As a certifiably “serious” person, I’ve spent the past seven years trying to understand Trump voters. After all, they’re our fellow citizens. Their flagrant anger must have some justification. It must be our fault. I mean, extensive analysis and soul-searching and self-flagellation need to be undertaken if the republic is to survive, right? There must be a way to find common ground. (I really believe this, by the way.)
Mark Leibovich is having none of it. In his new book, “Thank You for Your Servitude: Donald Trump’s Washington and the Price of Submission,” he uses caustic quotation marks around his occasional attempts to “understand” his fellow Americans as an indication of the futility of the enterprise. His purpose is more derisive and disdainful: “I . . . never found Trump that captivating as a stand-alone character. . . . Far more compelling to me were the slavishly devoted Republicans whom Trump drew to his side,” he writes. Most of the events he describes are familiar, he says. “In all likelihood you’d rather not relive many of them. I sympathize.” But “the idea [of the book] is to tell the story of this ordeal through the supplicant fanboys who permitted Donald Trump’s depravity to be inflicted on the rest of us.”
Shooting vultures in a barrel, you say? Can there be fatter targets than Lindsey Graham or Kevin McCarthy or Rudy Giuliani? Indeed, I was prepared to bluster about how cheap and dangerous such corrosive cynicism is. But Leibovich, by the end, sort of won me over.
Part of it is that he’s just so good at this. He is a world-class ranter, continuing an American tradition that includes such dyspeptic luminaries as H.L. Mencken, Hunter S. Thompson and P.J. O’Rourke. Trump, he writes, “has a way of wearing you down. He invades your habitat, like the opossum that gets into the attic, dies, stinks, and attracts derivative nuisances.” Trump’s utter lack of shame “gave him the advantage of being bulletproof in his own scrambled head.” Sen. Ted Cruz saw his own “unpopularity in Washington [as] a defining asset.” Attorney General William Barr was the “Yo-Yo Ma of WH toadyism, with Trump as his cello.” Lindsey Graham was a “Gilligan to Donald Trump’s Skipper.”
Leibovich is, more subtly, a brilliant interviewer able to wheedle not-quite-admissions from his subjects, who give him all the access in the world. “I’m pretty much brain dead,” Lindsey Graham admits to him after the 2020 election, knowing full well that the journalistic aim of the enterprise is evisceration. “I’ll be seeing you back in D.C. We’ll visit.” House Minority Leader McCarthy shows Leibovich cellphone photos of him posing with Trump, Pope Francis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Kobe Bryant, and talks about how much he loves going to the Super Bowl and the Oscars. Former House speaker Paul Ryan tells Leibovich, “The President put out a tweet last night that was really good.”
The entire Trump project was a scurrilous joke, of course. A parody of American political life and decline. The primary venue for Leibovich is the Trump Hotel, which he compares to the set of “Cheers.” It serves as a nesting place for “Trump’s usual collection of pet rocks.” He gleans gems at the Benjamin Bar, trolls the BLT Prime steak house upstairs where Giuliani has a regular table with the nameplate, “Rudolph W. Giuliani, Private Office.” Lev Parnas, one of Giuliani’s Ukrainian enablers, says he never went to the White House, “All I saw is the Trump Hotel.” William Barr guarantees his place in the pantheon by signing a contract to hold a holiday party at the hotel with a minimum cost of $31,500. In advance of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, Trump raises minimum room rates from $476 to $1,999 per night.
Yes, we’ve seen these scenes before. But, gradually, I began to feel my gorge rising — the joke was on us, the American people, especially those of us, the dreaded elite, who took things like, well, health care and pollution and education and overseas authoritarians such as Vladimir Putin seriously.
Leibovich builds his case sequentially. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump’s fellow Republicans devolved toward cowardice through stages of moral blindness and, finally, lickspittle supplication. First, they ignored Trump’s utter lack of knowledge and crass behavior, hoping not to alienate his surprising legions. Their attacks on the Play-Doh despot were belated and pathetic. Florida’s Marco Rubio talked about the size of Trump’s hands. Cruz didn’t even endorse him in his convention speech. South Carolina’s Nikki Haley said, “Donald Trump is everything we . . . teach our kids not to do in kindergarten.” But he slaughtered the traditional Republicans. They swallowed hard and backed him against Hillary Clinton, secure in the fog of conventional wisdom that she would win and provide a perfect piñata for Republicans when she became president. But Clinton campaigned with all the zest of a day-old kale salad, overwhelmed by Trump’s deluge of nacho cheese dip. Then the Republicans figured, well, he’ll pivot toward solemnity now that he’s president. Nope. “If your campaign is a cult of personality, can you really modulate that personality and still retain the cult?” Leibovich points out.
The Republicans were stuck in a devil’s bargain: They got their Supreme Court nominees and tax breaks for rich people, but they had to genuflect before a man most of them considered a “moron” (Secretary of State Rex Tillerson), an “idiot” (Chief of Staff John Kelly) and a “dope” (national security adviser H.R. McMaster). They were wrong, though. Trump is the Napoleon of nincompoops. He has a genius for identifying the soft underbelly of Washington’s tired conventions, and the weakness of his opponents. And he’s in on the joke: “The perverse beauty of Trump was that he could be weirdly forthcoming about how full of sh-- he was,” Leibovich writes.
So the GOP lapsed into nihilism. Its leaders regurgitated Trump’s lies. “It’s all theater, it doesn’t matter,” Graham said. When asked about how he would be remembered in history, Giuliani said, “My attitude about my legacy is: f--k it.” And the first lady wore a jacket emblazoned “I Really Don’t Care. Do U?”
They could be this brazen — they could almost get away with destroying American democracy — because a significant percentage of the American people, the folks that we “serious” people keep trying to “understand,” are too lazy and crass and bigoted to care. They just want revenge against the people who propose transgender bathrooms. And by the time Leibovich gets around to Jan. 6, 2021, I’m all in with the Atlantic’s exquisite Caitlin Flanagan, who describes the rioters as “deadbeat dads, YouPorn enthusiasts, slow students, and MMA fans . . . with bellies full of beer and Sausage McMuffins, maybe a little high on Adderall.”
What a catharsis! After all those hours of trying to figure out why the most pampered and affluent and free people in history — people up to their ears in cellphones and flat-screen televisions and supercharged pickup trucks — are so angry, it feels good to whup the yokels upside the head, doesn’t it? I mean, at a certain point, our oh-so-civilized attempts at “understanding” become indulgence. Our attempt to respectfully bind the national wounds becomes a lesser version of the Republicans’ capitulation to the slovenly ignorance of the Trumpers. Why can’t we be as angry at them as they are at us?
Because we know better. We know that if we don’t figure this out, we don’t have a country. So, thanks for the primal scream, Mark. It felt . . . wonderful. But now it’s time to search, once more, for our better angels, even if they’re drowned out by chants of “Let’s go, Brandon” at the NASCAR races.
Joe Klein is the author of seven books, including “Primary Colors” and, most recently, “Charlie Mike.”
Thank You for Your Servitude
Donald Trump’s Washington and the Price of Submission
By Mark Leibovich
Penguin Press. 352 pp. $29