Tending to President Donald Trump’s fragile ego has become a major preoccupation of Washington, as ambitious politicians look for ways to please the temperamental commander-in-chief. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy has proven particularly adept at this. According to The Washington Post, McCarthy noticed during a flight on Air Force One in October that Trump had a sweet tooth for two flavors of Starburst candy: cherry and strawberry. Days later, McCarthy “bought a plentiful supply of Starbursts and asked a staffer to sort through the pile, placing only those two flavors in a jar. McCarthy made sure his name was on the side of the gift, which was delivered to a grinning Trump.”
McCarthy’s wooing of Trump with bright, chewable candy might seem like a minor anecdote, worth adding to Post contributor Daniel Drezner’s long list of examples of people treating Trump like a toddler. But beneath the humor lies a grim reality. Trump is no child; he’s a 71-year-old world leader.
The better metaphor for Trump’s behavior is that he’s an abusive patriarch who demands absolute loyalty and servility. As the McCarthy story shows, Trump reduces those around him—even powerful members of Congress—to sycophants. The Republican Party has become a dysfunctional family: its members forever currying favor with the old man, enabling his vices and denying his transgressions.
On Monday, the Post provided a detailed account of Trump’s ill-fated meeting with congressional leaders last week to discuss an immigration compromise, where the president reportedly referred to El Salvador, Haiti, and African nations as “shithole countries.” As the story makes clear, Trump’s mercurial personality tempted various Republicans to try to both manipulate him and, eventually, to lie and cover up for him.
Prior to the meeting, Trump reportedly was open to a bipartisan agreement made by Democratic Senator Dick Durbin and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham. “When President Trump spoke by phone with Sen. Richard J. Durbin around 10:15 a.m. last Thursday,” the Post reported, “he expressed pleasure with Durbin’s outline of a bipartisan immigration pact and praised the high-ranking Illinois Democrat’s efforts.” This alarmed anti-immigration right-wingers in the White House, who quickly mobilized to change the president’s minds:
[S]ome White House officials, including conservative adviser Stephen Miller, feared that Graham and Durbin would try to trick Trump into signing a bill that was damaging to him and would hurt him with his political base. As word trickled out Thursday morning on Capitol Hill that Durbin and Graham were heading over to the White House, legislative affairs director Marc Short began to make calls to lawmakers and shared many of Miller’s concerns.
By the time Durbin and Graham met with the president, he was surrounded by hardline nativists like Miller and Senator Tom Cotton. Playing to these opponents of immigration reform, Trump uttered his now infamous “shithole countries” remark.
Initially, the White House was untroubled that Trump’s disparaging words were leaked to the press, thinking that it would play well with the base. But once the comments provoked strong condemnation, including from some Republicans, Trump and his staff turned it into a loyalty issue, making it clear that those who helped muddy the waters about the remarks would be doing the president a favor.
Cotten and fellow Republican Senator David Perdue were especially eager lickspittles, concocting a story that they had heard Trump say “shithouse” so they could deny reports that he said “shithole.” Graham, meanwhile, adopted a milder form of denial. “Graham declined to comment on the president’s reported obscenity,” the Post reported. “He has told others in his circle that commenting would only hurt the chance of a deal and that he wants to keep a relationship with the president.”
Trump is a volatile, fickle, and ill-informed president who demands abject capitulation at a whim. Only a handful of national Republicans, notably Jeff Flake, who is preparing to deliver a speech criticizing Trump for his abuse of the press, are willing to stand up to him. This is yet further proof of Trump’s triumph over the Republican Party: His abusive behavior is now setting the agenda for American politics.