For President Trump, personal relationships and loyalty matter. This explains why so many of his top advisers and speakers at this week’s Republican Convention are “anyone named Trump, anyone who can speak Fox and anyone willing to pay some form of fealty,” as Philip Bump writes. Trump’s children also serve as his primary gatekeepers at the White House. Those with a personal connection to the president or one of his children are much more likely to find a receptive audience. For example, environmental concerns alone were not enough to delay federal approval of a controversial gold and copper mine in Alaska — it was the intervention of eldest son Donald Trump Jr. that persuaded President Trump to reconsider.
This is not how policymaking is supposed to work in a liberal democracy. The personal nature of Trump’s decision-making on matters from foreign relations to presidential pardons is one of the reasons that his administration is widely considered one of the most corrupt in recent history.
The president’s approach would look very familiar to courtiers in early modern Europe, where individual relationships, connections and proximity to the monarch shaped nearly all political decisions. But such an approach to governance has consequences. In France, as the economic and political crises of the late 1780s escalated, the people blamed their country’s problems on the corrupt network of influence peddlers and rent-seekers who surrounded Louis XVI. When revolution broke out in 1789, one of the most insistent demands was for an end to “personal” government in favor of institutions that would protect the public interest. People find the incompetence that nepotism fosters particularly intolerable in times of crisis; a clear example of this is the botched response to the coronavirus pandemic from Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Democrats are certain to focus on the politics of personal favors in the upcoming election, to Trump’s detriment.
Enlightenment philosophers and revolutionary politicians alike understood that a personal relationship with the king was the way to secure favorable policies. For them, that was the problem. In an “absolutist” polity, the king was the only openly recognized political actor, and his will had the force of law. In 1682, Louis XIV moved the court to Versailles, where he expected members of the nobility to spend the majority of their time if they wanted consideration and influence, mingling his household with the official seat of government. He would not grant favors to “a man I never see.”
Few French aristocrats questioned the system; rather, they learned how best to gain a favorable hearing from the king. The Duke of Saint-Simon, in a scathing critique of this process, remarked on how Louis XIV’s “weak point” was his “love of hearing his own praises. There was nothing he liked so much as flattery or, to put it more plainly, adulation; the coarser and clumsier it was, the more he relished it. That was the only way to approach him.” The revolutionaries of 1789 later used such accounts to buttress their own critique of the Bourbon monarchy, arguing that kings were too susceptible to the blandishments of courtiers, and insufficiently interested in the public good.
The nature of politics in the early modern French court meant that courtiers close to the king acted as patrons and brokers, making use of their influence to gain favors and positions for their friends, often for financial remuneration, much like modern lobbyists. Political power in a court society was, by its nature, personalized and informal. This meant that family members, friends and royal mistresses all wielded exceptional and visible influence.
At the highest level, personal relationships could lead to important diplomatic alliances, as when the Austrian ambassador Kaunitz assiduously courted the favor of Louis XV through Madame de Pompadour, the king’s mistress. Such strategies had consequences: Empress Maria Theresa was seeking a partner in her upcoming conflict with Prussia, and the French-Austrian alliance helped trigger the Seven Years’ War (1756—1763), a disaster for France.
In other cases, individuals sought official positions, profitable marriages, pensions, favorable outcomes to legal suits, honorary rewards or speculative opportunities. Personal achievement seldom played a role in appointments to office, military commissions or other positions. Rather, the assumption was that the right friends and noble blood were evidence of the necessary merit. This was the reasoning behind the Ségur Ordinance of 1781, which required French military office candidates to demonstrate four generations of nobility — but it was still the prerogative of the king to grant military title.
The pardon was another tool used by the French king to help out a friend. Madame du Barry, the last mistress of Louis XV, used her influence with the king to seek mercy for individuals whose stories touched her on a number of occasions. But kings also used their powers in more ruthless ways. When the investigation into a scandal known as the Affair of the Poisons in the late 1670s implicated women close to Louis XIV in criminal activity, most notably his mistress Madame de Montespan, he took a personal interest in the proceedings and made sure that the suspects with incriminating information were never brought to trial. Instead, they were placed in solitary confinement in fortresses throughout France, chained to the walls of their cells so that they could not accuse the powerful.
Such actions, however, inspired opposition. Lettres de cachet, or royal letters that authorized the indefinite imprisonment of an individual without trial, became the ultimate symbol of arbitrary royal power in the years leading up to the French Revolution. More broadly, the court at Versailles, where the wealthy and well-connected lived at the expense of the rest of the country, became the symbol of the rot at the heart of the French government. The revolutionaries were determined to end the politics of personal influence.
From the time of its founding, the United States also sought to guard against European-style arbitrary rule, relying on the separation of powers and regular elections to hold presidents accountable. Ultimately, norms rather than laws have restrained the politics of personal favor. Today, however, with a president imbued with a sense of his power, convinced that Article II of the Constitution gives him the right to do whatever he pleases, the White House seems ever more like Versailles. Like Louis XIV’s courtiers, today’s governors, senators and members of Congress have learned that the best way to obtain resources from the federal government — whether to combat a natural disaster or the covid-19 pandemic — is by flattering Trump personally.
But a polity based on personal favor is neither coherent nor effective. It has been difficult to manage the covid-19 threat as contracts for personal protective equipment go to firms with connections to the Trump administration rather than companies experienced in the production of the protective equipment. Regulations are carelessly dismantled to benefit Trumps friends and donors, as the civil service is sidelined. Trump issues pardons to men who refuse to testify against him. The increasing belief that the president listens only to his friends at the expense of the rest of the country, especially during a pandemic, is one reason for the rising tide of anger and frustration throughout the nation. Luckily, Americans have the opportunity to make their voices heard at the ballot box in November. We are not governed by a dynastic monarchy, at least not yet.