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The Hollow Men

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This portrait of two of the most egregious Trump lickspittles in Washington, Kevin McCarthy and Lindsey Graham, reflects something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, which is the extent to which the hunger for celebrity has become the driving force in American culture and politics.

What Trump, McCarthy, and Graham all have in common is that they want to be the center of attention – they’re all desperate to be, in the Washington parlance, “relevant.”  None of these men seem to have any genuine political commitments per se: they are pure careerists, and their “careers” consist of simply trying to be and remain famous.

One thing the piece does really well is capture how DC in general and the Republican party in particular is full of people like this. 

McCarthy’s visit [to Mar-a-Lago eight days after the insurrection] set off a parade of ring-kissing pilgrimages. Graham headed down to Florida again and again, so often that his host couldn’t help but marvel. “Jesus, Lindsey must really like to play golf,” Trump told an aide, according to a report in The New York Times. Graham “would show up at Mar-a-Lago or Bedminster to play free rounds of golf, stuff his face with free food, and hang out with Trump and his celebrity pals,” observed Stephanie Grisham, the former White House press secretary and top aide to Melania Trump, in her memoir. Grisham wrote that she and some colleagues referred to Graham as “Senator Freeloader.”

In April 2021, Senator Rick Scott of Florida showed up in Palm Beach to present Trump with the first-ever “Champion for Freedom” trophy, an award Scott invented just for that momentous occasion. It was kind of a lame trophy, to be honest—a puny silver bowl, roughly the size of the participation trophy my daughter got for her incredible hard work and dedication on the fifth-grade soccer team (so proud of you, Franny!). But Trump, who held the memento out for the cameras like a hot-fudge sundae, beamed at the recognition. Did Obama ever win a Champion for Freedom trophy? Don’t think so!

Watching the procession of GOP genuflectors, I was reminded of Susan Glasser’s 2019 profile of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in The New Yorker, in which she quoted a former American ambassador describing Pompeo as “a heat-seeking missile for Trump’s ass.” This image stuck with me (unfortunately) and also remained a pertinent descriptor for much of the Republican Party long after said ass had been re-homed to Florida.

One of Donald Trump’s special talents is that he triggers the most extreme toadyism imaginable among people who have been toadies all their lives, but are now being given the opportunity to achieve a kind of Platonic Form of toadyism.  This, the piece argues, is the key to understanding Trump’s continuing hold over the GOP.  There are, it’s true, some people in it who are genuinely ignorant and idiotic enough not to be “in on the joke” that is Donald Trump – Lauren Boebert is adduced as an example – but most of the Republican movers and shakers in DC are perfectly well aware of what Trump is, and they are terrified of the prospect of his second presidential term.

But they continue to support him because this remains, for the moment, the savvy play, and these people want to be famous and relevant and “popular,” and they will do literally anything in the pursuit of that goal.

Behind all this, of course, is the ravening GOP base, which loves Donald Trump precisely because, in the most deeply perverse way possible, he isn’t a phony, or at least not the same kind of phony as Kevin McCarthy and Lindsey Graham.   Trump doesn’t even pretend to care about anything other than his mind-blowingly petty hunger for celebrity, which in Washington DC —  a town that is Hollywood for ugly people, academia for stupid people, and high school for people who never grew up – makes him a kind of paragon of certain especially disgusting form of authenticity.

At the moment, we’re in the grip of yet another wave of wishful thinking that Trump is losing “relevance,” that he’s going to be displaced by Ron DeSantis or some other smooth-talking aspiring fascist, and that he’s fated to fade away.  I don’t think so, because Donald Trump still owns Kevin McCarthy and Lindsey Graham and the rest of them.

McCarthy hates discussing 2024 on the record. Mostly because it involves talking about Trump. “Why do you keep asking me about Trump?” McCarthy said to me when I accompanied him to Iowa last year. It was as if the former president were sitting on his shoulder, watching for any sign of disloyalty. Whenever Trump’s name came up, McCarthy seemed to be bracing for an orange light fixture to drop on his head.

But it’s fun to make McCarthy squirm, so I asked him if he thought Trump would run again. He flashed me a look—not a nice one.

“I think he’ll talk about it,” McCarthy said, finally. “I don’t think he’ll make that decision until later.”

Did McCarthy want Trump to run? His look got even dirtier. “I think it’s a long way away,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of stuff that’s gonna happen prior to that.”

McCarthy will not be winning any Profile in Courage Award anytime soon. In fairness, that could make him a good fit for the cowardly caucus he is so eager to lead.

Soon enough, 2024 will not be a long way away, and Trump is well positioned to claim his third consecutive Republican presidential nomination. Again, Trump will do as he pleases and take what he can take. Because really, who’s going to stop him?

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