Why Does Trump Treat His Subordinates So Disgracefully?
President Trump has fired now-ex-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Although the timing of Tillerson's public execution is something of a surprise, it has been clear for some time that Tillerson's relationship with the president had become -- how should we put this? -- icy, which, coincidence of coincidences, is exactly what has become of his relationships with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Chief of Staff John Kelly, and others. The common thread to these frayed relationships is the presence of the president. What is Trump trying to accomplish by firing Mr. Tillerson? I am not sure he knows, himself; the decision seems born more of restlessness than of deliberation. What Trump does think he knows is that he can get what he wants through sheer force of will -- that, after enough lashing out, the dust is likely to settle in his favor. This has been, to a large extent, the story of his life. But there is little evidence so far that Trump's borderline-caricature personality has functioned well for him as ostensible Leader of the Free World.
The ancient conception of a tyrant could be paraphrased as one who insists on having through one means what he can only have through another. Trump thinks he has a hammer, and he has shaped enough external obstacles into nails that he has become to believe that all of life is like this; that all that limits him is an absence of will. What has made him this way? I think the key to understanding Trump's tyrannical soul is the simple observation that, since his brief stint in military school as a teenager, he has never been in a position in which he has had to be held accountable and does not know what accountability looks like. Owing to a convergence of peculiarities, he has never been required to significantly modify his speech or behavior in the face of external resistance, as almost all politicians have at some point in their lives. Quite understandably, after the experience of perpetually 'winning,' Trump came to view antisocial behavior as a viable strategy to fulfill his every whim. (One might say he has adopted a perverse version of the Ayn Rand quote 'The question is not - Who is going to let me?, but rather - Who is going to stop me?')
Beside the effects of his considerable inheritance, which has allowed him to buy his way out of several legal situations in which he has left others holding the bag -- as well marry beautiful and charming women like the First Lady, who would never otherwise have had an interest in him -- the Trump Organization is structured like a family business, not a publicly-listed company like Amazon or Google. He has never had to issue quarterly reports to an executive board; he has never faced the risk of being fired for making a bad decision. And even in the context of his family business, he has not really served as the 'boss' of anyone else in a meaningful sense, given that his main commodity has always been -- almost uniquely -- himself, and an extension of himself, his luxury-lifestyle branding. Britney Spears' manager once said her job was to Be Britney Spears; one could say the same of Trump's larger-than-life persona. He was rewarded for his PT Barnum act with a popular primetime reality television show in which he acted out the plebeian fantasy of being the all-powerful Big Boss. But it did not resemble any of Trump's reality.
What we can speculate, then, is that, the primary lesson he has learned from all this -- which is the lesson he brought to his 2016 campaign and has tried and failed to impose on the presidency -- is that if he wants something badly enough -- if he is insistent enough on it -- then he can get it, and that it is due to the unique force of his personality that it is possible for him to get it. But he has finally reached a position in which lashing out will not secure for him what he wishes to secure: a successful presidency. The only way he can do this is if he can let go of some of the bad lessons he has learned from his life experiences. But as La Rochefoucauld said, 'there's no fool like an old fool,' and what seems more likely is another 34 months of the circus-freakshow.