Put yourself, for a moment, in the shoes of the luckless Sean Spicer.
You’re a communications director at the RNC, a commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve, and from all accounts a genuinely nice guy. When your boss is elevated into the new administration of Donald Trump, he takes you along with him. Suddenly you’re the most visible PR man on earth, forced to appease a president who loathes the same journalists you’re accustomed to cultivating relationships with.
Early on, Trump criticizes both your performances and your sartorial choices, forcing you to don a black suit and behave like a low-rent bully. Your strain in this role is evident yet you soldier on, simultaneously ruining your rapport with the press and turning yourself into a national laughingstock. The crown jewel of your humiliation comes when a female comedian is assigned to impersonate you on “Saturday Night Live,” and she does a fine job of it.
Sean Spicer might dispute bits and pieces of that biographical thumbnail, but it’s the essence of his story, one of debasement in the service of his president’s caprices. Yet how has Trump repaid his loyal parrot? With a constant trickle of leaks that have made it known he’s displeased with Spicer, would have preferred a woman to Spicer, and now just might have Sarah Huckabee Sanders replace Spicer. Or maybe it’ll be Kimberly Guilfoyle. She’s a Fox News host, after all.
Spicer’s whiplash predicament—he actually criticized Trump during the campaign!—is a commentary on how far Washington’s legions of functionaries will go to advance their careers and finally afford that shoebox-sized apartment in Tenleytown, the one that has a sink. It’s absurd and I’m not asking anyone to sympathize with it.
But it’s not just Spicer. A recent report from Mike Allen at Axios finds Trump weighing whether to massacre almost his entire staff, with Reince Priebus, Steve Bannon, Don McGahn, and Spicer (yet again) all potentially on the chopping block. The president is reportedly furious over the post-James Comey meltdown. That harebrained decision was entirely on him, yet he’s psychologically incapable of accepting blame for anything while also being deeply sensitive to the way he’s portrayed in the press. That necessitates the search for scapegoats among his underlings every time he switches his TV on. Expect him to be looking for a long time. As Dan DePetris wrote this morning, the Trump administration’s real defect is located squarely at the top.
It reminds you of the Tudor court, as Wolsey and More and Cromwell get cut down trying to serve an impossible king. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as Whitehall should present a quandary for anyone working there or thinking about working there. Enter this White House and at some point the target will be painted on your back. Your abilities will be publicly questioned and details about your job performance will be publicized. The Trump administration’s default chaos will be personally blamed on you. You’ll be asked to defend the indefensible and lambasted when you can’t do it. Your decades of acquired talents will be reduced to how much sugar you can sprinkle on your boss’s screw-ups.
Pundits are often inclined to view intra-government scuffles in ideological terms—tea party congressmen challenging Republican leadership, economic nationalist Bannon clashing with conventional conservative Priebus, and so on. The reality is that 90 percent of Washington feuds are rooted in personality, the same petty rivalries found in all our workplaces elevated to national drama. Indeed, ideologically speaking, the Trump administration actually looks rather balanced, featuring old-line Republicans, populists, even Democrats. But as with any office, the White House’s power boils down to its employees, and if they don’t like working there, the institution isn’t going to function. Plus, the leaks will keep coming, and if Trump keeps canning personnel, the tell-alls will, too.
The Trump personality means this storminess will be leavened by moments of charm and warmth, which is probably what keeps guys like Spicer going. They shouldn’t be so easily seduced. As Trump’s abysmal management deepens the chaos, the need for fall guys will only increase. Right now, it’s difficult to see anything coming out of this administration looking better than it did before—not personnel and not conservative priorities.