The last three years have taught us that Donald Trump enjoys sycophancy as few presidents have. As Carlos Lozada wrote in The Washington Post, “Some are born Trump sycophants. Some achieve Trump sycophancy. And some have Trump sycophancy thrust upon them—since he’s a star, they let him do that.”
Married to his love of having his boots licked, Trump has an obsession with propaganda that feels more than a little fascistic, and the Republican Party has largely obliged by sucking up to Trump in the way he longs for. Everyone from the supposedly wonkish Paul Ryan to the formerly brave iconoclast Lindsey Graham has eventually kneeled down to kiss the ring…among other things. Monday was an especially big day in Trump sycophancy because Tom Cotton, a young Republican senator considered the future of the GOP, went to die on the “Greenland is just a smart purchase” hill, arguing that the former reality television host was “crazy like a fox.”
It was proof positive that Trump can say anything and members of the GOP will back him up. But there are shades and nuances. Through hours of interneting, I have divined the different circles of Trumpian sycophancy. The guide for Trump’s propagandists is Dante’s Inferno. Each successive level plummets deeper into the abyss of suck-up-ery. There are nine levels in Dante’s Inferno, but only five in Trump’s, because in the age of Twitter we have much shorter attention spans than people did in the 14th century.
They know they can’t quite go so far as as a Matt Gaetz to utterly impale themselves on the spiky rocks of full shillery, but they don’t want a primary challenger or even a mean tweet, so they go along with Trumpism, all while pretending to be troubled. They won’t go on Fox News and defend him, but their silence speaks volumes. They are the proof that there are no heroes in Trump’s GOP. Perhaps the best example here is Susan of Maine, Our Lady of Perpetual Concern.
These are the Trumpy congressmen, people like Steve King, Matt Gaetz, Jim Jordan, and the representative who is also a dentist—Paul Gosar, who is living proof that studying medicine provides no guarantee of a scientific world view and who recently retweeted a QAnon tweet, a loony conspiracy even many Trumpers avoid. Sen. Lindsey Graham is also a member here. These people will do anything for Trump. They sold their souls to Trumpism, full stop, and would give Trump 300 terms if they could. They are no longer members of Congress—they are merely members of Trump’s army against all things un-Trumpy.
Occasionally these hosts—Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and Judge Jeanine “Box of Whine” Pirro—will deviate from the mean and voice a tiny, delicate, oblique opinion that isn’t in full suck-up mode. You’ll recall here when Tucker Carlson impressed upon Trump the need not to go to war with Iran, or when Sean Hannity disagreed with Trump about the media coverage of his North Korean summit. And don’t forget that Judge Pirro is actually pro-choice.
This crew largely follows the Fox party line but occasionally—very occasionally—they deviate from the “program.” They are Trump’s biggest defenders, and often when Trump does something indefensible, they are happy to obfuscate for him. Who could forget Hannity’s devotion to the long debunked Seth Rich story or Carlson’s fondness for “gypsies”?
They will defend anything their father does. Who could forget Eric Trump musing that “Democrats aren’t even human”? Or when Junior live-tweeted the Comey hearings? “Knowing my father for 39 years when he ‘orders or tells’ you to do something there is no ambiguity, you will know exactly what he means.” Or when faux feminist Ivanka defended her father against his numerous sexual assault allegations? “He’s not a groper,” Ivanka told Norah O’Donnell in 2016. These kids are their father’s staunchest defenders and will die on all the hills for their DNA.
This morning show is made up of some of Trump’s most ardent defenders—Steve “Tried to Roast a Marshmallow With His Hands” Doocy, Ainsley “Why Are There Those Ultra-Feminists Who Believe They Should Do Everything Themselves” Earhardt, and Brian “Not All Muslims Are Terrorists, but All Terrorists Are Muslims” Kilmeade. Occasionally—like the very morning I wrote this—Fox & Friends lets Trump down, and the hosts are punished with a mean tweet like this morning’s “I don’t want to Win for myself, I only want to Win for the people. The New @FoxNews is letting millions of GREAT people down! We have to start looking for a new News Outlet. Fox isn’t working for us anymore!”
But usually Trump is pleased with his personal propagandists at Fox & Friends, who believe that he is always playing 16-dimensional chess, that everything is part of the plan. They trust Trump implicitly. They are Jonestown without the 1970s hair. They make North Korean propaganda look like The Rachel Maddow Show.
In The Divine Comedy, Dante travels through the circles of hell in the Earth’s core. In Trump’s divine sycophancy, we are exposed to endless repetition of the same Trump lies, the same projections of Trump’s many faults onto his enemies, and the same repetition of those lies again and again until they become truth for his followers. Dante travels through the soul and toward something more than the self. We travel into the weird post-truth world where the president’s allies care only about his keeping power and nothing else. Where Dante’s comedy focuses on a rejection of sin, Trumpism focuses on an excusal of sin.
Trumpism rests on the supposition that when the president commits a crime, it is no longer illegal. As Nixon told Frost, “Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” Trumpists believe this about Trump’s moral failings, too. Payoffs for sex might be considered morally reprehensible when other people do them, but they are somehow forgiven when he does them.
The fundamental split between the two stories is rich in Twitter-era irony: Dante finds Christ, and Trump jokes (so he says, anyway) about being the "Chosen One."