Mar 6th 2019

Licking the Boot that Kicks You 

by Ian Buruma

 


Ian Buruma is the author, most recently, of The Churchill Complex: The Curse of Being Special, From Winston and FDR to Trump and Brexit. 


 

NEW YORK – Watching Michael D. Cohen, US President Donald Trump’s former lawyer and self-described “fixer,” testify to the House Committee on Oversight and Reform was a remarkable spectacle to behold. Here was a man who was hired by Trump to behave like a gangster. And he did that to perfection. When The Daily Beast was about to report on allegations by Trump’s first wife, Ivana, that her husband had raped her, Cohen barked at the journalist working on the story: “So I’m warning you, tread very fucking lightly, because what I’m going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting. You understand me?”

That journalist was hardly alone. Cohen’s job was to threaten anyone who got in the way of his old boss. He lied to congressional committees, paid off prostitutes to stop them from talking about their affairs with Trump, and much else.

Cohen, who will soon begin serving a three-year prison sentence, has become what Mafiosi (and Trump) call a “rat.” Testifying against his old boss in Congress, Cohen neither looked nor sounded like a thug. He recalled a very different type of person. Anyone who has ever spent time in a school playground will recognize him: the weakling hanging around the swaggering bully, doing his bidding, while constantly being humiliated himself. With his hurt-puppy eyes and slack mouth, Cohen plays that part to perfection as well.

On one occasion, when Cohen was still, in his own words, prepared to “take a bullet” for his boss, he had to delay his son’s bar mitzvah ceremony, because Trump decided to show up late. When he finally arrived, he demeaned Cohen in front of family and friends by claiming that the only reason he came was because his fixer had begged him to. This tells you everything about the relationship between the narcissist and the sycophant, or the sadist and the masochist.

They feed off one another. The worshipper’s desire to worship is just as strong as the narcissist’s craving to be slavishly admired. You only need to glance at entries on Facebook to observe the phenomenon. For every person who posts a self-flattering picture (usually taken years before) or a rave review of his or her latest book (often tempered by false modesty: “I’m so humbled ...”), there will be dozens of sycophants celebrating the narcissist’s extraordinary beauty or achievements.

The urge to flatter is as conspicuous as the spectacle of self-love. There is something quite primitive about this: the weak seek protection from the strong by obsequiousness, and the narcissist gains his or her power from their submission. This does not always lead to abuse, but it very often does.

Mankind has invented many ways to moderate such abuse and channel these desires in directions that are less likely to cause harm. Religion offers an abstract focus for worship and submission; it is not for nothing that several faiths forbid creating images of living beings. In our more secular times, the reverence for spiritual idols has been replaced by adoration of rock stars or sports heroes. When John Lennon once outraged religious Americans by claiming that The Beatles were more popular than Jesus, he was only half-joking.

The worship of rock stars is relatively harmless. But when narcissists gain political power, the results are anything but harmless. Charisma feeding off adoration leads to mass hysteria. Critics and naysayers must be eliminated. Power goes unchecked. The pseudo-religious trappings of the great twentieth-century dictatorships are a terrible example. To many Chinese, Russians, and Germans, their leaders were gods. What is easy to overlook is that such worship is not always coerced. Many people become sycophants of power willingly. Submission, paradoxically, makes them feel less weak.

Trump is not a dictator, but he would dearly love to be. His own toadying to the world’s strongmen, from Russian President Vladimir Putin to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, is a sign of this. But the source of his considerable popularity in the United States is still baffling to many people who have not fallen under his sway. They cannot grasp how a coarse, vain, self-absorbed fantasist can possibly have such broad appeal. After all, liberals say, it is all show.

But that is precisely the point. Of course it is all show – just like religious ceremonies, or Nazi or Maoist rallies. Trump may not be knowledgeable, sophisticated, curious, or well read, but he has a fine instinct for the psychology of power and submission. He knows how to weld people who feel weak and unrecognized into mobs drawn to his spectacle of angry charisma. His self-love makes his followers love themselves and hate their enemies. His is a great and dangerous gift. Trump’s massive rallies in the American heartland are his relationship with his former fixer writ large.

One of Cohen’s more bizarre remarks in his congressional testimony was that he had lied, but that he was not a liar. Perhaps he meant this sincerely. His point might have been that he wasn’t really himself when he was lying for his boss. He was literally under Trump’s spell, mesmerized, almost sleepwalking. That is also what people say who once cheered wildly for dictators, and then can’t explain why they did so once the great leaders have fallen and times have changed.

It is hard to say at this point how much of Cohen’s testimony is true. His claims certainly jibe with what others in Trump’s orbit have reported. But one thing he said, although ungrammatical, showed that he had learned a valuable lesson. Others should take heed: “I can only warn people. The more people that follow Mr. Trump as I did blindly are going to suffer the same consequences that I’m suffering.”


Ian Buruma is the author, most recently, of A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir. 

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019.
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