“He loves this country. He puts Americans and America first. He’s smart and he demands results,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said about Donald Trump in a short press conference on Wednesday afternoon. The curious presser came shortly after NBC reported that Tillerson had called Trump a “moron” (later clarified to “fucking moron”) during a July meeting at the Pentagon. According to NBC, Tillerson almost resigned after the campaign-like speech Trump delivered at the annual Boy Scout’s meeting until Vice President Mike Pence stepped in, encouraging Tillerson to “ease tensions” with the most contentious man in America.
Tillerson’s press conference came mere hours after the hostile relationship between the two was reported, a story that the president characteristically dismissed as “fake news.” The press conference was a spectacular response to a story that, left alone, would likely have blown over in a day or two; unhappy members of the Trump White House are neither a shocking revelation nor an unusual story. Instead, Tillerson went on television and praised the president, reaffirming his loyalty to the administration. “I have never considered leaving this post,” Tillerson said. He did not deny that he called Trump a “moron,” but instead he evaded the question. The State Department later denied that Tillerson called Trump a “moron.”
The press conference was an exercise in public humiliation; Tillerson’s publicly performed penance was part and parcel to that humiliation. But Tillerson’s strange dance of acquiescence and apology—an update to kissing the ring—wasn’t the first. Rather he joins an ever-growing succession of humiliated men, men who have endured the taunts and often petty punishments meted out by the president. The spectacle of humiliated men has become a surreal fixture in our political landscape, their penance dots the vista, and monument a particularly small-minded application of power.
Humiliation has always been part of the Trump arsenal. On the campaign trail, he used it effectively against nearly every opponent but most memorably against Ted Cruz, Chris Christie, and “Little” Marco Rubio. But even on the campaign trail, Trump’s paradigmatic insults were never exactly where the greatest indignity lived. It was in the prolonged humiliation born of loyalties to institutions or political parties or even ego. None of Trump’s targets simply walked away; instead they endorsed the man that mocked their wives and size, ran to McDonald’s when ordered and endured boos and heckles during the Republican National Convention.
If there was a distant hope among Trump’s allies that his humiliation was reserved for his opponents, it soon faded. During his first cabinet meeting, its members went around the table, offering Trump compliments. Then White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus thanked the president for “the opportunity and the blessing you’ve given us to serve your agenda and the American people. And we’re continuing to work every day to accomplish those goals.” Priebus’s praise and thanks were obviously obsequious, but the event was orchestrated with the purpose of producing that sort of emptiness. It seemed less about delivering convincing compliments and more about the president’s ability to demand that they be publicly pronounced. And it didn’t even help Priebus—a month later, he was pulled out of a motorcade and sent home. Trump sat on Air Force One while it happened.
Trump fired James Comey likely for refusing to dismiss the ongoing Russia investigation, subsequently describing him as “cowardly” and a “leaker.” Comey’s humiliation was a rarity in some respect—Comey refused to publicly perform his penance, holding out instead for a Senate hearing where he accused the White House of “defaming” him and lying to the American people. With Comey gone and the investigation ongoing, Trump’s ire instead fell to Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself. “Sessions should have never recused himself, and if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job and I would have picked somebody else,” Trump told the New York Times.
The president began publicly berating Sessions shortly after the appointment of Robert Mueller, describing him as “weak” and “beleaguered.” Trump’s language and methods were reminiscent of his behavior on the campaign trail—behavior underpinned, it seems, by an awareness that there are simply no repercussions for such an exercise of power. Sessions’s display of loyalty, his amnesiac-like testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, was a performance of self-abasement, but it wasn’t enough for Trump, leaving the AG “abandoned and humiliated.” Trump toyed with firing Sessions, evasively telling reporters that “We will see what happens” and “Time will tell” when asked directly about Sessions’s fate. Sessions reportedly offered his resignation but, perhaps in the final act of humiliation, Trump refused his resignation letter.
