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A White House divided against itself cannot stand

A White House divided against itself cannot stand

Nick Spencer reflects on Trump’s presidency in the wake of sustained criticism of his moral leadership. 06/09/2018

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One positive thing that can be said about the presidency of Donald Trump is that it makes waking up in the mornings more interesting. I have become accustomed to the alarm going off, the radio coming on and the newsreader telling me how splenetically the President has reacted on Twitter to the latest accusation of incompetence or mendacity.

This week there has been the mandatory Bob Woodward book and, today, a New York Times article, by a White House senior official, claiming that members of his administration were effectively protecting the country (and world) from Trump’s “impetuous, adversarial, petty and ineffective” leadership style and his “half–baked, ill–informed and occasionally reckless decisions.” “Many of the senior officials in his own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations,” the anonymous author said. “Wives can be so cruel”, one wag tweeted.

POTUS was not impressed, tweeting “TREASON?” and following it up with the claim that he was draining the swamp but the swamp was fighting back . 

What makes this particular intervention interesting is that the author, whoever s/he may be, is apparently an ally. This is, if we can believe the New York Times, not a Democrat posing as a Republican so s/he can fire off missiles that were always trained against a Republican administration and its policies, but someone who believes in and is employed to deliver those policies. This is not an angry enemy but an angry friend.

And that is the remarkable thing about Trump: not the vainglory, deception, selfishness, or petulance. The Donald may have these in spades but most of us hold similar cards. Those who imagine themselves immune to such vices are usually just blind to them.

What makes him different is his ability to alienate friends and allies. This isn’t simply the point, made by the New York Times op–ed, that Trump “displays little genuine appreciation for the ties that bind us to allied, like–minded nations”. Rather it is that he has sacked (or sometimes just simply forced out) people who could have been serious and helpful allies. This list is long: James Comey (former Director of the FBI, whose intervention in the week before the election may have swung the vote for Trump); Rex Tillerson (former Secretary of State); Michael Flynn (former National Security Advisor); Sean Spicer (former White House press secretary); Walter Shaub (former head of the US Office of Government Ethics); Michael Dubke (former White House communications director); Sally Yates (former acting US attorney general); HR McMaster (former National Security Advisor); Reince Priebus (former chief of staff, though sounds suspiciously like a brand of electric car); Anthony Scaramucci (former White House Communications Director, who lasted eleven days); Steve Bannon (chief strategist, alleged to be ‘Trump’s brain’, subsequently mocked by his political master as “Sloppy Steve”); Tom Price (former health Secretary); Andrew McCabe (former FBI deputy director); Hope Hicks (former White House communications director); Gary Cohn (former economic adviser); and, I suspect, many others.

Not all of these were natural allies of Trump. Some weren’t allies at all, and some served in the last Obama administration which presumably meant they were already on thin ice. Not all of them were eminently capable, let alone likeable. Some may have merited dismissal. But the number of the crew who have abandoned ship or simply been thrown overboard is astonishing.

A house divided against itself cannot stand. Enemies’ attacks give way to friends’. Trust evaporates. The war is lost because the civil war starts.

The reason goes all the way to the top. Trump is grotesquely self–ish. As the many tweets and quotes collected in The Beautiful Poetry of Donald Trump illustrate, he has a distinctly unhealthy sense of his own intelligence, erudition, humility, etc. But the problem with centring on the self in this way is that it degrades and downgrades the other. The other–as–enemy was never going to be embraced, but sooner or later, even the other–as–friend becomes suspect or is deemed fallible and disposable, simply because s/he can never live up to the exacting standard of the self. You only exist for my benefit and as soon as you fail to satisfy that, you have no purpose. All I am left with is the vision of personal death so painfully captured by Philip Larkin in Aubade: “That this is what we fear … nothing to think with,/ Nothing to love or link with.” Those who focus on the self, end up losing it.

The good, by contrast, is seen in what it gives away, by kenosis or self–emptying, by loving the other so much that you give all you have and finally all you are so that s/he may live. That’s easy with the other–as–friend (well, easier). After all, what credit do I deserve for loving my political allies and greeting only my own party people? It’s somewhat harder with my enemies. Being civil with them is difficult enough. Loving them is all but impossible. Dying for them… forget it. Ultimately, unless its gaze and its goal lie elsewhere, the self, like Pop, will eat itself.

The question is how much else it will consume in the process, or to return to our controlling metaphor, what else the house will crush as it falls. We can only hope that White House staff, in the words of the author of the New York Times piece, “will do what [they] can to steer the administration in the right direction until – one way or another – it’s over.”


 Image by Gage Skidmore under a Creative Commons licence. 

Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, including Magisteria: the entangled histories of science and religion (Oneworld, 2023), The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014). He is host of the podcast Reading Our Times.

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Posted 6 September 2018

Donald Trump, Global Politics, Politics


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