“The Most Pathetic Men in America” is the title of an article by Mark Leibovich, who is a staff writer at The Atlantic magazine. When I read it, I thought a reduced version was worth putting in a blog. I quote:
When Donald Trump wasn’t melting down over how “very badly” he was treated, or acting like a seditious lunatic, he could be downright serene in certain Washington settings—and never more so than when he would swan in for dinner at the Trump International Hotel, a few blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House – the only other place where he would ever agree to eat. For Trump, a big, applauded entrance was as essential to the experience as the shrimp cocktail, fries, and 40-ounce steak. Each night, assorted MAGA tourists and administration bootlickers would descend on the atrium bar on the small chance they’d get to glimpse Trump himself in his abundant flesh—like catching Cinderella at the castle, or Hefner at the mansion.
Lots of Washington reporters would hang around the establishment, too. We could always pick up dirt that Trump and his groveling legions tracked in. The place was crawling with them, these hollowed-out men and women who knew better. You might catch Rudy rushing out to smoke a cigar, red wine staining his unbuttoned tuxedo shirt (that was the night of the Mnuchin wedding, I think). Or see Trump’s favorite pillowy-haired congressmen—fresh off their Fox TV “hits”.
But the guests who stood out for me most were Republican House Leader Kevin McCarthy and the busybody senator from South Carolina, Lindsey Graham. I would sometimes see them around the lobby, or steakhouse, or function rooms, skipping from table to table and getting thanked for all the wonderful things they were doing to help our president. They had long been among the most supplicant super-careerists ever to play in a city known for the breed, and proved themselves to be essential lapdogs in Trump’s kennel.
“You know what I liked about Trump?” Graham asked last month during a speech at a Faith and Freedom Coalition conference in Nashville. “Everyone was afraid of him. Including me.”
Trump said, and did, obviously awful and dangerous things—racist, cruel, achingly dumb and downright evil things. But on top of that, he is a uniquely tiresome individual, easily the sorest loser, the most prodigious liar, and the most interminable victim ever to occupy the White House. He is, quite possibly, the biggest cry-baby ever to toddle across history’s stage, from his inaugural-crowd haemorrhage on day one right down to his bitter, ketchup-flinging end. Bottom line, Trump is an extremely tedious dude to have had in our face for seven years, and running. My former New York Times colleague David Brooks wrote it best: “We’ve got this perverse situation in which the vast analytic powers of the entire world are being spent trying to understand a guy whose thoughts are often just six fireflies beeping randomly in a jar.”
Consider again the doormat duo—McCarthy and Graham, the most pathetic men in America as I like to call them. They are a classically Washington type: fun to be around, starstruck, and desperate to keep their jobs, or get better ones – all to maximize their place in the all-important mix. On various occasions I have asked them, in so many words, how they could sidle up to Trump like they have. The answer, basically, is that they did it because it was the savviest course; because it was best for them, in the moment.
McCarthy knew that alienating Trump would blow up any chance he had of becoming a Speaker, which had become the singular objective of his “public service,” such as it was. Once, early in 2019, I asked Graham how could he swing from being one of Trump’s most merciless critics in 2016 to such a sycophant. I didn’t use those exact words, but Graham got the idea. “Well, okay, from my point of view, if you know anything about me, it’d be odd not to do this,” he told me. “This,” Graham specified, “is to try to be relevant.” Relevance: It casts one hell of a spell. What would you do to stay relevant? That’s always been a definitional question for D.C.’s prime movers, especially the super-thirsty likes of McCarthy and Graham. If they’d never stooped this low before, maybe it’s just because no one ever asked them to.
“My attitude about my legacy is: Fuck it,” Rudy Giuliani told New York magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi in 2019 (his fly was unzipped at the time, and he was drunk on Bloody Marys).
Blinders on. Legacies are for losers seems to be the current motto. McCarthy learned from the master. “My legacy doesn’t matter,” Trump told his long-time aide Hope Hicks a few days after the 2020 election. “If I lose, that will be my legacy.” This became the essential ethos of Republican nihilism. By lashing themselves so tightly to Trump, Republicans could act as if the president’s impunity and shamelessness extended to them. His strut of cavalier disregard became their own. “Don’t care,” I overheard Graham say in early 2020 to a reporter on the Capitol subway platform who asked him whether his reputation had suffered because of his association with Trump. “I don’t care if they have to stay in these facilities for 400 days,” Graham said on Fox News, about the hundreds of migrant children who had been separated from their parents and locked in cages. “I don’t care if we have to build tents from Texas to Oklahoma.”
