I’ve finally figured out why the Trump administration is so dysfunctional.
The White House needs a fool.
Not the kind of fool that some believe already occupies the Oval Office. Rather, the medieval-court kind — clad in motley, with a belled hat and one of those scepters topped with a tiny head (and perhaps tiny hands, for good measure).
You know: a court jester, a harlequin, a Shakespearean-style clown. Someone to cartwheel around the West Wing, wisecracking and gobsmacking, speaking truth to power without fear of getting sacked. This would be a funnyman who could draw attention to funny business, a fool to call out the boss on his foolishness, a know-it-all know-nothing to tell the president what no one else dare will.
Think King Lear’s “all-licensed fool,” except in a Cabinet post.
I realize it’s a bit gauche to suggest the administration start talent-scouting clowns when 488 of 533 Senate-confirmed jobs still don’t even have a nominee. But most of those jobs can be filled by Jared Kushner.
Normally, there’s no need for a formal fool position in the White House. That’s because most executives are capable of tolerating some degree of dissent, devil’s advocacy and gentle ribbing. In fact, some presidents have cultivated these things.
Barack Obama was so keen on making sure his staffers offered honest opinions rather than merely what they thought he wanted to hear that he developed a secret code language with Vice President Joe Biden. When given the signal, Biden would lob provocative ideas in the Situation Room without revealing where Obama stood, as Jonathan Alter has reported. And of course Obama famously picked his rival from a bitter presidential primary for a Cabinet post.
George W. Bush fiercely valued loyalty, but he too knew the value of internal debate. He was able to withstand fierce external criticism relatively graciously, as well; recall that he continued showing up to the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner even after being the object of a scorching roast by Stephen Colbert.
How does the current administration feel about dissension, disagreement, a “team of rivals”?
Well, let’s just say Pepe isn’t the only toad(y) who followed Trump all the way to the White House.
He stews for days over silly “Saturday Night Live” jokes. White House aides reportedly scavenge for positive news coverage to show him, to ward off his Twitter tantrums. The one time the White House endorsed a critical take on his policies, it did so by accident — it apparently hadn’t read past my Post colleague Alexandra Petri’s sarcastic headline.
This is not merely an issue of being a good sport. His snowflake-like levels of fragility are likely preventing the president from getting good, honest counsel.
Mistaking flattery for loyalty — King Lear’s cardinal sin, you’ll recall — Trump has blackballed new or would-be administration members for having expressed any criticism of him in the past. And this inclination to surround oneself with dipping-duck yes-men (and -women), nodding at every harebrained idea, seems to have infected other departments, too. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has decided not to fill a senior department job that some previous secretaries have used as a “kind of in-house truth-teller,” as my Post colleagues Anne Gearan and Carol Morello reported.
In this environment, it’s hard to imagine any White House aide willing to be the bearer of bad news, much less the loyal internal opposition. Of course the White House’s claque of lackeys has lots of leaks; with no internal channel for honest, well-intentioned criticism to flow, it dribbles outward.
That’s one of many reasons why it’s in the administration’s interest to hire someone — perhaps someone with silly garb and good comedic timing, to soften the blow — whose sole job it is to toughen Trump up and tell him when he’s wrong or misguided.
To be fair, there’s no evidence that such untouchable truth-telling clowns ever existed outside of literature. But with its endorsement of “alternative facts,” this White House has long shown an eagerness to dabble in political fiction.
“‘A source says that Donald Trump is a horrible, horrible human being.’ Let ’em say it to my face,” a wounded and disbelieving Trump riffed in a February speech, in one of his many imaginative screeds against anonymous leaks.
Hire an unfireable fool, Mr. Trump — and you might just get the honest, face-to-face feedback you’re looking for.