Fintan O'Toole: ‘Adults in the room’ are not the resistance – they are Trump collaborators
Fintan O’Toole: Self-exculpating mindsets of the enablers are not a form of resistance
Because Donald Trump is so obnoxious it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that anyone who makes him angry must be one of the good guys. Last week, Trump was more than usually incandescent about an op-ed piece in the New York Times written by an anonymous “senior official in the Trump administration”.
The context presented this person as a hero and a patriot: the accompanying illustration shows a giant map of the United States teetering on the edge of the abyss while four faceless people haul it back to safety. The overall message was unsubtle: these insiders are like undercover agents for the American resistance, risking their all to save democracy.
Authoritarianism generally has at the top a charismatic, unstable, delusional egomaniac
Trump, of course, played his expected part in this little morality tale, fulminating against the New York Times, demanding that it “turn him/her over to government at once!” And on the basis that my enemy’s enemy is my friend, this tantrum certainly convinced many people that, as the anonymous author claimed, he or she is among the “unsung heroes in and around the White House” who “have gone to great lengths to keep bad decisions contained to the West Wing, though they are clearly not always successful.” In the course of this drama, it is easy to miss how self-serving, dishonest and falsely reassuring this posture really is.
This is collaboration posing as resistance. In every vile regime, there are people who tell themselves that they are working on the inside in order to protect the state from the worst excess of a half-crazed tyrant. Indeed, vile regimes can’t work without these people.
Authoritarianism generally has at the top a charismatic, unstable, delusional egomaniac. These qualities are good when you need to mesmerise enough of the population to sweep you to power, but they’re not good when you’re trying to run a modern state.
We know he’s a maniac but we serve him and guide him for the good of the fatherland
What you need to take power is not what you need to hold power. For that, you need a lot of competent managers whose vanity and ambition draws them in but whose desire for respectability needs to be salved with the soothing balm of “I’m only doing this to save the people from the worst excesses. So I’m not an enabler, I’m an unsung hero.” Even the most demented, ideologically driven regimes have these figures who get to sleep by counting themselves, not among the sheep who follow the leader blindly, but among the noble sheepdogs selflessly prodding the leader towards the corral of sanity.
This was true, to take the most extreme example, even within the Nazi regime. At the highest level of the German military command, Adolf Hitler was known as “Gröfaz”, a mocking, knowing, cynical acronym of “Grösster Feldherr aller Zeiten”: “the greatest commander of all time”. This was a way of marking their own sense of superiority: we know he’s a maniac but we serve him and guide him for the good of the fatherland. No doubt a lot of people around Trump think of him as Gropefaz, the deluded “greatest president of all time”. But this is no more heroic or effective than the German high command ever was in its delusions of controlling Hitler.
It may be cold comfort in this chaotic era, but Americans should know that there are adults in the room
The self-exculpating mindsets of the enablers are not a form of resistance – they are the unction that greases the wheels of the authoritarian regime. In the Trump regime, this moral escapology takes the form of “adults in the room” syndrome. The phrase has been around even before Trump actually took office and of course it appears again in last week’s New York Times piece: “It may be cold comfort in this chaotic era, but Americans should know that there are adults in the room.”
The purpose of this image is not to challenge Trump or to get him out of power. On the contrary, it sustains his power by creating the illusion that he’s not really in charge. It seeks to normalise a grotesque regime – yes, the president may be a pre-fascist boor, but don’t worry, we’ll keep the show on the road. And this, of course, is precisely what they do. They keep the Trump circus on the road by making sure that the big tent doesn’t blow away, the trapezes are secure and the safety nets are in place.
They do this, moreover, by trying to sustain the illusion of Good Trump versus Bad Trump. The anonymous senior official defends the regime’s achievements: “effective deregulation, historic tax reform, a more robust military” while attacking his oafish and irrational style. But (a) these are not good things – environmental vandalism and massive, unfunded tax cuts for the super-rich are merely the oafishness that rich conservatives like. And (b) they are possible only because of Trump’s style, including the misogyny, racism and constant provocation that sustain his popular appeal.
Trump owns the Republicans now – American conservatism is Trumpism. Its respectable elites need to believe that, even as they carry the buckets of pigswill to his trough, none of it gets on their sober and expensively elegant suits. They are protected by an invisible film of self-righteousness, the secret knowledge of their own heroism. Thus, throughout history, think all collaborators.