Graham could indeed lay it on thick as he trailed a few caddie-like paces behind Trump on the fairway. He would tell the president he was doing “historic” things, reversing so much of the damage of the Obama years, and that his golf courses were just spectacular, sir. “I am, like, the happiest dude in America right now,” Graham gushed on Fox & Friends. “We have got a president, and a national security team, that I’ve been dreaming of for eight years.” There was an art to influencing Trump, Graham explained to me. “If you flatter him all the time, he’ll lose respect for you.” If Graham wanted Trump to do something, especially on foreign policy, he would just tell him that Obama would do the opposite. That “can be very effective,” Graham told me. “Obama drives him nuts.”
But really, January 6 had to be the end of the line for Trump, right? Surely, this would be the moment when the fever broke. “Trump and I, we had a hell of a journey,” Graham said in a floor speech late that night. “But today all I can say is count me out. Enough is enough. I tried to be helpful.” His colleagues applauded, and the clip was played over and over, to illustrate the “good riddance” vibe of the moment. McCarthy told people he was going to ask Trump to resign. (It’s unclear whether he actually did; Trump claimed otherwise, and this is a rare case where I tend to believe him.)
But the breakup didn’t last. Graham later clarified that he meant only that he was “through” arguing about this particular post-election dispute, not through palling around with his favorite insurrectionist. Graham reiterated that he still enjoyed Trump’s company. He would continue to try to be helpful. Exactly eight days later, McCarthy followed him to Mar-a-Lago. Trump felt that McCarthy had not been “nice” to him on January 6, when the minority leader called the president to nudge him about those annoying supporters of his who kept pillaging through the Capitol with nooses and clubs. Not civil! “The relationship,” McCarthy determined, required some tending to.
McCarthy’s visit set off a parade of ring-kissing pilgrimages. Graham headed down to Florida again and again, so often that his host couldn’t help but marvel. “Jesus, Lindsey must really like to play golf,” Trump told an aide, according to a report in The New York Times. Graham “would show up at Mar-a-Lago or Bedminster to play free rounds of golf, stuff his face with free food, and hang out with Trump and his celebrity pals,” observed Stephanie Grisham, the former White House press secretary and top aide to Melania Trump, in her memoir. Grisham wrote that she and some colleagues referred to Graham as “Senator Freeloader.”
Watching the procession of GOP genuflectors, I was reminded of Susan Glasser’s 2019 profile of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in The New Yorker, in which she quoted a former American ambassador describing Pompeo as “a heat-seeking missile for Trump’s ass.” This image stuck with me (unfortunately), and also remained a pertinent descriptor for much of the Republican Party long after said ass had been re-homed to Florida. Pompeo certainly joins my list of the most pathetic men in America.
It remains astonishing to me that, after everything we’ve been through with Trump and everything we’re still learning, he remains anything but radioactive in his party. My mind roils with thought experiments of what else Republicans could tolerate from him: What if Mike Pence had been hanged? One would hope it would have been disqualifying, but who knows? Right now, the two most likely people to be sworn into office on January 20, 2025, are Joe Biden and Donald Trump (requisite “to be sure” here about all the variables—age, health, jail sentence, etc.). Best-case scenario: Trump loses, his inevitable attempt to cheat the result is unsuccessful, and no one dies this time. And then America sails off again into the future with 109-year-old Joe Biden at the helm. Sigh.
Presidential candidates are always declaring that “the most important election of our lifetime” is at hand. In fact, this is usually true only for the person running. From here, though, 2024 does indeed resemble a genuinely fateful “time for choosing,” to use the old Ronald Reagan phrase. Trump could really win. In private, pretty much every serious Republican I know would agree that this would be a terrifying outcome. But in public, of course, it’s still a lot of “I will support the nominee.” Or, as Graham said flatly, “I hope President Trump runs again.” True-believer types like Representative Lauren Boebert of Colorado go even further; she declared recently that God himself had “anointed” Trump to be president. This, admittedly, might make him tough to beat.
I admit that I’ve been inspired by the handful of Trump-administration and state election officials who have testified before the January 6 committee. They have endured threats, smears, and constant intimidation in order to bear simple witness and perform their patriotic duty. In times like these, you learn to find hope where you can, in figures like Cassidy Hutchinson, the 26-year-old aide to Chief of Staff Mark Meadows whose earnest accounting of what she saw heaped so much shame onto the enablers of that horrific day. God bless her.
But it’s fun to make McCarthy squirm, so I asked him if he thought Trump would run again. He flashed me a look—not a nice one. “I think he’ll talk about it,” McCarthy said, finally. “I don’t think he’ll make that decision until later.” Did McCarthy want Trump to run? His look got even dirtier. McCarthy will not be winning any Profile in Courage Award anytime soon. In fairness, that could make him a good fit for the cowardly caucus he is so eager to lead.
Soon enough, 2024 will not be a long way away, and Trump is well positioned to claim his third consecutive Republican presidential nomination. Again, Trump will do as he pleases and take what he can take. Because really, who’s going to stop him? Certainly not the most pathetic men in America.