Flatter, make nice, curry favor, snow, stroke, lay it on, cozy up, toady up, pander, brown nose, apple polish, suck up. Crass or artful, over the top or subtle, whatever you call it, flattery is as old as we human animals. Children learn it from an early age trying to get what they want from parents. Students learn it to ingratiate themselves to teachers. Employees learn it to garner promotions. Fundraisers learn it to secure funds. Preachers learn it to gain appointments. All understand at a visceral level that flattery works. We have experience.
And politicians? For politicians flattery is a sweet, addictive elixir taken as a perk of power. Without a substantial dose of flattery the vast majority of politicians tune out whatever comes next, insulted by its absence. In fact, the omission of flattery disrupts the ordinary flow of getting acquainted. Most politicians expect it, crave it, demand it and consider it their due.
Ritual flattery is so much a part of politics that a common synonym of “to flatter” is “to politic”. Rare is the politician whose expectation to be flattered, especially by ordinary citizens seeking attention to a problem or redress of an injustice, goes unrequited. Rare is the political gathering where mutual praises of extraordinary qualities and accomplishments of fellow politicians aren’t exchanged.
Flattery to achieve a purpose works in the right place, at the right time with the right intensity. Miscalculation leads to embarrassment of the flatterer with the mechanics of the effort outed and the objective laid painfully bare. Rare is the politician who doesn’t suffer flattery exhaustion when tacit rules are repeatedly violated. Flattery fails when motivations independent of the virtues and good deeds extolled appear as cynical manipulations of a vulnerable individual. In this case flattery is demeaning of both the perpetrator and receiver.
By clinging to the goal at hand, the flatterer feels justified to engage in false and misleading expression. The ends justify the means. Regardless, flattery takes a toll on the flatterer as integrity takes a back seat to strategic calculations. The deal the flatterer makes with himself and co-conspirators is one of connivance accompanied by tacit negative judgments of self and others.
All politicians rising to the level of congressional leadership have long been immersed in this kind of deal making. Their experience has paved the way for mastery of skills honed in their own rise. They have developed strong stomachs for the application of strategic flattery. As a consequence, such flattery of their President is no different in kind or motivation from their ordinary practice.
What is different is that the primary object of their faux affections, Donald Trump, is an outlier, oddly incapable of flattery exhaustion. His flatterers have learned from trial and error that breaking rules of restraint applicable to even the most emotionally needy among them don’t apply to him. With Trump there is no “too much”, no “over the top”. Public displays such as those of recent vintage put on by his cabinet and orchestrated by congressional leaders, not to mention his Vice President, both confirm their insight and establish their abject complicity. Together they blast through the guardrails of embarrassment already partially breached in past behavior.
It’s tempting to conclude that Donald Trump’s desperate need for affirmation comes from deep seated, irresolvable family issues buried in the past. It doesn’t matter. His insatiable appetite has a public consequence the workings of which are on display for all to witness. There’s a Wizard of Oz aspect to national politics in the Trump era. A small, insecure man behind a screen using media devices to make false claims to grandiosity.
Ultimately the Wizard was found out by Dorothy and her cohorts who accurately diagnosed the scope and scale of his machinations. The Republicans in the US Congress are traveling no such yellow brick road. But I suspect the majority, maybe vast majority, of ordinary citizens are. Most of us would be deeply embarrassed by the exchanges between Congressional leaders, the President and his cabinet were we put in a situation remotely comparable. Most of us would call it out for what it is because we don’t respect the abject sycophancy currently evident in our national drama. We won’t behave that way ourselves because of how we were raised and the standards of behavior we try to embody. In short, we know ass kissing when we see it and we don’t like it.
Frank C. Pierson, Jr.
Frank Pierson retired after forty years of work with the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) as a professional organizer. He began his career in 1971 in Chicago, moved to Queens, New York City and migrated west to work in Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado. He resides with his wife, Mary Ellen Kazda, in Oracle, Arizona. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org