Family and friends. We all have them, or at least most of the time we want them. In colloquial terms, family and friends offer support, love, and joy. They constitute a sphere of personal intimacy that makes a life more meaningful. The support of family and friends helps us to do the things in the world that we wish to do.
And yet there is something deeply disturbing, personally and politically, about the picture of family closeness provided by the Trump family. The kleptocratic dimensions of this are important, and have rightly received much attention. For it is clear that the Trump White House will involve conflicts of interest, “pay for play,” and brazen efforts to monetize “the Trump brand” beyond anything our country has ever seen. But what most disturbs me about the Trump family is something even deeper, that goes to the heart of what is wrong with Donald Trump as a political leader — his profound insularity, imperiousness, and lack of respect for his fellow citizens, linked to his pathological need to be surrounded at all times by underlings.
In a previous post, written months ago, I commented on the disturbing way that the Trump children have been presented to the world as if they had no mothers, and had been birthed by Trump himself. This, it still seems to me, has much to do with the misogyny at the heart of Trump’s character and his public persona. I really thought this would damage him politically in his contest with Hillary Clinton. I was wrong.
Hillary is now gone. I propose that we put this question of Trump’s personal misogyny aside, for but a moment, and reflect on what remains — the handful of people who constitute President-elect Trump’s inner circle, and who will likely influence his actions as President: Donald, Jr., Ivanka, and Eric Trump, Trump’s children; Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law; Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s principal adviser; and Rance Preibus, Trump’s new chief of staff. This, by all appearances, constitutes Trump’s inner circle of family and friends. (Poor Tiffany, Melania, Mike Pence, and even Kellyanne Conway already know this.)
What does this circle tell us about the man who will be the next President of the United States?
First, the children.
It is a wonderful thing to have adult children that you love and can truly be proud of. I speak from personal experience. My children, ages 30 and 25, bring me joy. I rely on them, and confide in them — within healthy limits. I trust them deeply. And they are independent adults, each with their own lives, tastes, and political convictions. They are with me sometimes, but mainly they are in their own lives, with their own friends, careers, passions. And I love this! I hold a responsible job, and I sometimes make complicated and consequential decisions. I sometimes talk with my children about these things, and sometimes they even give me advice. But they are not my advisers; they are my children (and their mother’s children too)! My children are fine young people. And they are young people, who have grown up under my tutelage, and who now are fashioning their own lives. They lack my experience and, quite frankly, they spent their formative years in my shadow. What would it say about me if I surrounded myself with them, kept them always within arm’s length, and treated them as my primary source of wisdom? What does it say about Donald Trump that he maintains such an emotionally incestuous relationship with his children? That these are the people — the people long subjected to his paternal support, and training, and supervision, and absorption into “the Trump family business” — who he regards as his closest confidants and advisers? Can his children, young people shaped by years of strong patriarchal discipline, who have spent their entire lives in the orbit of Big Daddy, be real sources of independent and mature judgment? Can they inspire confidence in anyone other than their overbearing and insecure daddy?
But the children are not alone in the inner circle. There is also son-in-law Jared Kushner, who is a family member by marriage and a clear protégé (a protégé, by conventional definition, is “a person who is guided and supported by an older and more experienced and influential person”). There is Reince Priebus, the sycophantic former head of the Republican National Committee, who Trump disparaged repeatedly and viciously during the campaign, and has now decided to use for his own purposes. And there is, finally, Stephen K. Bannon, the former head of the white Supremacist, racist, xenophobic and sexist media outlet Breitbart News, who Trump brought late into his campaign (after firing or letting go his first two campaign heads, Corey Levandowski and Paul Manafort).
As a 59-year-old man with a career, when I am called upon to make important decisions, I do not turn to my children or their significant others. I turn to my friends: my professional friends, close colleagues with whom I collaborate regularly, who I regard as peers — equals — whose opinions and accomplishments I admire, and who I can trust to share with me their perspectives, which are not my perspective; and my personal friends, adults with whom I have shared years of experience, ups and downs, and honest conversations, people who are fellow travelers in life.
Who are Donald Trump’s professional and personal friends?
It is a rather interesting thing that in all of the media coverage of Trump, there has been no discussion of his friends and colleagues. It has all been about his children, his properties, and the women he has treated as his properties.
Who are Donald Trump’s long time personal friends? Who are those peers in the business world with whom he has collaborated and maintained long-term personal relationships of trust?
We do not know.
We do know this: that by all accounts, from all of the profiles and even from his own words, Trump is a hypercompetitive individual who regards others as obstacles or means to his own personal triumphs; that he has a history of seeking always to be the top dog, of being very mean to people, of firing people who have for a time been close to him, of disparaging anyone who falls out of his favor, and of being vindictive and litigious with anyone who questions him.
It does not appear that Donald Trump has many if any friends at all in a proper sense.
Indeed, among his inner circle, there is only one person who can plausibly be considered a friend rather than a protégé or lackey: Stephen Bannon. Only Bannon can be considered a person of substance who stands on his own two feet, and came to Trump from his own position of power and affinity. Bannon alone is not indebted to Trump, and indeed in some very important ways Bannon might be the only person to whom Trump himself is indebted.
There is an intellectual tradition, going back to Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, of viewing philia, or friendship, as central to political life. On this view, citizenship in the broadest sense is a kind of sharing of responsibility among equals who are by virtue of this collaboration “friends.” To be in politics is to have “friends” with whom one regularly interacts, friends who are similar to you and friends who are different, friends with whom you typically agree and friends with whom you typically disagree. Citizenship in a modern constitutional democracy rests on a version of this idea. Donald Trump does not seem to understand this idea at all.
There is another intellectual tradition, of more recent vintage, according to which the defining feature of politics is not collaborating with “friends” but doing battle with “enemies.” This tradition is associated with many totalitarian thinkers of the interwar period between WWI and WWII, and especially with the proponents of fascism. The most famous of them was the Nazi-affiliated philosopher Carl Schmitt, who said that “Tell me who your enemy is, and I will tell you who you are.” This is the political tradition from whence Stephen Bannon comes. Here is the glowing headline of the November 19, 2016, lead piece on Breitbart News: “The Wall Street Journal: Steve Bannon on Politics as War.” Bannon has long been a crusader of “war” against liberalism, “the establishment,” racial, gender, and sexual equality, and human rights, things that he considers threatening to the “white nationalism” for which he speaks. Bannon is a political pugilist, a bully and a mobilizer of hate. In him Trump has found an ideological soulmate.
Donald Trump has virtually no friends in a proper sense.
He surrounds himself with his children and their friends, and with sycophants. This is because he distrusts everyone who does not reflect himself and repeat himself. He is a megalomaniac who has no real respect for peers. He is a narcissist for whom every public issue is about him. And he is a sociopath, who really does not seem capable of appreciating any opinion or deed or object that is not his, or of respecting any person that he does not regard as an extension of himself. He lacks a sense of empathy with others, and curiosity about the world, and appreciation for the complexity of human affairs. He sees himself and hears only himself. He is enclosed, with others branded “Trump,” in a gigantic glass tower that bears his name and that hovers over the city in which he lives and the people with whom he shares this city, pawns in his real-life game of Monopoly.
This angry and defensive lone wolf who has no peers and must always be on top is the man who will be the next President of the US and Commander in Chief of the US military.
This is disturbing, right?
But consider this. He may have one friend: Stephen K. Bannon.
Are you feeling any better now?