Vice President Pence’s praise of President Trump during a Dec. 20 Cabinet meeting prompted a lot of derision, and not just from the late-night comics. This wasn’t the first time Trump’s subordinates have publicly performed effusive praise that seems to violate “a norm against excessive and ungrounded flattery,” but Pence’s performance made many cringe. In emphasizing that working for Trump was a “blessing,” Pence managed to praise the president once every 12 seconds.
Both sides of the partisan aisle reacted harshly to Pence’s display. New York Times op-ed columnist Michelle Goldberg, for example, wrote, “Vice President Mike Pence delivered an encomium to his boss, who sat across the table with arms folded over his chest, absorbing abasement as his due.”
Conservative Bill Kristol was equally derisive:
But the display was criticized and mocked in part because it triggered such discomfort — and the feeling: Something is wrong here.
Small-‘r’ republicans have long objected to political flattery
Let me suggest that this discomfort stems partly from a civic tradition that has profoundly shaped American political development: republicanism. Republicanism is a term that refers to a family of political ideas with origins, according to some scholars, in ancient Rome, and in ancient Athens according to others. It can be described as a tradition that valorizes liberty, generally understood as the absence of arbitrary power, and believes liberty flourishes in a civic culture in which virtuous and engaged citizens are supported by robust institutions such as a mixed constitution, one that features a separation of governmental powers, whether along the lines of the classical Roman model (consul, Senate and assemblies) or along the lines of the American division of power into the executive, legislative and judicial. In this regard, a regime such as the United States is a republic, in the philosophical sense.
As I discuss in my forthcoming book “Flattery and the History of Political Thought: That Glib and Oily Art,” this republican tradition includes a deep suspicion of flattery. Whether we turn to key republicans such as Marcus Tullius Cicero in the late Roman Republic, Niccolò Machiavelli in 16th-century Florence, or John Milton in 17th-century Britain, republican writers identify flattery with servility. Servility here is used in several senses. One can be servile in the sense of being morally weak; hence the expression “a servile character.” And one can be servile in the sense of being subject to political domination. Aristotle famously associated tyranny with flattery, given that “tyrants are always fond of bad men, because they love to be flattered, but no man who has the spirit of a freeman in him will demean himself by flattery” — and engaging in flattery can be a rational, albeit degrading, response to those who deploy arbitrary power.
Early American thinkers disapproved of political flattery, as well
To be sure, republicanism was not the only recognizable political idiom in late 18th-century America; the boundaries between it and other idioms were porous, as historian Isaac Kramnick has shown. Nevertheless, a republican suspicion of flattery is a common feature in late 18th-century American political thought. James Wilson, who represented Pennsylvania in the Continental Congress and was a George Washington appointee to the Supreme Court, is particularly sharp on the matter, writing, in his “Lectures on Law” in 1791,
Unfortunately, as there have been and there are, in arbitrary governments, flatterers of princes; so there have been and there are, in free governments, flatterers of the people. … The latter herd of flatterers persuade the people to make an improper use of the power, which of right they have: the former herd persuades princes to make an improper use of power, which of right they have not …. Both flatter to promote their private interests: both betray the interests of those whom they flatter.
If a republic is a regime that centers on the common good of liberty, then flatterers are suspect by definition. The flatterer deals in self-interested praise and is not to be trusted because they are looking out only for personal interests. In this regard, Alexander Hamilton warned in Federalist 1, “of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career, by paying an obsequious court to the people … commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.” In writing this, he was worried about politicians who flatter the people. Samuel West, a Massachusetts minister and active patriot, was more worried about flattering those who wielded power. Thus he wrote in a 1776 sermon titled “On the Right to Rebel against Governors,” “Let us treat our rulers with all that honor and respect which the dignity of their station requires; but let it be such an honor and respect as is worthy of the sons of freedom to give.” But he warned against the “idolatrous reverence” that has always accompanied “arbitrary power and tyrannical government.”
The term “flatterer” was hurled as an insult by both the federalists and antifederalists, suggesting a deep aversion to a style of politics associated with monarchy and court, the “dependent hierarchical world” that the contemporary historian Gordon Wood described the colonists as seeking to leave behind. George Washington’s favorite play — performed for his troops at Valley Forge — was Joseph Addison’s “Cato: A Tragedy.” In it, Addison contrasts the “rigid virtue” of Cato with the dazzling pomp and splendor of Caesar. Caesar’s beguiling appearances deceived his fellow countrymen about the slavery his political pre-eminence brought; he was a man who styled as his friends those he, in fact, dominated by arbitrary power. It is no wonder that we find the following among the 110 rules a young George Washington copied into a note book: “Be no flatterer, neither play with any that delight not to be played withal.” These rules, copied by hand from a compendium Frances Hawkins translated in the 17th century, are now known as “The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.” The historian Charles Moore described them as a “formative influence in the development of” Washington.
Pence may, of course, have been perfectly sincere in his praise, not flattering Trump at all but simply expressing his beliefs, however inartfully. Yet surely the very nature of Pence’s praise ought to give pause to those who value republican liberty: It might indicate his own servility, or a belief that Trump is either vulnerable to or desires flattery.
This is not to insist that political elites ought never to praise one another in public, of course, but rather that there may be good reasons for restraint. As Washington also counseled in “The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation,” “Superfluous compliments and all affectation of ceremonies are to be avoided, yet where due they are not to be neglected.”
Daniel Kapust is a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he teaches courses and conducts research in political theory. His most recent book, “Flattery and the History of Political Thought: That Glib and Oily Art,” was just published by Cambridge University Press.