Sunday, March 18, 2018

‘Get Out’: Tillerson, Cohn and the Horror of Trump’s ‘Adults in the Room’

“[A]s director of the National Economic Council, the 56-year-old Cohn has emerged as the adult in the room, a sage presence in a West Wing that's perceived as new and untested. Colleagues in the White House describe the president's top economic adviser as pragmatic and solutions-focused—‘a doer, not a talker.’"— Michael Warren, “The Adult in the Room,” The Weekly Standard, March 3, 2017

A horror movie has been much in the news the last couple of weeks, about a “fish out of water”—a character plunged into an alien environment. But not long after the welcoming handshakes, this newcomer notices unsettling signs, like uncomfortable responses or even silence when he asks innocent questions of the staff, his host’s oddball remarks, or the latter’s equally strange family. 

Before long, the “fish” senses threats all around him, with his identity and existence even at stake.
But Get Out is more than this year’s Oscar-winning Best Original Screenplay. It’s preeminently the story of the Trump Administration and what it does to top appointees who hope to cap careers of accomplishment by serving their country. It polarizes, marginalizes, minimizes, then pulverizes them until any real semblance of what they were is gone.

The resignation in the last several days of one “fish,” Gary Cohn (pictured), the chief economic policy adviser of Donald Trump, could not fail to be remarked upon by the media, despite Fox News’ commentator Howard Kurtz’s contention that “Donald Trump is doing exactly what he said he would do during the campaign, which he spent talking tough on trade.” 

But the Twittermination of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson brought a special moment of recognition, not unlike the pivotal scene in one of Get Out’s cinematic inspirations, Rosemary’s Baby, when the heroine opens her eyes, grimly understanding: "This is no dream! This is really happening!" All at once, the sum of all fears began to crystallize: of managerial disarray, of policy void of principle, of a President vested with power but unchecked by prudence. 

There is a word for a leader who produces such unnecessary turmoil, in business and government: crazy. After Cohn vamoosed but before Tillerson didn’t have the chance to, Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan, who has seen more than a few of the posturing fools who populate Washington since her speechwriting days for Ronald Reagan, spelled out the inevitable consequences of such leaders:

“Everything you’ve learned from life as a leader in whatever sphere—business, local public service—tells you this: Crazy doesn’t last. Crazy doesn’t go the distance. Crazy is an unstable element that when let loose in an unstable environment, explodes…. If the president is the way he is on a good day, what will he be like on a bad day? It all feels so dangerous.”

No, the Cohn departure was a big, meaty Media Sandwich—right between communications director Hope Hicks’ more abrupt departure and the long-rumored tossover of Tillerson. And I didn’t even mention the additional speculations that more heads are about to roll, Sweeney Todd-style: Chief of Staff Gen. John Kelly, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, dutiful daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law without portfolio Jared Kushner.

Why the Race for the Exits?
What is unseemly about this is how many top-level appointees are racing for the exits before it’s too late—34% in the first year of the administration, double the rate of the next highest administration, Reagan’s. 

But who can blame these officeholders for wanting to go:

*before being subjected to pettiness (e.g., devout Catholic Sean Spicer being denied the chance to meet the Pope);

* before Fox News airs unwarranted conjectures that appointees dissenting in any way from the administration line are somehow part of a mythical “deep state”; 

* before finding themselves the object of a Presidential evening phone tirade or 6 am Twitter blast; 

* before the daily drip-drip-drip of leaks about the President’s unhappiness with their latest press appearance; 

* before former Capitol Hill “friends” question their loyalty to the administration’s agenda;

* before hearing that the President has an unflattering nickname for you (e.g., “Mr. Magoo” for attorney-General Jeff Sessions);

*before the President jokes about comparing his IQ level with yours, to your disadvantage;

* before the summons by the special prosecutor; 

* before their marriages collapse; 

* before they realize they could have retired from the private sector with far more wealth if they hadn’t been foolish enough to start a job in their sixties for which they had no experience whatsoever (see Tillerson);

* before the end of everything they value in life.