The display reportedly left a rift in Trump’s cabinet, disheartening Tillerson and James Mattis. But the pair remains, one willingly it seems engaging in their own act of attrition. Reports of a “suicide pact” between Tillerson, Mattis, and Mnuchin, however, have recently emerged, suggesting that they may have a tolerance for humiliation, higher than perhaps most, but a limited nonetheless.
Sean Spicer was the poster child for Trump’s humiliation. During his short tenure as White House press secretary, Spicer endured the taunts of Steve Bannon who told reporters that Spicer ended on-camera briefings because he “got fatter.” He was also tasked with lying about the size of the inauguration crowd, underplay the Holocaust, and suggest that a five-year-old was a terrorist. For a few short months, Spicer berated the media and defended the president’s policies, including the travel ban. In return for his service, Trump criticized Spicer for getting “beat up” and ultimately fired him in a sweep of Priebus allies. Nails in coffins not enough, the president reportedly excluded Spicer, a devout Catholic, from a meeting with the pope in an act of punishment or, “sheer meanness,” as one writer described.
Indeed, petty exclusion seems to be one of Trump’s favorite methods, recent reports indicate that John Kelly, who was brought on to replace Reince Priebus as Chief of Staff, was pulled off Air Force One heading to Las Vegas. By Thursday, rumors abounded that Kelly either had already resigned or will do so later this week.
For Tillerson’s part, his tacit apology and weird oath of fealty (“[Trump’s] smart”) might not have had much of an effect. Shortly after his press conference, the Washington Post reported that Tillerson was in a “death spiral” and will likely leave the job.
If the spectacle of humiliation is now familiar, Trump demands, threatens and pouts, and the entirety of the Republican party gives into his demands. Rifts and anger are reported, but nothing ever comes of it. Instead, this increasing chorus of humiliated men continues to align themselves with the president, even defending him (“[Trump’s] heart is in the right place,” Paul Ryan recently said in an interview). The irony is that the public shaming, petty punishment, and subsequent atonement to power, often turns these men into saintly martyrs of sorts. Comey, once reviled by Democrats for his handling of the Hillary Clinton email affair, was transformed into an icon of resistance. But he had done very little; he had only be humiliated and responded without the complete acquiescence to Trump’s autocratic exertion of power. Spicer’s redemption was equally quick and, if Kelly does resign, then his will likely be even faster.
It’s telling that in the spectacle of humiliation, these men often transformed into heroes or lovable oafs; that their “victimization” is itself a form of reformation. But ideologies haven’t shifted, only the willingness to endure insult in order to remain in power has shifted or Trump’s whims shifted. Humiliation has always been part of our political landscape but no doubt its been re-envisioned by Trump, applied for the purposes of not just exercising power, but publicly proving that his authority is potent and real; that it can be exercised at any time for any purpose. The whole depressing spectacle reeks of a monarchial self-regard, filled as it is with the hollow flattery of others and the exclusion of only family members from such pettiness (though, perhaps, they tolerate other behaviors for access).
One of the great mysteries of Trump’s practice of humiliation is what purpose it serves. Certainly, it serves his ego, reinforcing his own sense of greatness to himself. But politically it seems virtually no purpose. Perhaps that’s the point; the exertion of such petty power serves only the man and not the insitutions he’s tasked with preserving. More baffling is that, despite the ongoing show, more men will volunteer for such humiliation. Cabinet secretaries and staff will be replaced, the pretense made that working for the Trump administration isn’t its own form of humiliation, and the cycle will continue. No doubt that access to money and power will be ensured and the entire transaction will be treated as natural, absorbed into the power play narrative that defines political reporting. And those who join the administration will continue to believe that they are no Chris Christie, no Sean Spicer or Rex Tillerson; that they will somehow avoid the inevitable humiliation.
They’re wrong, of course, the humiliated man is a fixture and the cycle of public punishment and penance is likely to repeat itself on loop.