Curse Your Sudden and Inevitable Betrayal

The question on my mind this morning is why anybody is loyal to Trump. We are reading today of how Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump forced the Secret Service to undertake an expensive rent in order to have a place for their security detail to go to the bathroom. They otherwise had to go a mile to Pence’s house or use a bathroom in the Obamas’ garage (until someone apparently left such a terrible mess in it that they weren’t allowed to any longer).

And yet there are suggestions that there are Secret Service agents who are personally loyal to Trump to a dangerous degree–agents who apparently bullied others into going maskless, one agent who broke with precedent and agreed to serve in the chief of staff’s office in the White House (e.g., left the Service)–to the point that Biden has had to specifically name agents that he trusts to guard him and his family.

Why is anyone devoted to Trump, willing to endure working for him? He betrays virtually everyone who works for him. He humiliates and belittles them in public, he ignores their professional advice, he undercuts the hard work of weeks in a second’s thoughtless impulsivity. He cheats people out of pay and benefits, sometimes knowingly as an act of vindictiveness, sometimes just because it’s just his basic method. He has no interest in or consideration for the personal lives of people who work with him or for him, no ability to show empathy. He plainly can barely remember the names of people that he’s worked with on a daily basis and yet he demands their constant attention and adulation.

It’s kind of a running joke among people who write and read comic books that super-villains hire henchmen who then they routinely dispose of, cheat of the proceeds, or use as cannon fodder. The joke is, “In the real world, nobody would ever work with the bad guys because everybody would know what comes next.” Wrong again! We’re busy talking about whether Trump is a fascist, but the other thing he closely resembles is in fact a comic-book supervillain. I wish I were kidding.

So why do the henchmen and henchwomen serve? Why would anyone in the Secret Service, with its reputation for professionalism, non-partisanship and detachment ever be loyal to a man and his family who force them to use portable toilets and to run to the Taco Bell rather than allot them one bathroom in a mansion full of bathrooms?

One answer is simple: because the loyalists see themselves as deserving of abuse, that they define loyalty as an abject relationship between the most powerful and the servants of the powerful. I don’t think that’s common, but there are people who think of themselves that way, who confuse humility with servility. Another is also simple: Trump is a beacon to desperate people seeking power for their own ends who (incorrectly, usually) calculate that somehow they will escape his mistreatment long enough to enact their own plans and who know that there is literally no other boss or enabler who would allow that to happen. (Betsy DeVos won this bet, so it’s not entirely impossible.)

Perhaps most important, though, is that Trump offers harbor to meritocracy’s cast-offs: to the incompetent, the mediocre, the fuck-ups, the losers. And also thus to the resentful and the equally vengeful: the people who believe they should be in charge and only the world has prevented that natural outcome from happening. E.g., he calls to his mini-mes: people who cut corners, who cheat their co-workers and their institutions, people who think they’re the real geniuses and everyone else the fools, people who think they deserve to rule the world. They come to him because they must–there is no upward path open to them otherwise–but for the same reason they’re not surprised when he casts them off and abuses them. They would do the same; they have done the same.

In the case of the Secret Service, that thought brings clarity as to why some agents might embrace the humiliations of working for Trump–because some agents were disciplined for their undisciplined and unprofessional behavior under the old boss. (Who, horror of horrors, was a black man.)

It’s all another path that we need to walk to understand the consequences of meritocratic understandings of social and economic hierarchy. That may sound too sympathetic to all of these people who have signed on with a supervillain, and I don’t really mean to be. The professionalism of the Secret Service is an admirable idea. Hiring the best-trained and most imaginative people and treating them generously as wonderful human beings sounds great. But just as we should know, do know, that meritocracy is a fiction: the richest, most successful, most promoted people are not by any means routinely the best, most talented, most competent, most humane people within professions and economies, we should know that the discard heaps of meritocracy include both people who’ve really fucked up and people who got shoved under a bus or two by some more cunning player–or people who zigged when the move of the day was to zag. The easiest way out is to stop allowing supervillains out of jail ever. But they might find fewer henchmen if we made sure that the requirements of professionalism were enforced equally and yet were also imagined generously, and if we didn’t build vast and dizzying heights of privilege, wealth and power in the first place.

It is rather hard, after all, to think highly of your own professionalism and accomplishment as a Secret Service agent if your job is to guard two staggeringly incompetent, feckless and corrupt people like Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump in a vast and sprawling mansion that you are not permitted to soil with your own feces. It must be hard to take pride in the thought that you would take a bullet to protect people who view you as a lowly and dirty servant.

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