If presidencies were branding exercises, sycophancy would be the trademark of the Trump era.
Sycophancy in politics is often hard to see, something done behind closed doors, away from public scrutiny. But the release of a rough transcript of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s conversation with President Trump offered a window into it. His flattery of Trump began small, as routine ingratiation — a phone call, a private kowtow, with a limited audience of diplomats and officials inured to this dynamic. But now we have an expanded theater, a media spectacle that plays to an audience whose complicity is eagerly solicited.
The release of the notes of the call could easily be seen as a function of Trump’s branding exercise: to show the world the spectacle of a foreign leader sucking up to him. While the White House is suppressing other documents and as many witnesses as it can, there was no hesitation in publicizing Zelensky’s textbook suck-up: calling Mr. Trump a “great teacher” from whom he has learned “skills and knowledge,” affirming “we are great friends,” eagerly agreeing with Trump’s disparagement of Angela Merkel, not just “100%, but actually 1000%,” and touting his stay at the Trump Tower in New York.
Politics and sycophancy have a long association, ranging from the ingratiating punctilio of diplomacy to the pomp and fatuity of state visits. But the Trump brand prefers a different version of this old practice, one that exploits new media to intensify and redirect its force.
Flatterers perform through the media for a target who often monitors the tribute at a distance. As toadying becomes spectacle, the observers — or in the patois of new media, followers — become more important. Where observers traditionally have been bystanders — sometimes amused, sometimes appalled — their participation and approbation are now cultivated.
We can trace a rough history of this rewiring of flattery. Trump himself tried something like this earlier in his career as a developer, when he reportedly called journalists using an assumed name to praise himself.
Whatever pleasure Trump got out of flattering himself, this deceptive promotion of a brand was essentially flattery for the observer.
It’s worth considering just how Trump’s impersonation of a Trump flatterer changes the effects of this act of sycophancy. Just as Trump’s television show blended roles usually kept separate, fusing the self-congratulatory patter of the talk show host with the performed character of the boss, Trump collapses the roles of sycophant and target. The purpose is not to suck up to the boss; it’s to draw the audience into sycophantic agreement. We all became apprentices.
This transformation intensified after Trump’s election, when then-White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer feverishly exaggerated the size of the inaugural crowd. This isn’t the kind of opinion conformity so evident on the Watergate tapes — the private, behind-closed-door flatteries of a yes-man vying for favor with the boss — this sycophancy is done on demand, at a distance, and for the largest audience possible. The media is not simply the means; it is a crucial part of the flattery loop.
As kowtowing has become spectacle, flatterers are no longer embarrassed by their abasement. Who can forget the June 2017 cabinet meeting, which opened with a round of competitive sycophancy? Or Kellyanne Conway urging everyone “Go buy Ivanka’s stuff?” Or when Anthony Scaramucci, during his brief tenure as White House communications director, addressed the camera directly to repeatedly proclaim “I love the President?”
Such formidable sycophants have schooled foreign leaders well. This year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu named a Golan Heights settlement after Trump .
In 2017, during the President’s trip to the Middle East, Saudi King Salman, in presenting Trump with the country’s highest civilian medal, affirmed that the Saudis respected him far more than his predecessor. Trump’s picture was everywhere during the visit, culminating in the inspired five-floor projection of the President on the exterior of the Ritz-Carlton hotel. All this obsequiousness paid off handsomely, as Trump backed the Saudis’ vision of the Middle East.
It remains to be seen if Zelensky’s quid pro unctuous quo will pay off. Perhaps he will continue to secure the money he needs to defend his country from Russian aggression. But he might pause to consider the sad fate of other sycophants in Trump’s world, such as Lindsey Graham and Mike Pompeo, whose reputations have been shredded by their transformation into court flatterers.
Despite the distance between sycophant and target provided by new media, the essentials of the exchange are the same. Flattery begins with an attempt to enhance the target’s perception of himself, and though the new dynamics of media-fired flattery might turn some of these energies toward transforming observers, it always reshapes the flatterer. Sucking up may, as the adage has it, get you anywhere, but it also takes you places that you do not want to go.
While sycophants might begin their campaign with condescension for the target they plan to exploit, they rationalize their behavior over time, constructing in their own minds a target more worthy of the abasements they perform.
The more successful flattery is, the less likely the flatterer is to see it as fraud. It becomes habitual, second nature. Even in a time of swift technological change we can count on humans to, as Shakespeare memorably puts it, “commit the oldest sins the newest kind of ways.”
But the damage is not simply personal — sucking up has wider consequences. Dante, in his Divine Comedy, placed flatterers in the eighth circle of hell — below murderers and tyrants. While this seems strange, even inexplicable at first reading, his reasoning is particularly cogent, as we endure the new publicity of sycophancy. For Dante, this kind of fraud not only injures the person deceived by a flatterer; it also affects the larger community.
Flattery diminishes the trust on which the social order is based, and it ultimately threatens this order. Dante associates flattery with an entire class of transgressions against social order — such as hypocrisy, lying, graft, sowing of discord, false counsel — by placing them on one level in hell. Fraud connects all them all.
We have lost Dante’s sense of outrage, just as we have lost sight of his deep sense of community. Often, we condone flattery as useful or laud it as clever. But while new media has changed the dynamic of flattery, it cannot contain the corruption that sycophancy engenders. The excremental vision of Dante and other traditional moralists — the essential stain of brown-nosing — abides.