I love that phrase in the quote at the start of this blog post: “the adult in the room.” Sometimes the media will vary the cliché slightly to “the only adult in the room” (emphasis added), but the point remains the same: no matter how much you might disagree with the appointee about particular policies, he or she brings a level of achievement, a nodding acquaintance with Establishment norms, a serious mien—what used to be called, about one gray(haired) eminence after another in each succeeding administration, “gravitas.”

My Google search of “adult in the room” and “Trump” turned up a surprisingly large number of people associated with the term—not just Cohn and Tillerson, but also Reince Priebus, FBI Director Christopher Wray, and the national-security triumvirate of Kelly, McMaster, and James “Mad Dog” Mattis. (Another Administration ally, White House special counsel Ty Cobb, has even classified himself with Kelly as “the adults in the room.”)

But a funny thing has happened to the members of this group: Nobody thinks of the 71-year-old with the wispy orange hair who acts as their boss as an “adult.” James Mann, in an essay last September in The New York Review of Books, explained, without exaggeration, the nature of this brattish misbehavior:

“For the first time, America has a president who does not act like an adult. He is emotionally immature: he lies, taunts, insults, bullies, rages, seeks vengeance, exalts violence, boasts, refuses to accept criticism, all in ways that most parents would seek to prevent in their own children. Thus the dynamic was established in the earliest days of the administration: Trump makes messes, or threatens to make them, and Americans look to the ‘adults’ to clean up for him. The ‘adults,’ in turn, send out occasional little public signals that they are trying to keep Trump from veering off course—to educate him, to make him grow up, to keep him under control.”

When the President stops being unexpectedly charming and starts bellowing in such a way as to make everyone in his presence fell silent (much like Robert Shaw’s roguish Henry VIII visiting the home of Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons), the media-designated “adults” invariably wake up and, like Austin Powers, start screaming “I've lost my mojo!” Naturally, they end up disregarded in public, disparaged in private, and demoralized wherever they go. 

Just as naturally, they are all but certain who the villain responsible for this dastardly act is—and in this, the leakiest administration in recent memory, their musings have found a way of boomeranging, in a way that re-cements their credibility with the press at the cost of further undercutting their already tenuous relationship with the President:

* Tillerson refused last year to deny reports that he privately referred to Trump as a “moron.”

* McMaster has become a marked man ever since published reports that he had labeled Trump, in a private dinner party, an “idiot” and a “dope.”

* Kelly joked to listeners at an event marking the 15th anniversary of the Department of Homeland Security that “The last thing I wanted to do was walk away from one of the great honors of my life, being Secretary of Homeland Security. But I did something wrong and God punished me, I guess.”

(What was “something wrong”? Maybe Kelly’s remarks that Trump’s thinking about a wall with Mexico has been “evolving.” The implication—that the President’s initial campaign promises about the issue amounted to little more than primordial ooze—did not sit well with the President.) 

Daily Twitter outrages from Trump have had the unlikely effect of shielding his employees from the full glare of stances and remarks that might have brought down on their heads sustained controversy, such as:

*claiming that some immigrants were “too afraid” or “too lazy” to apply for the Obama-era deportation protection program, called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA (Kelly);

*blowing an uncertain trumpet on global human-rights issues (Tillerson);

* praising the President’s supposedly “clear-eyed outlook that the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage” (McMaster and Cohn, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed last year).

As the adults’ ineffectuality has been mercilessly exposed, commentators’ patience with them has grown noticeably thinner. The New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg, for instance, wonders now if their public acquiescence merely meant that, “by protecting the country from the consequences of an unhinged president, they helped Trump consolidate his power while he learned how to transcend restraints.”

Not even provoking the outrage of such liberals has earned the adults any credit with their boss-child. Like fellow Irish Catholic Kelly, I am given at times to expressing myself in the language of sin and atonement—but I must say that my mortifications have never taken the public form endured by the general and the other major Trump appointees. 

Ongoing Humiliation
The event that springs to mind—but hardly ends there—occurred last summer, in the very first Cabinet meeting, when Trump invited each secretary to speak—and each, right before TV cameras broadcasting to a global audience, paid full homage, Soviet style, to the wisdom of the supreme leader at their table, noting the “supreme privilege” (Vice President Mike Pence’s words) of working for him. Even Priebus—already the subject of nonstop speculation about how much longer he would last—thanked him for "the opportunity and blessing to serve your agenda."

