist Scott Adams has suggested that Trump is a “master persuader,” and other elite supporters of the president appear to be sincere in their belief that Trump is the kind of charismatic leader the nation needs at this time, however imperfect he may be in some respects.
Given that people with conventional expertise or credentials are likely to suffer damage to their reputations by working in the White House, it may be that the Trump administration contains a larger than usual number of “true believers.” Some reporters suggest that people within the White House vary widely in their esteem for Trump: some think little of him, but others appear to genuinely admire him.
Flattery is common in democratic and nondemocratic politics. The mere existence of occasional elite flattery does not portend the emergence of a cult of personality, with its mass rituals of leader worship. But excessive flattery is another symptom of politics becoming highly personalized.
Xavier Marquez is a senior lecturer in the political science and international relations program at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. He is the author of Non-Democratic Politics: Authoritarianism, Dictatorship, and Democratization and blogs at Abandoned Footnotes.