Appearing before Foreign Service officers and other employees at the State Department on Wednesday, Donald Trump commended them for faithfully performing their most important task — applauding him.
“I must say that’s more spirit than I’ve heard from the State Department in a long time, many years,” he asserted. “We can say many years and maybe many decades.” He wanted to impress on everyone that their show of devotion was more emphatic and more deserved than that accorded any president in memory.
Trump would have no way of knowing this even if he were a keen student of State Department history, which he is not, and he couldn’t care less whether it’s true. But that’s not important. He never misses a chance to use other people to inflate his achievements and feed his ego.
Those in his presence are often enlisted, willingly or not, as disciples in the cult of personality he has tried to create. The only thing Trump enjoys more than boasting about himself is hearing others brag for him. He treats polite applause, such as what he heard at the State Department, as proof of reverence. But what he really encourages and appreciates is the most extravagant praise.
His personal physician, Harold Bornstein, was deployed in 2016 to attest that “his physical strength and stamina are extraordinary” and that he would “be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.” The doctor, who now says that statement was dictated by Trump, obviously knew he had to go along.
White House physician Ronny Jackson was also willing to shower the boss with plaudits. In January, Jackson attested to the “excellent” health and “incredible cardiac fitness” of the exercise-averse junk food addict he had examined.
That spectacle was evidence of Trump’s talent for reducing everyone around him to nonstop fawning. At a Cabinet meeting in June, his subordinates took turns prostrating themselves. Chief of staff Reince Priebus thanked the president for “the blessing you’ve given us to serve your agenda and the American people.” Attorney General Jeff Sessions exulted, “It’s an honor to be able to serve you.”
No one has been more worshipful than Mike Pence, who said then, “The greatest privilege of my life is to serve as vice president to the president who’s keeping his word to the American people.” Not serving the American people — serving Trump.
Many Republicans in Congress have adopted the same mindset. At a White House celebration for the tax bill, Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah said, “We are going to make this the greatest presidency we have seen not only in generations but maybe ever.” House Speaker Paul Ryan agreed: “Something this profound could not have been done without exquisite presidential leadership.”
So it was not surprising to learn that 18 GOP House members have nominated Trump for a Nobel Peace Prize. “Since taking office, President Trump has worked tirelessly to apply maximum pressure on North Korea to end its illicit weapons programs,” they said, thus “bringing peace to the Korean Peninsula.”
Please. A guy who visited his golf properties more than 90 times in his first year in office has not “worked tirelessly” at anything. And it is only a fond hope that he will achieve anything lasting or important in his meeting with Kim Jong Un.
Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize for fond hopes is something Republicans once opposed. When Barack Obama got it in 2009 — to the surprise of everyone — the Nobel committee was widely criticized for getting ahead of events. Obama himself said he didn’t deserve it. Even The Washington Post editorialized that it “almost makes you feel embarrassed for the honoree.”
But it is impossible to embarrass Trump by extolling his accomplishments, real or imagined. No one can utter any tribute so preposterous that he has not said it or would not believe it.
Americans have generally regarded their presidents as fallible humans who deserve endless scrutiny and criticism. Extracting fulsome worship is supposed to be the province of medieval monarchs and communist dictators. But Trump sees the presidency mainly as a way for him to bask in glory.
What the president’s sycophants obviously know is that plausibility is not necessary. On the contrary, the less believable the praise is the more welcome he will find it. What Trump wants to know is how far they will go in degrading themselves for his benefit.
The answer? If there is a limit, we haven’t found it yet.
Chapman writes for the Chicago Tribune as well as being syndicated columnist.