A Flight of Sycophancy

A line-by-line breakdown of Mike Pence’s master class in toadyism.

After his tax bill victory on Wednesday, Donald Trump graciously called a Cabinet meeting—he probably sensed his staff was itching to get something off its chest. If he had not convened his cheerleading squad, it’s possible they would have been borne away by their unvented amazement, swept into the streets like Enoch to heaven. The president of the United States would not allow such a thing to happen to his beloved staff.

Right before the speeches began, though, Trump looked mad. What if all the nice things people said about him failed to live up to the nice things he deserved to hear? Florid with dark expectation—already anticipating the insufficiency of the praise—Trump gestured at his No. 2 and curtly prompted him to “say a few words.”

“I’m deeply humbled, as your vice president, to be able to be here.”

That was Mike Pence’s cue. Those of us watching on TV were left to imagine the vice president’s rapturous expression as the back of his head started to enumerate the blessings Trump has brought to America.

“You’ve restored American credibility on the world stage.”

Meanwhile, the camera was a surrogate for the president’s mind. It focused intently on Trump, his stormy visage framed by the piously downcast faces of his white male priesthood, which on Wednesday included Ryan Zinke, Rex Tillerson, Jim Mattis, and Wilbur Ross.

“You’ve spurred an optimism in this country that’s setting records.”

Trump, in implacable Apprentice mode, clenched up like a fist, his arms crossed over his chest. He looked like a mafia boss hearing the news that his heavies had just been iced and tossed into the Hudson with cement around their ankles. Meantime, in our world, his cronies were delivering what the Washington Post calculated to be 14 compliments in less than three minutes, at a rate of approximately one commendation per 12.5 seconds.

“You’ve signed more bills rolling back federal red tape than any president in American history.”

As my colleague Ruth Graham pointed out to me, Pence’s lavish ode was less a piece of political rhetoric emanating from the government headquarters of a democratic country than a freestyle evangelical orison: Lord, we just come to you today with thanks, Lord. You promised us tax reform, and Lord we are just so humbled, Lord, that you have fulfilled your promise.

“Because of your leadership, Mr. President, and because of the strong support of the leadership in the Congress of the United States, you’re delivering on [a] middle-class miracle.”

Praise the Lord!

“You’ve unleashed American energy.”

And hot air. Lots and lots of hot air.

When the video of Pence’s performance emerged online, Twitter wags mocked the “groveling” “ass kissers” “[going] around the Cabinet table kissing Trump’s butt.”

“You’ve actually got the Congress to do, as you said, what they couldn’t do with [the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska] for 40 years.”

The vice president has made himself an instrument of Trumpian divinity before. He formed part of a backdrop of aggressive Jesus-worship during Trump’s announcement that the United States would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. (Muslim viewers, triply assaulted by Pence; Christmas lights; and an extravagant, beribboned tree, surely got the hint.) And in October, the White House deployed Pence as a culture-war pawn, sending him to an NFL game and instructing him to leave early when the players inevitably knelt to protest police violence. “Pence did not take this job to perform demeaning tasks for the pleasure of his boss; he was expected to use his ties to the GOP establishment to help push Trump’s agenda through Congress,” wrote Mark Joseph Stern at the time. “But following the administration’s failure to repeal and replace Obamacare, Trump seems to be repurposing Pence … as a prop in the grudges he fosters to keep his white working-class base satisfied.”

“You got the Congress to do, with tax cuts for working families and American businesses, what they haven’t been able to do for 31 years.”

Before he linked his political fortunes to Trump, the former governor of Indiana was known to prioritize values over results. As Stern observed, Pence made his name in the House of Representatives “playing up his Christian conservative credentials by introducing symbolic bills and resolutions that went nowhere.” In the governor’s house, he often “let ideology trump pragmatism,” as when he backed a draconian anti-abortion measure that was swiftly struck down as unconstitutional.

“And you got Congress to do what they couldn’t do for seven years, in repealing the individual mandate in Obamacare.”

The Trump presidency is often accused of degrading American institutions, from the courts to the press to the government agencies that now hustle to undermine their stated missions. It’s easy to forget how corrupt organizations can also degrade individuals.

“Mostly, Mr. President, I’ll end where I began and just tell you, I want to thank you, Mr. President.”

Sacrificing results to values is one thing. The shameful spectacle of Pence, a U.S. elected official, toadying up to his fuming, incompetent boss as his peers nodded along felt like a glimpse from some dark totalitarian timeline. It was unreal: Cabinet members called together to fawn over their leader in the most obsequious possible terms, as he steamed in the center of the camera frame like a bratty starlet caught in a downpour, and the chyrons ran past with their tidings of tax-related disaster.

“I want to thank you for speaking on behalf of and fighting every day for the forgotten men and women of America.”

Mike Pence, featuring Dido:

“Because of your determination, because of your leadership, the forgotten men and women of America are forgotten no more.”

What Pence may have discovered when he put his faith in a new Lord was that his religiosity was a perfect match for Trump’s petulant ego. They are grim idol and trembling sycophant, the one’s insatiable need for reverence answered in the depths of the other’s devotional temperament.

“And we are making America great again.”