Only Gen. Mattis dared to veer from the script, but you had to listen exceptionally hard to hear him do it. He, too, spoke of what an “honor” it was, but it was not Trump he had in mind but “to represent the men and women of the Department of Defense.”

It was a degradation ceremony, pure and simple.

But that was hardly the end of their humiliation. Because their boss’ ego is so enormous that it requires constant attention—frequent abject behavior by underlings that somehow still fails to sate him.

And yet, they have found one reason or another to stick around. In the process, they sometimes take positions not only at odds with longstanding policies maintained by both parties in prior administrations but even with their own reputations for “moderation."

Apologists for the “adults” (and, one suspects, sometimes the “adults” themselves, leaking furiously), when asked what violations the group prevented, have replied that “adulthood” is, in such cases, a matter more of personality and procedure than policy. Such a “get-out-of-jail card” is losing its effectiveness now with the press, however, and the “adults” end up increasingly sorry that they signed up for all the aggravation.

In the meantime, if they ask themselves when and where they should make a stand on some Trump, they increasingly face pointed criticism about why they didn’t resign when it mattered. 

For instance, what was so special about his work that Cohn didn’t quit after Trump failed to denounce the Nazi/white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., last year, as the economic adviser was reported to have considered?

Tax reform, you say? Please.

Let’s start with that word “reform,” which implies something changed for the better, or, at least in the case of taxes, simplified. But that was hardly the case with the tax cut.

All at once, it tilted the benefits of the tax program decidedly toward the affluent (“You all just got a lot richer,” Trump told guests at Mar-a-Lago) while making a hash of Republican longstanding warnings (well, at least under Obama, not under Bush II or Reagan) about the looming dangers of a growing deficit (an additional deficit of $1.5 trillion—funded, if done, by cuts to Social Security and Medicare).

Last fall Cohn asked business executives how many planned to increase employment salaries once they had Trump’s tax cuts in hand. An embarrassingly small number raised their hands. 

Cohn might have received a more vigorous response if he had asked the attendees how many would use their tax-cut savings on corporate buybacks of stock shares rather than on higher salaries, new plants or more research-and-development spending. By the end of January, roughly 100 U.S. companies had announced plans for buybacks, totaling more than $178 billion, according to an analysis by Matt Phillips in The New York Times

Unnecessary Losses
Non-managerial employees gnash their teeth but go along with foolhardy or even venal corporate heads, on the ground that even half-hearted dissent can endanger their long-term futures. 

But with the “adults in the room,” that is hardly the case. Several, such as Tillerson and Cohn, cannot be said to be suffering financially at all, and even the military figures could earn a great deal on the speaking circuit if they choose to leave government service now. 

They had better consider their options quickly. The reason is simple: “Everything Trump touches dies,” says Republican consultant Rick Wilson.

Nearly 150 years ago, as America’s Gilded Age took off, America’s elite were already reckoning the costs of compromise with venality. “Nothing is lost save honor,” financier Jim Fisk is reported to have quipped after losing a battle over control of a railroad to rival J.P. Morgan. 

Trump’s “adults in the room” would understand perfectly. 

(The accompanying photo of Gary Cohn, released by the White House, was taken on July 25, 2017, at Regional Media Day by Evan Walker.)

1 comment:

Dave Balog said...

Mike, What do we do? On the night of the election, my partner said to me, "You were right." Right about the breadth and depth of financial, emotional breakdowns that I saw in my still nerve-wracking job of money advisor. We were ripe for the pickings of a demagogue madman. Jobs growth is best mostly minimum wage jobs without benefits that are below the poverty line. There's plenty of money, but in the hands of too few people and that's a recipe for a depression. Our media, grasping for profits in the post-Reagan, post equal-time media era, sold out to Trump because he brought big ratings. We were ripe for a devious criminal like Putin to pounce on us. We live in a country where football is taken as a serious matter. We live in isolation. We're uneducated about the basic issues of civics that matter in our lives. I always thought a Hitler could not happen here. But we're getting closer and closer. Regards, Dave